Prison Food

Human Being Food

Photography
Amanda Hestehave

May 12 2016

I’m a KOMBO is devoted to the research of forms and imaginative expression as means to explore the act of dining. Founded by decorated chefs Bo Lindegaard and Lasse Askov‚ Copenhagen-based I’m a KOMBO fuses skill and imagination to create a new gastronomic universe.

The United States’ prison population has plateaued over the past decade at just under 2.5 million. That adds up to one fairly major city: an entire Baltimore or Denver locked up at any given time and spread out unevenly across an opaque network of institutions. By any standard‚ these numbers are enormous. In fact‚ they’re unprecedented anywhere‚ ever. And while it is easy to understand why most of the discourse centers on the numbers themselves‚ surprisingly little attention is paid to an equally staggering set of issues surrounding the nature of imprisonment—perhaps most importantly‚ what prisoners eat.

As with any giant human system‚ feeding prisoners is a small miracle of logistics. Trucks and factories‚ industrial kitchen equipment‚ flatware‚ trays‚ fruits‚ meats.

In some states‚ there are entire dairies dedicated to producing milk for prisoners and many food processing plants cater primarily to these institutions‚ whose predictable long-term orders and low standards provide steady revenue. In many ways‚ prison kitchens are run like school cafeterias‚ where federal nutritional guidelines dictate minimum requirements‚ concessions for dietary restrictions like vegetarian and kosher and halal. They are efficient and ensure that a maximum number of inmates are fed benchmark calories at the lowest cost. But while schools have PTA mothers to fight for fresh‚ healthy spreads‚ the opacity of the prison food system has resulted in some rather grim culinary innovations‚ none more notorious than the dreaded and highly contentious Nutraloaf. This formless amalgam of minimal food pyramid requirements has long been the target of popular derision‚ as well as several lawsuits calling into question its basic appropriateness as human food. More than one legal case has charged that its forced consumption amounts to no less than ‘cruel and unusual punishment’—full-on dietary torture. Imprisoning people is expensive‚ fraught with ethical and moral hazard and a difficult‚ if necessary‚ evil of a functioning modern society. Still‚ the level of considerateness with which it is carried out is ultimately a litmus test that reflects generously or damningly upon its society. While we on the outside in the West have the luxury of thinking about our food in terms of taste‚ nutrition‚ sustainability and origin‚ it is alarming that the only food millions of citizens have access to may not even fulfill basic human needs. Though the problem is a momentous one‚ we nonetheless wondered whether we might somehow reimagine prison food for the better in some small way. Using calorie count‚ a generous budget of $10 per meal‚ and scalability as benchmarks‚ we handed the exploration off to some food experts in that ostensibly most equal of Western democracies‚ Denmark.

 

Bo Lindegaard and Lasse Askov explain their approach to the problem:

It was a challenge to rethink food for prison inmates. First of all‚ we had to conduct thorough research about the culture‚ conditions and gastronomy of the United States‚ all of which are very different from in Denmark. Beyond that‚ there were so many things to account for‚ whether it be that the meal satisfies the daily required calorie intake‚ whether the food fits within budget constraints or whether we’re using appropriate ingredients. We’ve never had to bear conditions this strict in mind when approaching a project.

The whole method of preparing prison food is‚ in a way‚ futuristic‚ especially with Nutraloaf. It’s completely devoid of experience‚ taste and smell—all the tactile‚ sensory things we like. Nutraloaf is the equivalent to how some might imagine we’ll be eating in the future: blended‚ prescriptive‚ one meal for all occasions. It takes very little time and effort and has zero to no experience associated with it. It is bland and there is zero charm when eating it.

What we did is try to create an experience around the meal‚ and that was our approach to this project. For the breakfast‚ we created a pharmacy-like setup‚ where each inmate would individually administer the amounts of each ingredient added with regards to spices and tastes‚ which would allow‚ to some extent‚ for creating their own dish. Another thing that was crucial to whether or not this was indeed going to work was if it was suitable for mass production. You can’t have things that are difficult to prepare or require specific tools or storage conditions—it had to be simple. We tried working our way around that when working toward the final result.

Breakfast

Porridge of grains and seeds D.I.Y. flavor-box
(3998 cal per recipe)

120g barley
120g Puy lentils
30g flaxseeds
300g quinoa
450g oatmeal
1.5l water
5g salt
30g oil

Boil barley seeds and lentils until soft. Drain and mix in with the rest of the dry ingredients. Add water‚ season with salt and boil until consistent in texture. Add oil before serving. Serve with spices‚ hot sauce‚ sugar‚ syrup‚ pesto‚ popcorn or any other fun flavor.

Recipe made for 4 persons or more.

Lunch

3 course menu
Instant soup‚ egg roll and cake
(5727 cal per recipe)

Stockcube

35g dried mushrooms
4g fennel seeds
25g inactive yeast
30g salt
30g Malto
55g beurre noisette

Blend all dry ingredients into a fine powder. Mix with Malto and whisk in lukewarm beurre noisette. Press into molds (about 15g) and compress. Place in the freezer for an hour. Remove mold and wrap in foil. Pour over 250 ml. of boiling water when serving.

Roll

12 eggs
100g stale bread
50g leftover meatfat
salt

Boil eggs about 7 minutes. Turn bread into crumbs and fry until golden in fat. Cool down and add salt to taste after taste. When serving‚ roll eggs in breadcrumbs.

Cake

60g butter
60g peanut butter
250g ground sunflower seeds
4 eggwhites
4 egg yolks
10g salt
125g brown sugar
jam

Preheat oven to 180° C. Grease a cakepan and mix butter‚ peanut butter‚ sugar and egg yolks until fluffy. Beat the whites smooth and fluffy with salt. Mix  sunflower seeds in the butter mix and carefully fold in the egg whites. Bake for 30 minutes until golden and the oven smells like cake. Serve with jam.

Recipe made for 4 persons or more.

Dinner

Nutraloaf
Chicken‚ beef and leftovers
(2468 cal per recipe)

450g minced chicken
20g salt
300g cream
150g braised beef trimmings
300g of leftover veggies

We have used:

Parsley, Potatoes, Deep fried grits, Boiled kohlrabi, and Braised leeks

Knead the minced chicken with salt. Add cream slowly while still kneading. Add pulled beef and mix in the leftovers. Bake in the oven at 150° C for about 30 minutes. Slice and serve.