On my 44th birthday, I was wheeled to the infirmary at the Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI), thinking that I was having a heart attack. The real problem was that I liked refried beans.
Although I exercise five days a week, I have hypertension and high cholesterol due to my poor eating habits. At the infirmary, the doctors treated me and prescribed two new medications, but the root of my problem still exists: I can’t obtain healthy food in prison, even though I want to.
The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) provides vegetables and fruit in small quantities for lunch and dinner. But at ECI, entrees primarily consist of carbohydrates like spaghetti, potatoes, macaroni and bread, and a boiled textured vegetable protein that looks like ground meat but is a bland, soy-based substitute that causes stomach aches.
These carb-loaded, low-protein meals are the only options for prisoners, who can’t afford to supplement prison meals with purchases from the canteen.
In 2011, the state of Florida banned the sale of cigarettes and chewing tobacco inside its prisons, citing second-hand smoke complaints and the high cost of providing medical care to prisoners with cancer-related diseases.
If FDC is trying to lower medical costs, a heart-healthy diet for incarcerated residents should also be a priority.
A 2015 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 74% of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons were overweight or obese and 30% had hypertension.
Nutritional studies show that a heavy diet of pasta, rice and potatoes leads to excessive visceral fat, which is one of the main factors of coronary heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.
When doctors inside are treating people like me for any of these health issues, they always respond with two pieces of advice in addition to providing medication: exercise more and eat healthier.
Yet, the issue seemingly remains off the radar for prison administration officials and companies like Trinity Services Group, the company that operates Florida’s canteen contracts.
Since the FDC regulated smoking, why not nutrition? Florida’s prison system health care services budget for 2019-2020 was more than $566 million. That amount is 20% of the $2.7 billion FDC operating budget. If it instituted a policy that helps incarcerated residents live healthier, it could cut costs by millions of dollars, freeing up money that could be used for education and other beneficiary programs.
Because eating healthy isn’t always possible in the chow hall, many men turn to the inmate canteen for their dietary needs. Even there, they still find very limited choices for wholesome food. While Trinity carries items like chicken breast, eggs and tuna in the inmate canteen, they are overpriced and in limited stock.
Most people purchase pre-packaged processed foods that are high in sugar, sodium, and preservatives. Blueberry Pop-Tarts, Market Square Bakery honey buns and ramen noodles top the list of affordable but unhealthy choices.
Even so, more incarcerated residents are wanting a more plant-based diet if they have a choice. I’ve observed that every year, large numbers of people request to be put on an eight-day Passover meal plan consisting of broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, matzo and chicken bologna slices.
The majority of these men are not of the Jewish faith but simply want clean food. This is clear evidence of a need.
ECI resident Juan Portieles, 42, teaches a nutrition class as part of a larger self-betterment program and sees a need for a solution. The weekly class is attended by 20 students who want to learn about the effects of food on the mind and body, but Portieles said many are frustrated by their inability to control their own diet.
“It’s disheartening to teach something that we can’t actually apply to our current situation,” he said. “Eating healthy helps us live longer, feel better, and be more productive. By not having healthy food at the canteen, we can’t live optimally both physically and mentally.”
Trinity already sells healthy food in the visitation park canteen. Mixed fruit, salads and protein bars are readily available; however, these options are only offered during visitation and can’t be taken back to the cell blocks.
It shouldn’t be hard to offer healthier options at the inmate canteen as well, such as unsalted nuts, peaches, or low-sodium fish. Trinity could help lower the rate of obesity in prison, thereby reducing the cost of long-term medical care for the FDC.
If prison administrators and vendors cannot or will not offer healthier food, then perhaps the administration could develop an agricultural program on the compound and let us grow our own fruits and vegetables. This relatively simple model has been used for decades in other prisons, and ECI has several locations of open space that could be utilized.
For a very low cost to the institution, workers could till the open land, then plant and harvest different seasonal foods like peppers, onions, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, okra and squash. By creating a farm squad and growing our own food, ECI could practice sustainability and promote responsible eating habits.
After my health scare last year, I now take additional steps to live better, including taking blood pressure and cholesterol medication. Although I can’t eat healthy like I want to, I stay away from sweets and carbs, hoping that will help in the interim. I continue to exercise and study nutrition, but until something changes in the FDC, I won’t be able to follow the infirmary physician’s suggestions to eat better as well.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.