Food sustains us, but it can also break us. A lack of access to healthy, fresh, nutritious foods diminishes wellness and increases health risks. There are few places where the deleterious effects of poor food conditions can be felt more than in correctional facilities. Kanav Kathuria reflected on the role of food when speaking with currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.
“Food poisoning, mold, poor quality, lack of quantity, mystery meat, sweaty meat—this is food that people say they wouldn’t serve their worst enemy,” said Kathuria.
Kathuria spent his early life in India, moving to the U.S. when he was seven. Growing up, he learned first-hand about India’s prison system and its role as a political tool to discriminate against lower classes and castes. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, he returned to India and later came back to Baltimore as a Baltimore Corps fellow. Through his travels and his studies, he saw the parallels between India’s prison system and the U.S. carceral state. Food was being weaponized – used as punishment rather than nourishment.
The state of Maryland has a prison population of about 20,000, according to data from 2015. While Baltimore City accounts for 10 percent of Maryland residents, Baltimoreans account for about 33 percent of the state’s prison population. Adding individuals on parole, approximately 20,000 Baltimoreans are in contact with the criminal justice system.
Kathuria started The Farm to Prison Project (now the Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project) as a path to address the public health crisis of food in the United States’ prison system. The project is one of the first of in the country working to improve all aspects of food served in correctional facilities. The project’s first step is a pilot program at a Maryland institution. Focus groups with incarcerated individuals will guide the project’s trajectory – determining goals of the pilot and next steps for implementation. Farmers and food justice advocates will be engaged to form a pipeline with urban and small-scale farms in Baltimore. The project will work with public health professionals and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to ensure solutions are sustainable, equitable, and that the pilot can be replicated at other institutions.
The project has already received support from many in the criminal justice system.
“In addition to individuals with direct experience, wardens and food service managers are looking to increase the amount of fresh foods on the inside as well,” said Kathuria.
His selection as an OSI Community Fellow opens up further doors for the project, providing the funding, time, and network to support successful implementation. Importantly, while Kathuria is creating the effort, it will be guided by incarcerated individuals.
“My goal is to build an intermediary where individuals with direct experience are guiding the work. I’m setting up the infrastructure, but the goals and direction will not come from me,” said Kathuria.
After the pilot, Kathuria hopes to expand the project to Baltimore where some of the food conditions are the worst. He sees the project as playing a small part in a broader effort to eliminate the use of imprisonment as a solution to society’s problems.
“Prison is used by the city and state as a solution to the problems it faces. Mental health and addiction, a lack of affordable housing, the school-to-prison pipeline, over-policing and disinvestment, and predatory lending practices – prison is at the center of it all,” said Kathuria.
Kathuria is setting off to create structural change in how the U.S. treats and rehabilitates incarcerated individuals. Change that will have ramifications in Maryland, and potentially far beyond.