Food For Thought

Some Foods Punish With Criminal Flavor, But Are They Unethical?

Maren Tarro
4 min read
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Albuquerque’s public school lunch menu made national headlines when it was announced that children with outstanding lunch bills would be treated to cheese sandwiches until their parents paid up. Parents were outraged, claiming it was insulting and humiliating for their precious darlings to be served such pedestrian fare. Others questioned whether it was fair to punish students for their parents’ oversight.

Albuquerque isn’t the only school to institute a substitute lunch policy. My nephew Spencer, a first-grader in Odessa, Mo., attends a school with a similar way of handling dining-room debtors. When young Spencer, known for bouts of insubordination, decided to spend his lunch money on something other than lunch, he was handed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sentence to be carried out until his mother made restitution—a paltry 35 cents.

Spencer served hard cafeteria time for more than a week before his mother grew concerned. “Every day, we would ask him what he had for lunch,” she recalls, “and he would say ‘Peanut butter sandwich.’ So then we found out what had happened.”

Spencer seemed content to continue eating those lowly sandwiches. Reflecting on the inhumane treatment her son received, she chuckles, “We just thought it was funny that it was over 35 cents.” When asked to consider the long-term effects such a drastic penalty could incur, she concluded, “He didn’t mind at all, and, I mean, at least they gave him something to eat. They gave him a sandwich; that’s all.”

Using food as punishment is a controversial topic. In the past, it was common for prisons to withhold food from inmates to correct bad behavior. This practice was eventually ruled unconstitutional in the U.S., but some contend modern penal-system food regulations are still cruel and unusual.

I once served time myself. Not as an inmate, but as a kitchen supervisor in a New Mexico jail. My firsthand experience with correctional cuisine was not pleasant. Refried beans were bulked up with more flour than legumes, and enchiladas were topped with little more than tomato sauce. Each meal had a target food cost of around eight cents. Cheap shortcuts and substitutions were standard practice, but meals were, technically, nutritionally complete. Sure, the inmates complained; they often opted to use their commissary accounts for ramen noodles rather than eat jail house slop. But few could claim they were being mistreated.

Yet some prisons have found themselves accused of just that. When inmates commit certain infractions, like attacking guards, they might be served a Nutraloaf: a ground and shaped concoction containing everything a growing criminal could need nutrition-wise.

Made with various ingredients but most commonly bread, nondairy cheese, raisins, beans, powdered milk, carrots and sugar, the loaf is not designed to be tasty. It’s designed to feed without the need for utensils, so inmates can’t fashion weapons from forks and spoons. But others say it’s designed to punish, a sawdust brown shirt that announces “I shanked a prison guard and all I got was this lousy loaf.”

Nutraloaf (aka prison loaf or special management meal) has been compared to dog food or animal feed due to its taste and all-in-one nature. But while it’s perhaps unusual from a culinary standpoint, the courts have concluded that it falls short of cruelty.

Tell you the truth, even as I’ve spent my professional and personal life encouraging culinary excellence, I don’t see anything wrong with using alternative foods to deal with problem prisoners. Proper nutrition is a right, and delicious dishes are a privilege. Food, at its most basic, is sustenance. Pleasure derived from food is a reward. We spoil children with sweets and ourselves with fancy meals out, which suggests anything above and beyond nutrition is a bonus. So to indignant inmates and whiny students, I say suck it up, buttercup. Or, as fed-up parents have long reminded us as we sat poking at mysterious casseroles so thoughtlessly prepared by gastronomically evil moms, “There are starving children in Africa who would be more than happy to eat your dinner.”

Food For Thought

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