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On the Road to Syracuse: Exploring the food system through local correctional facilities

By Trinity Benton, Syracuse University Food Studies graduate student and Full-Time Kitchen Technician, with support from Alexandra Brooks, Syracuse University undergraduate student

When discussing the complexities of the food system in Syracuse, jails and prisons are often overlooked. Access to good food in a jail setting is limited and inequitable. Feeding inmates should require more attention to proper nutrition and autonomy over food choices to ensure their rights as incarcerated individuals. It is essential for maintaining the health and well-being of inmates but also for upholding principles of justice, dignity, and human rights within the criminal justice system.

Food access in jails can be understood as a symptom of a larger problem in the food system.  Food apartheid –structural limitations on access to fresh, healthy food in low-income communities of color – is at the root of the school-to-prison pipeline. This is especially the case in Syracuse, NY where there is one grocery store to service the entire south side of the city – a predominantly black community with high crime rates. 

As a part of this blog series On the Road to Syracuse, I was able to sit down with someone with a close connection to the Syracuse carceral system (who has been asked to remain anonymous) to discuss food access and quality in our city’s jails. The interviewee’s deep connection to human rights, diversity, and inclusion informs this author’s critical look at the carceral food system. 

Bricks of Bread: Challenges to Good Food and Nutrition in Syracuse prisons 

According to our key informant, meals within the Syracuse jails are typically served on a schedule:  at 7am, 12pm, and 4pm, respectively. Because it’s regulated, inmates should know what they are supposed to get for each meal. According to N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 9 § 7009.6, each meal is designed by certified nutritionists and dietitians before being approved for service to ensure that the detainee is consuming an appropriate level of nutrients and calories. Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) Food Service Operation Manual states that the adherence to the standard, statewide menu and portion list assures nutritional adequacy. In addition, the correctional facilities are to provide each individual the opportunity to have dietary restrictions according to their religion – such as a Kosher Diet, or according to their health conditions. Known as the Therapeutic Diet, these medically-tailored meals support inmates’ dietary needs in accordance with the Director of Ministerial services and Medical providers. The DOCCS Food Service Operation Manual also includes a list of protocols on how food should be handled as far as safety and sanitation. This includes sanitary inspections, monitoring food temperatures, food handling rules, and proper usage of leftover foods. 

For unspecified reasons, complaints are received, moreso from men than women during incarceration about the quality of the food that is served to them. The detainees and the men who are sentenced to these jails describe the food as “horrible.” For example, the detainees have often complained about receiving “brick bread” that is hard to eat. Or beef patties served raw or undercooked. The Jewish inmates have made complaints that they’ve been eating the same food for a month straight –  breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

The detainees often have to save food from dining so they aren’t hungry in between meal times, but they can potentially be reprimanded for having food in their living area which is forbidden to deter rodent and pest infestations. Some of the men don’t even eat the food from the cafeteria because it is so inedible and end up living on commissary food which can be expensive. Commissary food options are limited, and they tend to be highly processed and pre-packaged foods such as cookies, chips, and ramen noodles that do not contain adequate nutrients.

Prison Commissary Offerings

The commissary system is a huge challenge to nutrition in correctional settings.  It operates like a de facto corner store, where inmates can purchase goods and services using funds from their personal accounts. Commissary accounts are funded from earnings from prison jobs, financial support from family or friends, or personal savings. The fact that you can only buy processed foods – no fresh fruits and vegetables – with commissary funds is indicative of the ways in which the carceral food system is dominated by big food corporations. In 2022, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) implemented a new policy that no longer permits families or friends to bring food packages to incarcerated people. The only way a detainee can receive a food package now is if it is ordered by a family member through an approved vendor (typically big corporations), which usually comes at a higher price – a convenience “tax” – than the family might be able to find in their neighborhood store. And it limits a family’s ability to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables or homemade dishes.This new rule is said to act as prevention from smuggling contraband. However, detainees are still allowed to receive 2 non-food packages a year from their families which go through extensive examination (including x-ray) before they are even given to the detainees. But food packages from home are exempt from these same protocols.

