Food Justice and Prison Abolition

Gastronomy student Danielle Jacques calls on the community to sign this petition, written by BU Students Against Mass Incarceration, demanding that the university cuts ties with Aramark, one of the largest food service contractors in the country which services state and federal prisons as well as BU dining halls.

Image from a report in The Marshall Project documenting the plummeting quality of food served in Texas prisons in the wake of COVID-19. One inmate is quoted as saying in a letter to his daughter, “we will not die by COVID-19 but we die by hunger!”

By Danielle Jacques

At first glance, the two topics in the title of this post may appear to have little to do with one another. Those of us who study the world through food may contend that the issue of food and prisons is peripheral rather than central to our discipline. On the contrary, we believe that our research has historically ignored the integral role of the carceral state in our food system, and that any world where the values of food justice are to succeed on a societal scale is necessarily a world without prisons.

The US prison system is hardly a few steps removed from its roots in slavery. In the wake of the Civil War, the convict lease system filled southern plantations with the free labor of formerly enslaved African American men. Though the program officially ended in 1910, both states and private companies continue to profit off the labor of incarcerated men and women, who are disproportionately black and brown. The recent wave of anti-immigration policies, which have increased hostility towards undocumented farmworkers, has also increased use of prison labor in agriculture throughout the US. As Reese and Carr point out in their recent Civil Eats piece, a just food system requires abolishing the “plantation-paradigm” that was built into our agricultural economy hundreds of years ago.

Research that unpacks the ills of industrial agriculture in the US often does not sufficiently acknowledge that our food system rationalizes incarcerated individuals as subhuman, and therefore disposable. But incarcerated people are not simply units of labor, producing the food that feeds this country for free. As human beings, they must also eat. And somehow, state and federal prisons with collective budgets of over $8.5 billion per year get away with feeding a population of 2.3 million incarcerated people for less than $2, per person, per day.

This is where Aramark comes into the picture. In Prison Food in America, Camplin details the business of feeding prisoners. Private contractors like Aramark have become popular in both federal and state prisons, with prison populations at as much as 137% capacity, because they promise to cut down both work and budgets for administrators. Since contracts are negotiated in advance, Aramark profits more by cutting food costs to the absolute bare minimum. And since there are no official food safety or nutritional protocols in prisons, there is no accountability.

We hear about the foods that people suffer through in prison anecdotally. Accusations of maggots, mice, and feces in Aramark’s meals have made headlines in recent years. “There’s no imagining the cartoonish dishes that landed in front of us, like bologna soup” writes Stephen Katz. Camplin highlights an instance where portion sizes were reduced from two pieces of bread and a spoonful of vegetables to one piece of bread and half a spoonful. A woman who is five months pregnant eats plain, cold noodles for the fourth day in a row. Cafeterias run out of milk and soda is watered down. Even still, some prisons have reduced the number of meals per day from three to just two.

According to Al Gordon, who worked in an Aramark-run cafeteria while incarcerated, “you could eat six portions like the ones we served … and still be hungry. If we put more than the required portion on the tray the Aramark people would make us take it off. It wasn’t civilized. I lost 30 pounds. I would wake up at night and put toothpaste in my mouth to get rid of the hunger urge. The only way a person survived in there was to have money on the books to order from the canteen, but I didn’t have no money. It was especially bad for the diabetics, and there are a lot of diabetics behind bars.”

Given that environmental racism causes chronic diseases to disproportionately affect the same communities that are over-policed in this country, this example illustrates some of the layers of violence perpetrated against black Americans through food. Furthermore, according to Conley and de Waal, systematic food deprivation as a form of punishment, which has become the status quo in our prisons, qualifies as a “starvation crime.” Until Boston University cuts ties with Aramark, our tuition dollars will continue to fund these abuses.

But Aramark is only one piece of the ever-expanding prison-industrial complex, which, in the face of opposition, has adapted at every turn to meet the demands of its administrators and stakeholders. In 2018, for example, NPR broke the story of an Alabama county sheriff legally syphoning off $750,000 from his county’s prison food funds to buy a beach house. The “keep and retain” law, which dates back to the 1930’s, effectively incentivized cutting the costs of feeding prisoners by freeing up any savings from the food budget for the sheriff’s personal use. Outrage ensued, and in 2019 the law was changed, prohibiting sheriff’s from keeping the leftover money for themselves. But earlier this year, two counties in Alabama succeeded in amending their local constitutions in order to reinstate the law.

There is no question that every link in the prison-industrial food chain is, by design, exploitative and inhumane. A business model that incentivizes starving people for profit cannot be reformed. It must be abolished. For this reason, fighting for food justice means demanding nothing short of prison abolition. But as Reese and Carr point out, “as a terrain of struggle, abolition is as much about building the institutions, relationships, and worlds we want to live in as it is about dismantling those we reject.” It takes bravery and imagination to create a world that has never existed, but this is precisely the urgent and necessary work that must be done.

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