Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) and Farm to Institution New England (FINE) today released a report examining the laws and policies that shape food in New England’s publicly operated correctional facilities. Titled “The State of Prison Food in New England: A Survey of Federal and State Policy,” the resource offers recommendations for advocates and policymakers to ensure nutritious and safe meals while improving how prison food is sourced and served.
In the midst of budget cuts and other obstacles facing state-run prisons, food is under-prioritized. From sourcing, quality and safety to dining environments, the correctional food system often fails to provide individuals who are incarcerated with health, safety and dignity. One study found that individuals who were incarcerated were six times more likely to contract a foodborne illness than the general population. The population that is incarcerated also experiences higher rates of chronic illness. Meanwhile, as the new report shows, the average cost of a prison meal in New England equates to roughly $1.23 — less than half of the cost of the average school lunch meal.
“Food has long-term effects on the physical and mental health of individuals who are incarcerated, as well as their eventual reintegration into society,” said Laurie Beyranevand, director of CAFS. “These effects are particularly pronounced among Black and brown communities, who are disproportionately overrepresented in the New England prison population and are more likely to experience food and nutrition insecurity before and after release.”
In recent years there has been increasing attention paid to food in prisons in New England. Some efforts have increased access to fresh and local foods and/or provided culinary and agricultural skills and training — but the policy landscape and limited budgets still make increasing food quality difficult. This report is intended to assist policymakers, correctional facility administrators, food service managers, food justice advocates and the public in understanding the complex set of constitutional, federal and state laws and policies impacting New England’s prison food system to identify opportunities for reform.
The report offers policy recommendations related to:
1) reporting and disclosure, to increase transparency around prison policies related to food service and labor;
2) food quality and safety, including defining nutritional requirements, requiring inspections and precluding the use of food as a disciplinary measure;
3) food procurement, to increase the proportion of correctional budgets spent on food, establish guidelines related to purchasing preference, and support increased procurement of local produce;
4) correctional employment and compensation, including paying workers the minimum wage; and
5) dining environments, such as reducing maximum occupancy in food service venues and lengthening mealtimes.
The report also identifies federal legal interventions, such as repealing the Prison Litigation Act and overturning Sandin v. Connor, that would help to ensure humane and dignified conditions for individuals who are incarcerated.
“Understanding the policy framework of food in the New England carceral system is essential to fostering meaningful partnerships and advocating for constructive change,” said Peter Allison, executive director of FINE, an organization that promotes healthy, regionally-grown food in New England institutions. “We anticipate the report, including the recommendations, to serve as a foundation for much of our work in this complex system as we move forward.”
The resource is available at vermontlaw.edu/prison-food.
About Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems
Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) uses law and policy to build a more sustainable and just food system. With local, regional, national and international partners, CAFS addresses food system challenges related to food justice, food security, farmland access, farmworkers’ rights, animal welfare, worker protections, the environment and public health, among others. CAFS works closely with its partners to provide legal services that respond to their needs and develop resources that empower the communities they serve. Through CAFS’ Food and Agriculture Clinic and Research Assistant program, students work directly on projects alongside partners nationwide, engaging in innovative work that spans the food system. Visit www.vermontlaw.edu/cafs to learn more.