How Prison Food is Regulated: Who is accountable?

In a correctional facility, access to food is closely regulated by institutional policies and procedures. Any disruptions or deficiencies in the food supply can lead to food security issues for inmates, resulting in hunger, malnutrition, and behavioral issues that might impact the entire facility. During Covid-19, these issues were only heightened. Once the virus began to spread throughout jails and prisons, the food quality plummeted rapidly. Some of the biggest outbreaks occurred in jails that were overly populated with a food service department that was stretched too thin to serve every inmate individually prepared meals. New protocol “stay-at-home” dining became hard to keep up with. Food was served rotten, religious and medical diets were no longer being respected, and in some facilities, commissary access was limited or banned altogether due to shortages of items. Unlike individuals in the general population who have the freedom to choose their meals, inmates have limited autonomy and control over their food options. They are typically provided with predetermined menus and portion sizes, and their dietary choices may be restricted for budgetary reasons. 

A menu specific to Syracuse’s jails doesn’t exist. Menus are determined on a statewide basis because “nowadays, state corrections officials control most of the process, from developing statewide menus (typically in consultation with a dietitian) to sourcing much of the food.” (Eating behind bars: Part 4) Meal standardization is the goal, but low quality is the outcome. The more uniform food choices are for inmates, the more likely it is that the jail will contract with a large corporate food service, which can provide economies of scale. What is compromised in this equation is the nutritional quality of food. Shelf-stable food that is highly processed becomes the norm.  Like other food service operations that are responsible for feeding large amounts of people, prison food has also become a victim to corporate consolidation of the food system. According to the NYS Corrections Food Service Operation Manual: “Facility food service supervisors may exercise flexibility in the statewide menu only to the extent that food items may be moved to different meals within the same day. All other menu changes require approval from Central Office Nutritional Services.” Jails and prisons are supplied with uniform menus and food choices to reduce costs and adhere to unification within the food system. 

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision prepares a large chunk of a New York inmate's diet at an industrial scale facility attached to the Mohawk Correctional Facility just outside the Rome City Center. After more than two decades in production, the cook-chill process produces tons of food and packages it in heat-and-serve bags for all 55 state prisons and 23 county jails — in addition to some charitable organizations (Times Union 2017). In line with the goals of a more consolidated food system, food production services are centralized for the NYS Department of Corrections in Rome, NY. All meals for the State Prison System are now prepared at the Oneida Correctional Facility.

Corporate Capture of Prison Food 

Corporate food services sell food and services directly to the prison so that it can feed inmates efficiently, and they often control the commissary as well. So a single food corporation often has a monopoly on what the prisoners eat which, when poor quality, drives the prisoners to the commissary where they spend their personal money on food that is processed with little nutritional value, but at least more satisfying and filling. 

Commissary privileges are not always available to everyone. There are other determining factors of whether or not a detainee will be able to receive commissary. For example, if a detainee is placed in Administrative or Punitive segregation, they lose their commissary privileges. Plus, a detainee can only get access to the commissary if they have money on their personal account. Some detainees are able to work to earn money if they are afforded that opportunity by the floor deputies. Inmates can take jobs as “Porters” which is a kitchen staff job, or they can work in the laundry room. They don’t earn a lot of money, but they can put it in their commissary account. If inmates don’t have a job, they have to rely on their families – if they have one that takes their calls – to add money directly to their commissary account. To prevent detainees from having financial leverage over others, the amount of money any one detainee can put on their commissary account is limited. Inmates working in food service are paid less than $1 an hour to service food in prisons and jails, according to the NYS Corrections food service operations manual, which limits their ability to afford commissary items.“Three in five formerly incarcerated people surveyed said they could not afford commissary purchases, and many people are forced to choose between buying food and purchasing necessities such as toothpaste or making costly phone calls to loved ones.” (The Marshall Project). 

