Food Safety in U.S. Prisons:

The Big Issues
and How You Can Help

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It’s a segment of the population we don’t often think about when it comes to keeping food safe: Our prison system in the United States.

Yet problems abound and they affect us in ways we likely aren’t aware of. Fortunately, we have dynamic leaders like Blake Hite and Hannah L. Chen who’ve dug deep to shine a spotlight on the issues and find solutions. Blake and Hannah are graduate students at Georgetown University, and we’re so grateful for their passionate work on this important area of food safety.

Hannah Chen
Blake Hite

In our Q & A below with Blake, you’ll gain insights into what he and Hannah have learned in their extensive research, fixes that need to be made, and an action step you can take to help move their mission forward.

Q: Please give us a “big picture” look at the issues as it relates to food safety in prisons.
A: The first main issue our research uncovered is that inmates in U.S. prisons are 6.4 times more likely than the general population to experience foodborne illness. The number is likely an underestimate because of how the illnesses are reported.

The second troubling issue is that prisoners have no standardized training before entering food service work, yet they often work in the industry after release. Despite us having solid figures on the overall number of people getting sick—and some good hypotheses on why—the prison system either fails to collect or fails to analyze its own data. In short: we have a problem, and we are burying our heads in the sand about it.

Q: Tell us about your group and how it became involved in this work.
A: Hannah and I are in a group, along with other graduate students at Georgetown University, who took a course entitled National Science Policy. Together, we decided to focus on bringing an underrecognized healthcare issue to the forefront of policy discussion.

The seeds of our project for foodborne illnesses in prisons came from one of our teammates, Ogechi Nwaopara. She convinced us to critically examine science around incarcerated peoples’ dietary habits and risk factors.

What we found, quite frankly, angered many of us.

Although we began our research on health risks originating from poor food policy, our ultimate goal has always been to create opportunities for people post-incarceration.

Q: Which leaders/partners are helping bring about positive change?
A: We found partners in three broad areas: Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and nonprofit organizations like Stop Foodborne Illness.

In Congress, our group has met with senior staff members for Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Chuck Grassley, and Senator Bernie Sanders. What struck us most about these meetings was the staff members’ whole-hearted interest and their recognition of this challenge as a truly bipartisan one. Although the coronavirus pandemic (COVID) has upended many of the plans, we are confident that all of their teams are genuinely interested in tackling this issue.

While the GAO technically works for Congress, their non-partisan and fact-based approach merits its own category. Our group met with the Director for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) who had a wealth of experience on previous reports for the federal penal system. Her patience and willingness to teach us the basics of her job were invaluable in crafting a realistic policy proposal for the senate staff.

None of these meetings would have happened without grassroots organizations behind us. The organizations that supported us helped lend credibility and expertise to each meeting we went into.

One of our group members had previously worked with Food & Water Watch, an organization we met with early on whose expertise is in government accountability and oversight. They were instrumental in giving us background information and helping us tie the impacts of foodborne illness to COVID.

Later, we met with the leadership at Stop Foodborne Illness, which helped us in many ways; in particular, we gained an in-depth understanding of how physically and emotionally devastating foodborne disease can be on victims. The importance of individual stories can’t be understated: they make elected officials listen.

We also had an informative meeting with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s (NRAEF) Hospitality Opportunities for People (re) Entering Society (HOPES) program. Their aim is to help young people develop the skills needed to work in a local food service or hospitality capacity through training and certification programs as well as connecting them to workplaces for employment. ↓

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve encountered during your work?
A: How little information there was.

Healthcare costs in the U.S. prison system have shot up 36% to $1.6 billion per year. But they still lack or don’t analyze data, which means the GAO can’t perform analysis and make recommendations.

What’s worse is that, even though we know there’s a straightforward problem with straightforward answers, the BOP doesn’t update antiquated training manuals or specify training standards. Sure, the BOP Food Manual has training requirements for workers; but they aren’t specific to food service workers. Instead, that manual simply references another document (Program Statement 1600.11 for those interested) that simply says a worker must undergo “initial training” that covers “safe work methods and hazardous materials.”

As you can see, we aren’t advocating for rocket science. We are advocating for some basic changes that can make a world of difference in solving straightforward problems.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

In the case of food safety in our prisons, we have failed to meet our own standards.

Q: How has COVID impacted food safety in prisons?
A: I’ll start by pointing out that one of the biggest elements of danger actually impacts everyone’s food safety: privatized food inspections

It’s pretty well known at this point that meat plant workers are at an incredibly high risk of getting COVID. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) used to conduct all inspections at meat processing plants; now, as a result of legislation enacted due to the pandemic, certain industries can elect to lower the number of federal inspectors, replace them with their own, and increase the number of carcasses inspected per minute to impossibly high numbers. This is a disastrous formula that puts us all at greater risk for contracting foodborne illness.

Another important way COVID impacts prisons is through the allowance of so-called ‘emergency menus,’ which have been put into place to combat staff shortages. Menus have also expanded to include meals that can be reheated easily along with ‘grab and go’ snacks to reduce contact. Virginia Public Radio station WVTF highlights the issue around ‘emergency meals.’ These meals are lacking in key nutrients and are often unbalanced, even more so than regular fare. This has especially affected people with medical conditions like diabetes, and those with dietary restrictions for religious reasons.

Q: What can Stop Foodborne Illness’ readers do to help?
A: Call or email your representatives in Congress, volunteer with nonprofits like Stop Foodborne Illness, and vote!

If you decide to make calls, here are a few tips:

  • Always be courteous
  • Use a script or some notes to help guide your questions/feedback
  • If you feel confident about your research and really want to take it up a notch, call the congressperson’s D.C. office and ask to speak to someone on their legislative staff about this issue

Lastly, I want to extend a big THANK YOU to Stop Foodborne Illness and their supporters. Together, I’m confident we will make progress on improving food safety for people in our prison system and all of us affected.


Blake Hite is a Wounded Warrior Fellow working for the US House of Representatives when he isn’t busy studying for his J.D./M.S. at Georgetown University. While he is passionate about climate change, his true love is his Border Collie, Lottie, and partner, Teresa.

Hannah L. Chen graduated with a M.S in Biomedical Science Policy & Advocacy from Georgetown University in 2021.  She is interested in global health issues, specifically in the context of environmental health and public health equity.