Saturday, August 6, 2011

More on Prison Diet: Food Choice as a Site of Autonomy and Self Expression

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "Summer"

A story on the New York Times' Bay Citizen tells of a jail inmate, Dave McDonald, who was denied a vegetarian diet during his jail term.

He refused to eat anything that he did not know was animal-free, and as a result, his weight plummeted nearly 50 pounds to 155.

“I don’t want animal corpses on my plate,” said Mr. McDonald, who is now free on bail. “My belief in not hurting animals is more powerful than any religious belief.”

Had Mr. McDonald said he was a vegetarian for religious reasons, or because of a medical condition, the county would have been legally required to comply. But Marin County officials said that simply believing in the sanctity of animal life was not enough.

This story, dealing perhaps with whom some might see as an atypical inmate, may bring to middle class's consciousness the deeply rooted problems in an incarceration system based on selective incapacitation and a refusal to see its charges as individuals. We've discussed diets here before, when reporting on the addition of a Halal food option as one of the "five faiths" recognized by CDCR and on a study finding a decline in inmate violence when prison diet improves. But today's story highlights another important aspect of prison nutrition.

Food plays a fundamental role not only in human survival, but also in self expression. The Internet is populated by abundant food blogs and articles. Food is a source of pleasure for many of us, but for many it is also an opportunity to live our beliefs and values through out palate. Recent online battles in the wars of vegetarianism and veganism brought home just how much people care about these food choices. Michael Pollan has proclaimed a set of rules for omnivores: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants." Author Jonathan Safran Foer has written Eating Animals in defense of vegetarianism. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, and the movies Food, Inc and Super Size Me, highlighted the many harms of an agribusinesss-managed food economy. Nina Planck's critique of vegan diets for children was strongly criticized for its portrayal of vegans. A well-known vegan food blogger recently moved away from her vegan diet for health reasons and received harsh critique and death threats from the vegan community. And then there's Lierre Keith's recent book The Vegetarian Myth, in which she speaks against industrialized, monopolized agriculture, saying vegetarianism and veganism still participate in a system that is fundamentally unjust - opinions for which she has been assaulted in public appearances. While it's best to leave the discussion of the nutritional and political merits of vegetarianism and veganism to blogs that focus on such matters, clearly these folks' food choices - on both sides of the debate - are inexorably tied to their identities, to the point that they are willing to endure harm to themselves or threat harm to others in the name of these choices.

The point is not to admire or criticize vegetarian, vegan, locavore, organic, paleo, low carb, low fat, or any other diet choice. The point is to remind all of us that people in custody are denied these choices. And for many people, the choice not to consume flesh or use animal product is as important and as deeply held as someone else's sincere belief in one of the "five faiths."Apparently, in California, vegetarian and vegan options are offered in state prisons as a courtesy; vegan meals started being provided after mass arrests of PETA members, prior to which they were only offered on a religious basis. As we see in today's paper, in local jails the situation can be more precarious. As to other ideological choices, individualization is problematic. The implications of dietary choices touch on fundamental issues of prison management. Will the meal be served buffet style, so inmates have some choice in what is put on their plates? In supermax institutions and SHU units, does one have a say in what is pushed into one's cell? Understandably, a system providing food to 160,000 people cannot make concessions for people's tastes and whims, and I imagine the political outcry that would result if it did. But as it stands, the official stance on food choices, tying them inexorably to religion and offering few concessions beyond that, is discriminatory and illogical. Moreover, cheap as it may seem to feed many people uniformly (and badly), the price is paid in the form of violent behavior and health costs.

I'm also wondering what prison and jail policies are with respect to people whose diets are shaped not by their ideological preferences, but by their allergies and intolerances. If you'll allow me a personal comment, it is difficult enough to be wheat intolerant in the accepting world of the Bay Area, where abundant choices exist. Bread is a basic food stable; it is cheap and mass produced, and as such, is the cornerstone of any attempt to feed people on a large scale in an industrial complex. The prison industrial complex is no different. So, is an inmate diagnosed with celiac, for example, offered an energy source in lieu of bread, like rice and potatoes? How can a system of mass incarceration ensure no contamination, when consuming even a small amount of wheat can be extremely debilitating and, in the longer term, lethal? And what about inmates who have anaphylactic reactions to certain kinds of food? True, exquisite shellfish are not on the menu in most prisons, but what about folks extremely sensitive to albumin, a component of egg? And what about the many people who have suffered digestive, respiratory, and musclo-skeletal debilitating conditions all their lives because they do not have the resources to be diagnosed with an allergy? In California's broken correctional medical system, what are the odds that someone like that will be flagged as suffering from a real condition, let alone diagnosed with a specific allergy? Managing allergies is difficult enough for us average folks on the outside. I can't even imagine what the protocols for such a situation are on the inside, nor can I imagine any concessions made to the general diet to accommodate them. If any of our readers is better informed about this, please share your information in the comments.

On October 24, the UC Hastings Consortium will hold a Food Day event on the topic of Food Deserts. Our conference will feature discussions involving food professionals, lawyers and physicians regarding the social sites that have no access to healthy, nutritional choices, including prisons and jails. Yours truly will be there, and I hope you will, too.

Addendum: Of course, all this discussion underscores the use of food refusal, in the form of a hunger strike, as a political tool. We remember Pelican Bay inmates and other inmates and their hunger strike. Stay strong.

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