Unhealthy food in a jail setting disproportionately impacts black and brown people According to the publication Prison Policy 2020, “one of the most food insecure areas of Syracuse also has one of the highest rates of incarceration.” The report also notes that the imprisonment rate for residents of the southwest side is 13 times higher than the residents for Westcott. On the southwest side of Syracuse, a mostly black and brown neighborhood, residents’ experience of food security eerily parallels that of detainees in the Syracuse jail system. There are only 2 grocery stores that service the south and southwest sides of Syracuse. Due to food access issues (affordability, lack of transportation, etc.), the local residents rely on convenient stores that sell unhealthy junk foods, mostly supplied by corporate food businesses. 

Putting Solutions in Place: Making Change to an Unjust Carceral System 

Centering equity and a belief in the capacity of formerly incarcerated individuals to contribute positively to their communities upon re-entry is helping to shape legislation and programs that reduce sentence time and promote skills development. Some examples include:

Outreach to legislators and lawmakers. Advocates brought about the Clean Slate legislation which was signed into law in 2023 stating New Yorkers will be eligible to have conviction records automatically sealed 3 years from sentencing for misdemeanors and 8 years from sentencing for felonies, not including time incarcerated. 

Advocates are currently supporting: "Communities Not Cages" which is a grassroots campaign led by impacted people and families across New York State. Together, they are fighting to end mass incarceration and overhaul New York’s racist and unjust sentencing laws. The Communities Not Cages demands include:

  • Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act: 

  • Would allow judges to consider individuals before sentencing, and reduces the potential for coercive pleas.

  • Second Look Act: 

  • Would allow people in prison to apply for a sentence reduction, giving a second look at how the detainees change over time.

  • Earned Time Act: 

  • Would allow incarcerated people to reduce their sentences with good behavior, programming, or other rehabilitation.

Community engagement and advocacy: Non-profit organizations lead the pack in working to get people out of the jails and back into the community. The Center for Community Alternatives, located in downtown Syracuse, is a community-based organization that is helping formerly incarcerated individuals re-enter the community by providing educational programing and financial assistance. One of their more well known programs involves training formerly incarcerated people to be line cooks. The 6-week long program allows participants to become ServSafe certified and learn essential cooking skills as they train at the Salt City Test Kitchen. In the last week of the program, they intern at Salt City Market.

Ron Boxx, Director of Reintegration Services at CCA, has expressed the importance of having a pathway for everyone to access jobs — especially for those post-incarceration. Participants receive a $100 stipend for completing each week and bus passes every Monday to get them to and from the training site. Past participants in the CCA Line Cook Training Program have gone on to work at other local kitchens like Dinosaur Barbeque and Oh My Darling in Syracuse. 

Investigative Reporting and Independent Oversight.  The Correctional Association of New York (CANY) is designated by law to provide independent monitoring and oversight of state prisons in New York State. Founded in 1844 by concerned citizens and deputized by the state to provide monitoring and oversight of the state’s prisons in 1846, CANY is one of the first organizations in the country prescribed to administer civilian oversight of prisons. Among many issues they’ve exposed, food and access and quality in NY State prisons resulted in a fact sheet published in 2020 which highlighted the following problems:  Food is inaccessible; Food is unhealthy; and Food is used as punishment.  The extensive study, which captured data from hundreds of inmates, found that a person with a history of incarceration approximately doubles the likelihood of moderate-to-severe food insufficiency, which in turn further worsens health and socioeconomic inequalities.

A Fair Food System for All

The carceral system should be held accountable to providing good, healthy food to inmates.  Poor quality and insufficient access to food should not be a part of the penal code.  Rehabilitation depends in part on cultivating a healthy mind and a healthy body. Ideally food should be tailored to certain cultures and, especially, for those with chronic health conditions. For instance, there are people who can't take medication until they have eaten a meal. If meal times don’t match up with the time that medicine is dispensed, health issues can be exacerbated. The food system and medical care in the jails both need to change to ensure long term better health of the detainees, leading to better post-incarceration futures. Food is medicine could be an important framework for syncing up and reforming these services. According to our key informant for this article: “There should be good food for people everywhere, long before people go to jail. When kids go to school, they start on the right foot when they eat a good balanced breakfast. When you are hungry, you are angry. How can people do what they need to do or have a positive outlook on life if their basic needs are not met?”


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