“You are what you eat.” I do not recall when I first heard that age-old adage. Nor do I have any recollection of not being aware of it. It has simply always been there, a part of the collective wisdom of the world. Over the years, it has carried a variety of connotations. Now, in my incarcerated reality, it has taken on new, disturbing, layers of meaning.
As a young weight-conscious girl, in a weight-obsessed society, it was an exhortation of the danger of over indulgence. Whether a product of some comedic parody or the creative result of my fertile imagination, the phrase conjured frightening images. The jelly doughnut eating cartoon character Fat Albert was perhaps the rolling embodiment of failure to heed said warning. I undoubtedly took it as indisputable fact that unfettered consumption of “junk food” would make me overwhelmingly fat. A fate, to a preteen girl, worse than death.
Years passed and I became a mother. Determinedly I shifted from a purely weight-conscious perspective to a more holistic health-consciousness. In this interpretation of who I would become based upon what I ate, I focused on nutrition content. I became increasingly aware of the purported health benefits of various foods, particularly various types of produce. I strove to include tasty healthy varieties in my family’s regular diet and mine. Similarly, I undertook to avoid or at least minimize, potentially harmful additives of preservatives. To the extent that it was feasible, I purchased primarily organic food and cooked from scratch. It was crucial to me to teach my children healthy, balanced eating habits and to demonstrate those by example.
I simultaneously was strongly influenced by an additional, perhaps less obvious, connotation of this saying. Food has also been, to me, very much about nurturance. There is a theme, I believe, in human interactions, about demonstrating love with food. The stereotypical grandmother who prepares a family feast and foists multiple helpings upon groaningly stuffed progeny is perhaps the prototypical caricature. Anyone trying to impress a date likely will attempt to please with food, whether home cooked or a favorite restaurant. Parents soothe distressed children with food, families celebrate milestones and achievements with feasts, and lovers patch quarrels with proffered treats. Every meal I cooked my family or friends, from the simplest offering of popcorn to a daylong kitchen bound exhausted feat, was an outpouring of heart and soul. We love with food.
As I currently experience on a daily basis, food can also demonstrate dehumanization. Yes, as I am often reminded, “This is jail.” I do not expect gourmet treats. Theoretically, however, we are supposed to be served food that meets nutritional guidelines. Our daily diet does not even come close. We are severely lacking in fruits, vegetables and dairy. It is not infrequent that we will go a whole day with neither a fruit nor a vegetable, and we never get more than one serving of fruit in an entire week. By contrast, we are saturated with empty carbohydrates. We are served endless slices of white bread and get dessert, often cookies or cake, with both lunch and dinner. When I recently submitted a concern, I received the response that a dietician approved the menu to meet USDA requirements. There is more to that response, apparently written in invisible ink, or simply not to be shared with inmates. Word from the world “outside” reports that said dieticians are tasked to achieve a specific caloric count in a cost-effective manner. So the reality is that only one daily requirement is addressed: calories.
My initial reaction to our menu remains concern about the impact of this on my health, current and long-term. I worry about the lack of vitamins and minerals and how that will impact me. As a middle-aged woman, will the lack of calcium for all these months increase my risk of osteoporosis? Will all the unnecessary carbs tip increase the chances that I shift from mildly hypoglycemic to pre-diabetic? Only time can answer those questions. I control what little I can I work to protect my bones with assiduous weight-bearing exercise. I trade bread for extra vegetables when I find a willing partner. I purchase snack options from commissary such as peanuts rather than more empty carbs. Still I worry.
Additionally there is the message that is pervasively conveyed about our worth as people. In the food, its careless preparation and the dishonest portrayal that it does meet our nutritional needs, there is a continual dehumanization. In addition to the unbalanced contents of our meals, the quality of the food is highly suspect. The “meat” we are served is unrecognizable as it is designated. Potatoes are served inclusive of black rotten spots and accompanying dirt. Ironically, the careless preparation is completed by inmates in the kitchen. One might expect they would have a vested interest in doing what they can to improve meals, such as removing clearly rotten food. I hazard a guess that they have perhaps internalized the dehumanization: the message, consumed daily, that we are not actually people. Certainly not people deserving of sustained health or clean food.
Absolutely it could be worse. Nonetheless, I am struck by a parallel. As our physical systems burn through all this white bread with no benefit, the larger system treats inmates as equally unimportant. In that sense, again, sadly, we continue to be what we eat.