What smell of deliciousness wafting from the kitchen takes you back to your childhood days? Maybe it is the smell of pumpkin pie baking in the oven at Thanksgiving time. Possibly it is the scent of homemade apple cider brewing on Christmas morning. Perhaps it is the aroma of your mother’s famous meatloaf. Whatever it is, scents and tastes conjure up memories. Whether it is our carefree childhood days or a birthday dinner complete with a home-cooked meal, smells and flavors of food remind us of our cherished pasts.
Food is also a way that families and friends bond with one another. Every Thanksgiving, families across the country indulge in a feast with their loved ones. For special occasions such as birthdays and weddings, the hosts cut cake for the guests to enjoy. Oftentimes, when you have not seen a friend in a long time, you plan to meet for dinner or lunch and catch each other up to speed on life happenings over a shared meal.
When you go back home to visit your family once you are in college, your mother cooks your favorite meal for you to savor. For Halloween, neighbors pass out candy and other tasty treats. At work trainings, employers provide lunch so that more people will attend.
Food provides comfort as well. When you are sick, you might crave a piping hot bowl of chicken noodle soup. On a hot day when you are working in the yard, you may request a smoothie to cool you down. During final exams at school, perhaps you eat more than usual due to the stress of the situation. When you go through a breakup, you may just want to sit on your sofa in your pajamas nourishing your soul with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream all to yourself. On a cold winter night, your family decides to cook a hearty stew for warmth.
Food plays an integral part in our society. In fact, throughout the course of history, food has served as a staple at ceremonies, events, and other gatherings. When life circumstances have not deprived you of the pleasures of meals and snacks, it is easy to take for granted the comfort, nourishment, memories, happiness, and social opportunities food provides.
Contrarily, find yourself in a situation where you are suddenly deprived of all ties you have to food, and it will feel as if your life is spiraling out of control. Imagine enjoying home-cooked meal after home-cooked meal and unexpectedly finding yourself in jail with the same baloney sandwich and lukewarm mush called dinner day in and day out. Imagine the freedom of strolling down a convenient store aisle and selecting the candy bar of your choice and then without warning, circumstances deprive you of all, or most, options. It would be a rude awakening.
In prison-run fire camps, families and friends of those in custody can bring coolers full of food and beverages (non-alcoholic, of course) to enjoy in the park together. There are grills on which you can prepare fresh hamburgers or warm up the neighborhood-award-winning macaroni and cheese. Picnic tables dot the visiting yard and provide ample space to set up large spreads of all the inmate’s favorite foods. Individuals expecting visitors frequently skip the standard prison food on the day the company arrives, and instead, chow down during their visits. After all, these visits—complete with feasts—last for hours. Loved ones catch up with one another while enjoying the fresh air and sharing a meal.
Unfortunately, the number of individuals in custody who get to enjoy such privileges is limited. County jails, as well as the majority of prison facilities, do not allow in outside food at all unless it comes from an on-property vending machine in the visiting area or commissary. Those behind bars are stuck eating the same mediocre (on a good day) food. If an inmate does not have any money on his or her books, it is impossible to supplement the despicable jailhouse food with just-add-water ramen bowls or other highly sought after food items that people on the outside would still not want to eat on a daily basis.
Given the important role that food plays in our society, there is no valid reason to deprive those in custody of homemade food and treats. Even if visitors cannot bring in food to all facilities due to security issues, penal institutions can and should provide higher quality meal options to inmates. Provide a cooking class. Let those behind bars participate in meal planning and meal preparation. Create cookbooks of the favorite family recipes of those behind bars and help them recreate these meals. Organize a chili cook-off and hold an awards ceremony. Bake cakes for a monthly birthday celebration. Provide inmates with a comfortable location outside of their cells to sit down, enjoy their meal, and socialize with their fellows.
Food is fuel. Just as vehicles need quality gas to function, the human body needs nutritious food to excel. Society should not tolerate jails and prisons feeding inmates food that its members would never dream of eating on a daily basis. If the food is not good enough—whether in quality or quantity—for the majority of the population, then society should not deem it appropriate for those charged with or accused of crimes.
Food is nourishment for the soul. Is not the goal of rehabilitation to nourish the soul? Jails and prisons should not be so terrified of allowing inmates to indulge in harmless luxuries that the rest of us take for granted. Small, yet meaningful, changes together make a world of difference. Try it, and see the results.