The Impact of Prison Food on Reintegration Into Society

helena r brown
9 min readDec 5, 2020

There are approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, and the rate of those imprisoned continues to increase (Edwards, 2013). Prisons nationwide are notorious for serving nutrient deficient, bland, unhealthy, and processed food. The general quality of food is diminishing, and this downtown can be credited to trends in industrialization and privatization, which use processed foods that need only be reheated and served in place of cooking from whole ingredients.

There is a serious lack of legislation regarding the existing framework of food law in prisons, and it is instead regulated primarily by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Department of Corrections has substituted 95% of the former locally-prepared food served with predominantly sugar based, plastic-wrapped ‘food products’ with long shelf lives. Beyond prepared meals, the other options for those in prison (available through the commissaries) are typically unhealthy and preservative-filled; even the oatmeal typically on offer is low in fiber and highly sweetened. The prison system is required to deliver a level of food sufficient to maintain only a basic level of health. Those overseeing the prison system must reconcile this with their responsibility to spend the least amount of the public’s funds possible, so in essence, the diet delivered in prison is controlled by national legislation, which often results in spending just $2 in total for three daily meals (Edwards, 2013). Prison food impacts prisoners’ mental and physical health ultimately impacting a healthy reintegration back into society.

I selected this topic because I opened restaurants for one of the top 50 chefs in the world. We spent a fantastic amount of time working with the school system in the Bay Area and fought to begin community gardens where kids could learn to grow their own food that they would then turn into healthy meals. This wasn’t limited to a certain demographic — we worked to have these gardens accessible to both private and public schools. The system up there is flourishing, but it is yet to see such success elsewhere. We attempted to work in prison reform but noticed that it was incredibly difficult to affect change or to even become involved. I had always been interested in food, and I have always been interested in food in prisons. I had volunteered for about 5 years for a group who volunteers to teach convicts how to acquire affordable produce and cook. We then found them…

helena r brown

I am a doctoral candidate in psychology. i love film, food, wine, travel, skiing, uni, bette davis, and my dog. i do not wear shorts in winter.