Food in DC’s jails should heal, not harm by Daniel A. Rosen

Published on December 20, 2023


As families across the District come together to share the bounty of holiday meals, a starkly different scene unfolds behind the walls of DC’s jails. Controversy about how to address recent spikes in crime shouldn’t blind us to a long-simmering problem at the intersection of public safety and public health: how to ensure humane and healthy meals for the 1,500 people we detain in DC’s jails. A recent survey conducted within these facilities, gathering over 300 responses, resoundingly condemns the current state of food service.

The FRESH STARTS Act of 2023 — introduced in February by Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, and seven of her colleagues — would reform food service in the DC Department of Corrections (DOC). In July, I was one of many former DC jail residents who lined up alongside advocates to testify in support of the bill. We spoke about our direct experiences with the District’s gastronomic cruelty, and the devastating impact it’s had on our lives, our mental and physical health, and our communities.

Typical meals at DC’s jails consist primarily of refined carbohydrates, which are known to promote poor health outcomes such as diabetes and can lead to a lifelong sentence of diet-related diseases. Excessively starchy meals are complemented by unidentifiable processed meat patties; endless unseasoned, undercooked beans; and overreliance on  ultra-processed, unseasoned, soybean-based “textured vegetable protein.” The end result is preventable waste when inedible food is dumped in the trash.

The DOC’s kitchens aren’t subject to the same health regulations governing other food service providers citywide, resulting in meals prepared and served in unsanitary conditions. I once witnessed a resident uncover half a mouse buried in his evening meal entree, and have heard many similar stories from other incarcerated residents. Portions are meager and food is often served cold and congealed. People are routinely denied access to religious meals and even medically tailored meals, putting their health in further jeopardy. In the most extreme cases, food is withheld as punishment. This neglect is chiefly harming the jail’s population of young, Black men from wards 7 and 8 — a demographic whose nutrition is already inordinately poor.

Taxpayers hand $6.5 million a year to Aramark, a private multinational corporation, to feed the jails’ residents empty calories. By all indications, most of that money goes toward Aramark salaries — not toward the food that actually lands on meal trays, much of which is so disgusting that it ends up in the garbage. Taxpayers unconcerned about what the jails’ residents eat might care about the inevitable diet-related health expenses that they’ll end up paying more for later.

If approved, the FRESH STARTS Act would make meaningful improvements to the way we feed and treat vulnerable citizens housed in our jails, many of whom suffer from addiction, homelessness and mental health challenges. Essentially, the bill centers nutrition as the basis of health and opportunity for returning citizens. It would mandate the adoption of evidence-based guidelines for a healthy diet; improve oversight of food and nutrition; and require the DOC to serve nutrient-dense fresh fruits and vegetables regularly. Along with ensuring ongoing attention is paid to nutritional health issues, the bill would establish a culinary and hospitality job skills training program. It also would require the DOC to track the costs of diet-related disease.

Implementing this important legislation would require the DOC to work with lawmakers and community partners, and there’s good reason to be skeptical. Despite his agency’s poor track record, Director Thomas Faust defended the DOC’s performance during July’s hearing. He testified that the jail’s food already meets federal nutrition guidelines and that reform is unnecessary and unaffordable. Although Faust insisted he had no intention of discounting the experiences of dozens who had testified about the DOC’s nutritional negligence, his comments did exactly that. Unfortunately, no one asked him whether he’d commit to eating the same food as jail residents for a month or even a week — or feed the same meals to his family.

The residents of DC’s jails are our neighbors, friends and family members. They will be coming home to rejoin our communities, so it’s counterproductive to compound their sentences with dietary neglect if public safety is our goal. The District’s incarcerated sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers have loved ones who pay taxes and vote, and who want the best for them. Nutritious food in jail isn’t a luxury — it’s a cornerstone of rehabilitation and a testament to our values as a society. By passing the FRESH STARTS Act, we would be acknowledging that the path to a safer community is paved with acts of humanity, not further deprivation.

Daniel A. Rosen is an activist, author and returning citizen who spent a total of one year in the DC jail and is working with a coalition of advocates to reform food in the District’s jails. More of his writing is available at “Three Hots One Cot: Dispatches From a Prison Cell and Beyond.”

Originally published in the DC Line