One of the biggest things that has changed in my life after being in prison for four years is my relationship with food. At a height of 5’ 4,” I walked in to prison at around 135 pounds, and walked out around 200 pounds.
I had never gained weight like that in my life, and on the day of my release in 2017, I was at the heaviest weight I had ever been. To make matters worse, during the past two years, I have gained another 25 pounds. It all goes back to my experience with prison food, and how limited access to food choices and portion amounts absolutely damaged me mentally.
You might think to yourself, “If prison food is so terrible, how in the world did you gain so much weight?” It’s a great question, and it was an experience I wasn’t expecting. Let me be clear: prison food is absolutely disgusting. While there were tolerable meals (especially at breakfast, if you could force yourself to go to chow hall at 5 a.m.), most of the food served in the prison cafeteria was extremely foul.
But, when you are hungry and don’t have any other options, you eat what’s put in front of you. I gained weight because of two things: the vast majority of the food available from the chow hall and canteen was loaded with carbs, and my opportunities for movement and exercise were limited.
The impact limited food choices had on me mentally is difficult to explain. Now that I am home and at my largest weight ever, I find myself eating the most unhealthy things possible, “because I can.”
I wasn’t following any kind of specific diet when I entered prison, but I was at a healthy weight because I kept my portions small, I limited my soda intake and usually avoided fast food.
To be honest, the majority of people behind bars are on the lowest levels of the socioeconomic ladder. It’s common knowledge that the cheaper the food, the more unhealthy it is. It costs money to eat healthy. Most people in prison aren’t in a place financially where they can be picky about eating healthy food or follow a specific diet.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t prisoners who do. For those who are vegetarian, vegan, on Keto, or only eat Kosher, it can be a huge challenge to follow those food rules when you are behind bars.
That leads us to today’s blog post: can you be vegan in prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
The short answer to this question is yes, but it isn’t easy, and you need to have family and friends sending you money on a regular basis, so you can buy food from the commissary.
At breakfast, the main item rotated between pancakes, eggs, french toast, and oatmeal or another kind of hot cereal. There would also be a piece of fruit and toast, and the beverage choice was between milk or coffee.
At lunch and dinner, there would be a main dish, a vegetable, two pieces of bread, and a dessert (which was usually jello). The drink choices were water or “juice” (which was really watered down Kool-Aid).
My description of our prison meals doesn’t seem too bad on the surface, but it usually tasted terrible. Main dishes were usually things like Poultry A La King, spaghetti, chicken patties, salisbury steak, and sausage with cabbage. Again, doesn’t sound terrible, but those names sounded better than what you were actually served.
If you want to be vegan in prison, you can eat fruit and veggies (a very limited portion), pasta, and salad. However, a prison salad is about five pieces of iceberg lettuce and way too much French dressing. Occasionally, you might get a piece of cucumber or tomato.
Because the amount of vegan options are so limited and small at the chow hall, you have to order food from the commissary to make sure you get enough calories. But, while these options might technically be vegan, they aren’t necessarily healthy.
Every prison commissary has different options, but there are some general similarities. We could buy bags of chicken or tuna (which were the main ingredients in my prison culinary creations), but when you are vegan those items won’t work.
Vegan options on the commissary list included oatmeal, ramen noodles, rice, pasta, refried beans, spaghetti sauce, granola bars, peanut butter, and trail mix. You could also get snacks like crackers, chips, cookies, and candy.
Beverage options from commissary include soda, Kool-Aid, coffee, and orange juice.
Like I said, when you are in prison you can eat vegan if you are committed to it, but it won’t be a healthy diet.
The concept of inmates demanding anything from prison staff might seem a little absurd, but inmates do have basic human rights. When it comes to following their religious beliefs, inmates can request a certain diet, which is why all prisons have Kosher food options.
Prisoners are also supposed to have the right to basic health care and food to survive, but the concept of a “healthy diet” really isn’t a thing in prison. In the eyes of prison officials, they only care about how cheap the food is, and what’s the minimum they can serve to technically follow the inmate nutrition guidelines.
However, inmates can legally fight to have a certain type of meal available to them. Peter Young, an animal rights activist who was sent to prison for releasing thousands of minks from fur farms saw his vegan “moral code” as the reason he was behind bars in the first place.
“Three times a day, the slot on my cell door opened, delivering trays piled with every variety of animal flesh and byproducts. The trace amounts of iceberg lettuce barely pushed my caloric intake into the double digits. I launched a nightly letter-writing campaign, targeting anyone with influence. Everyone from the prison captain, to the kitchen manager, to Congressperson Barbara Boxer received my letters. My demands were simple: No meat, dairy, or eggs. In this one-sided negotiation process, leverage was in short supply,” said Young.
He also undertook hunger strikes to make sure the prison met his vegan requirements. Young said he had to make a ton of phone calls to friends and family to encourage them to solicit the prison about the issue so he could have some way to negotiate.
Young said he had to make it known that eating vegan was a lifestyle choice and a protected belief, just like the right to practice a religion. Eventually, he found Buddhism because Young realized that the only way to get vegan food was if his diet choices were considered to be religiously motivated.
“Two years of trial and error, I had gone from starving and desperate to well fed and gluttonous. They said it couldn’t be done, but I managed to remain strictly vegan in prison,” said Young.
Should inmates be allowed to eat vegan in prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Do Vegans Get Served Vegan Food In Prison? https://www.thedailymeal.com/eat/do-vegans-get-served-vegan-food-prison The Experience Of Surviving As A Vegan In Prison https://www.livekindly.co/experience-surviving-vegan-in-prison/ New Guide Offers Inmates Advice On Being Vegan In Prison https://www.livekindly.co/new-guide-inmates-advice-vegan-prison/ BOP Commissary List https://www.bop.gov/locations/institutions/dub/DUB_CommList.pdf The Strict Vegan Prisoner Playbook https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/gq8pwq/the-strict-vegan-prisoner-playbook
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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