Posted October 13, 2020
By Brittany Florio, FINE Program Associate; and Peter Allison, FINE Executive Director
Farm to Institution New England (FINE) is motivated to work with the New England carceral food system because it aligns with our vision for an “equitable and just food system that provides access to healthy and abundant food for all New Englanders.”
This past July, FINE’s Network Advisory Council (NAC), our principal advisory and governing body, decided to prioritize the corrections sector as one of our four institutional focus areas. This decision flowed from FINE’s research on the sector, and was informed by the work and recommendations of an experienced and engaged Corrections Advisory Group. The Whitehead Foundation is providing critical seed funding for this work. FINE staff and the NAC agreed that support and advocacy in the corrections sector is an important manifestation of our commitment to equity in the food system and in society. Additionally, now is the time to apply our resources and network to serve an institutional population which is often undervalued, underserved, and neglected.
The corrections sector has some characteristics in common with K-12 schools, colleges, and hospitals, and others that set it apart. All of these institutions are responsible for feeding large groups of people daily in their dining facilities, and must balance the coordination of dining staff, contracts, food supply chains, menu development, price constraints, and more. Correctional facilities also experience some of the same barriers to sourcing and serving regionally sourced foods as other institutions, including price, supply and seasonality. However, unlike the students and staff, incarcerated people are not in their facility by choice and have little agency themselves to create change within the institution. The corrections sector is also highly politicized, with divergent opinions on the role of corrections in our society, including why we have so many people in prison, prison labor and workforce development, public spending to house incarcerated populations, and now how to keep people safe inside these facilities during a pandemic. And all of these issues are set in the context of a history of institutional racism that is at the heart of our prison system in America.
Compared to other sectors, correctional facilities in New England serve fewer meals daily than K-12 schools, colleges, or hospitals. Approximately 60,000 people are incarcerated in New England prisons, representing less than 1 percent of our regional population. In the aggregate, prisons are not a major market for our local food system. However, we have seen examples where correctional facilities are able to purchase local products from producers at price points that work for both, filling market gaps. Moreover, connecting incarcerated people with the process of growing, cooking, serving and eating healthy local food has myriad benefits for them, and for society.
As noted above, from February to June of 2020, FINE convened a group of experienced and knowledgeable advisors on the topic of carceral food. The 15 member group provided insights on the challenges, trends and opportunities in this complex sector. Read about Feeding Incarcerated People in a Pandemic and view FINE's June online forum. In addition, FINE teamed with the Vermont Law School Center for Agriculture and Food Systems to research underlying policies related to food in the prison sector (publication forthcoming).
Based on recommendations of the advisory group, VLS, and the NAC, FINE staff is developing a plan to support the growing network of individuals, organizations and institutions working on farm to corrections issues in New England. Some of our first steps are to continue developing our network and our understanding of the sector, create a dedicated space on our website for corrections, and publish recently conducted research. Moving forward, FINE will convene stakeholders in the region and nationally to discuss key issues that impact the sector and leadership models, create an ongoing advisory group, produce and disseminate tools and case studies, seek additional funding to support ongoing efforts, and continue to expand our network and team of advisors to be more inclusive and diverse.
If you have any recommendations, resources, or stories to share, please reach out! FINE is also interested in hearing your recommendations for people who are knowledgeable, passionate, and interested in improving the carceral food system to be an advisor for FINE. Contact Britt Florio, [email protected] or Peter Allison, [email protected].