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March 28, 2019
Contact: Virginia Witt

Impact Justice Announces Launch of Food in Prison Project

New research to document effects of eating inside, urge transformation

WASHINGTON, DC:  National innovation and research center Impact Justice announced today the launch of the first-ever comprehensive study focused on food served in the nation’s prisons.  Over the coming months, researchers will collect data from correctional facilities across the country and talk to a range of stakeholders, with a focus on the experiences of people who have been incarcerated.

The study will go beyond isolated stories of prison food that is spoiled, otherwise inedible, or unhealthy to map the short- and long-term effects of eating in prison and understand the policies that underlie current practices. This groundbreaking research will be released in fall 2019.

“People who are incarcerated have a right to food that is not only nourishing but honors their humanity,” said Impact Justice President Alex Busansky.  “We aim to transform the eating experience in prison to support people physically, mentally and emotionally in ways that ultimately will help them succeed when they return to their families and communities.”

On average, people incarcerated in U.S. prisons serve about three years and over that time eat more than 3,000 meals behind bars, while those with longer sentences consume far more. Research shows that just four weeks of unhealthy eating can lead to long-term negative health impacts. According to a 2016 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 44 percent of incarcerated people, ages 25 to 49, suffer from a chronic condition, as compared to an estimated 18 percent in the general population. 

Physical health is just one aspect of the problem. Too often, food in prison is wielded as a form of punishment, with adverse consequences that may continue long after a person’s sentence ends. Lashonia Thompson-El, Executive Director of Women Involved in Reentry Efforts, was incarcerated for almost two decades. She remembers the callous way that food was handled in prison and talks about its lasting effects on her:  “Even now that I’m out, if I find myself getting anxious or find myself grieving, I don’t like to eat.”

“Food not only sustains us, but also communicates identity, relationships, and values,” said Leslie Soble, an ethnographer specializing in foodways at Impact Justice who is spearheading the study. “It is time to re-examine the message we are currently sending to and about some of the most vulnerable members of our society through the prison food experience.” 

Extrapolating from the data they collect, the researchers will also identify opportunities for constructive change. “Institutions ranging from prisons to schools to army bases play an influential role in shaping our food system as a whole,” said Curt Ellis, CEO of the national nonprofit, FoodCorps, a partner organization working with Impact Justice. “Improving the quality, sustainability and healthfulness of the food bought by these big purchasers will improve the supply chain for all Americans.”

This study is the first initiative under Impact Justice’s Food in Prison Project.



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