An incentive program in New Jersey allows you to order up to 40 pounds of outside food. Deciding what goes into that box is as tough as it is mouthwatering.
Everyone has a favorite food or dinner that brings fond memories of childhood or family traditions.
Food comforts us and makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Close your eyes and think of your favorite food. Just the thought of it makes you hungry. You plan when you’re going to eat it and what you’re going to drink with it. Now you’re dreaming of all your favorite foods. Your mouth is watering.
So many commercials are about food. Every magazine contains food advertisements. Even Brussels sprouts you hate look delicious in an advertisement.
But what if I told you that you can no longer have the food you love, for years? This is what happens when you go to prison.
In New Jersey, where I’m incarcerated, there’s actually a caveat that allows me to still eat some of my favorite foods. New Jersey prisons allow an incentive food package for people in prison. If you remain infraction-free for six months, you’re entitled to order a package of food from an outside source. This can consist of such items as chicken wings, fresh spinach and fresh mozzarella. The institution allows you to purchase up to 40 pounds of food.
That may sound like a lot of weight, but it is not. Next time you go food shopping, look at the weight of all the products you purchase and notice how quickly you reach 40 pounds.
When purchasing an incentive food package, you have to consider your choices wisely. The menu may have up to 150 choices. The packaging is different for all products. Some vendors will mainly have large-size packaging. One of the vendors has granola bars but only in a 4-pound box. So you have to ask yourself, do you want to take up 4 pounds on granola bars?
You think about your options: That big box might last you until the next food package if you eat from it sparingly. Then you ponder: Should I get a lot of little, lightweight items? You add them to the tentative food list. Now you want some fresh spinach because you never receive that in prison. Add in some flax seed, which is a good source of Omega-3. You also want a little junk food that you haven’t had in years, such as chocolate-covered raisins, name-brand chips and, of course, a slice of cheesecake.
Once you calculate the pounds of all the items on your wish list, you realize you’re over 40 pounds. Now you have to go over your list and take off items. Because once it arrives at the institution, the box is weighed. If you’re over the poundage, an item could be removed to make weight.
Each housing unit has a refrigerator. If you’re lucky, your unit will have a freezer attached to the refrigerator. Since perishable food doesn’t last in the refrigerator for too long, you need to eat all your perishable food every day before it turns brown and wilty.
For years there was a vendor that provided my institution with our incentive food packages. They offered Sicilian pizza, Italian meals and Chinese dinners with delicious egg rolls and wonton soup.
Heating pizza in a microwave didn’t give you a crunchy crust, but it was still delicious to taste mozzarella and have grease run down your hand. The pizza even came in an actual pizza box. It felt so good to see an actual pizza box again. It was a reminder of home.
The one downside of the delicious Sicilian pizza was that it weighed 5 pounds with all the toppings. One pizza left you with 35 pounds for your other items. But pizza was often worth it because you can make many meals out of the slices and freeze it for months down the road.
The Italian pre-made meals were also delicious. Those came with garlic bread on the side. It felt like you were at home ordering takeout.
Unfortunately, this particular vendor left after many years of service. It was good while it lasted. But nothing lasts forever, especially in prison, where you can’t get accustomed to anything.
We now have two vendors that provide a large array of food with many different choices, but mainly dry goods. There are some fresh vegetables, avocados and frozen mangos. But sadly, no pizza in a pizza box.
Money is a main factor when ordering an incentive food package. Some of us must save each month out of our state pay to afford a food package. Depending on what you’re ordering, the full 40 pounds can cost you up to $300. If you order 3 pounds of chicken wings, the bag costs $23 thanks to inflation. If you want to be conservative, you consider cost more than cravings.
My ultimate lesson from the food incentive program is that you should never take anything for granted. Treasure everyone and everything in life — even tasty everyday food — because it can be taken away in an instant.
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.