“The high rates of health issues mentioned in carceral settings are a health equity issue likely resulting, at least in part, from the low accessibility of fresh produce and poor access to quality and trusted medical care in NYS correctional facilities.”

Marc Fader

Albion Correctional Facility

Individuals incarcerated in the United States are more likely to suffer from food-borne illnesses and have higher rates of diabetes and hypertension and all-cause mortality than the general public. The link between consuming fresh produce and decreased morbidity and mortality from diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease is well documented, but has not impacted the way New York State (NYS) correctional facilities feed those who are incarcerated.

The police state in New York disproportionately targets Black and Brown neighborhoods, which makes individuals from these areas more likely to end up in carceral settings. Black-identifying individuals make up 15 percent of the overall state population, but 48 percent of the prison population as a result of place-based and racially biased policing tactics.

Given these disparities, the high rates of health issues mentioned in carceral settings are a health equity issue likely resulting, at least in part, from the low accessibility of fresh produce and poor access to quality and trusted medical care in NYS correctional facilities, where 90.6 percent of those incarcerated wished they had access to more fruits and vegetables, according to a Correctional Association of NY survey.

There are three ways that incarcerated people can gain access to food in NYS Correctional Facilities: the mess hall, the commissary, and food packages. Three free meals a day are provided in the mess hall,  which must provide an appropriate “level of nutrients and calories” as set by national food standards. It is recommended that adults consume between 1.5-2 cups of fruits and 2-3 cups of vegetables daily, comprising 50 percent of one’s daily dietary intake, as a source of key vitamins and minerals.

But 90.6 percent of those incarcerated in NYS correctional facilities report avoiding eating these mess hall meals, citing that the food is of poor quality and is highly processed. They rarely contain fresh fruits and vegetables, and instead feature food prepared in a “Cook/Chill” method where “food products are quickly steam or water-cooked and then frozen at a central processing plant, in which they are packaged and then distributed across the state prisons.” Heightened soy content combined with the fact that preparation of food in this manner results in “substantial losses of sensitive vitamins.”

As of 1992, all meals for NYS Facilities are prepared at Oneida Correction Facility in Rome, NY “to streamline the manufacturing and service of meals to the inmate population.” Examples of “Cook/Chill” or frozen vegetable options offered at NYS Psychiatric facilities (exact information for NYS Correctional Facilities was unclear) include green beans in garlic sauce, Mexican corn, creamed spinach, and “mixed vegetables frozen.”

Looking at the nutritional labels provided for Mexican corn and cooked carrots, they provide close to 0 percent of the daily value of key vitamins or minerals. A review of several years of NYS correctional facility menus shows that fresh produce options are likely to include tossed salad containing iceberg lettuce, cabbage and carrots that are pre-made in Oneida, raw celery or an apple, which can all be hard to digest.

Loved ones of those who are incarcerated can send money to them to purchase food through the commissary. Salaries among those incarcerated are low: what an incarcerated individual in a NYS correctional facility typically makes in two weeks is between $7 and $14. With this pay, only 37.9 percent said they were able to afford to buy healthy food options at the commissary. Even when they can afford fresh food, it is often out of stock or not offered at all.

Those incarcerated are limited to spending $90 once every two-weeks at the commissary, which was recently increased from $75 due to inflation and rising costs of  products. However, the amount incarcerated people make in a two-week period has not increased, thus placing more financial strain on loved ones supporting them from the outside.

Typical produce items and prices available at the commissary include black beans ($1 per serving), diced box tomatoes ($1.36 per serving), and onions ($1.75 for 2 pounds). Many must also use their available money to purchase bottled water or hygiene products, which can be expensive. During July 2022, 25.15 percent of all commissary items at Sing Sing Correctional Facility were out of stock, including all of the produce options listed above.

Lastly, those incarcerated can receive fresh produce through food packages mailed to them from their loved ones. But as of August 2022, under a new draft of Directive #4911, they’re only allowed to receive food packages directly from approved vendors. A similar Directive #4911A was piloted in 2018, but was subsequently suspended by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Under the older draft of Directive #4911, loved ones were able to purchase food from anywhere—as long as it complied with packaging restrictions—and ship it themselves or bring it in with them on visits. Loved ones have noted that the state’s approved vendors have limited options, higher prices than their local grocery stores, and poor quality produce, if they have any produce at all. At vendor Union Supply, for example, the vegetable section of the website has just six options consisting of mashed potatoes and microwavable green beans and corn.

Allowing families to ship food packages directly allowed them to find better prices (including fresh produce) and choose the types and quality of foods that their incarcerated loved ones preferred. Under Directive #4911 there were several New York based organizations that worked to give free fresh produce to those incarcerated by giving their loved ones bags of items to bring in with them on in-person visits, but this is no longer possible under the current directive.

Reversing the new draft of Directive #4911 would be a beneficial first step towards improving access to fresh produce in NYS facilities, but there is still much more to be done. Policymakers may consider working to set mandatory minimums for the quality, amount, and affordability of fresh produce available to those incarcerated.

Isabel Slingerland is a second-year graduate student at Columbia University working toward her degree in public health. She has been involved in community building and decarceration work in her hometown of Ossining, New York as part of the Sing Sing Family Collective for several years as well as in Atlanta, GA while completing her undergraduate degree at Emory University. Slingerland has written for a number of independent publications.

Robert Fullilove is professor of sociomedical sciences at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and is the associate dean for community and minority affairs at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Since 2010, he has been teaching public health courses in the six correctional facilities associated with the Bard Prison Initiative where he serves as the Senior Advisor to Public Health Programs.

A spokesperson for the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision provided the following statement in response to this op-ed:

“The Department’s accredited food production center supplies food to all state correctional facilities in compliance with state law that requires incarcerated individuals be provided with a sufficient quantity of wholesome and nutritious food. This includes daily fresh fruits and vegetables. The Department has also worked with each facility’s Incarcerated Liaison Committee to identify and make available additional fresh fruits and vegetables they desire in the commissaries. Bananas, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and garlic are among the fresh produce that has been made available.

DOCCS implemented the vendor package program upon recommendation of the Prison Violence Task Force, which sought to improve facility security by addressing the significant increase in the number of packages found to contain contraband drugs and weapons. Unfortunately, this includes the use of fresh produce to introduce contraband, including weapons and drugs, into state correctional facilities.

Early data show that the program is working, including a 73 percent decrease in the number of contraband items recovered in package rooms from the implementation of the program through December 2022, as well as a 13 percent decrease in the Department’s use of Narcan since last year.”