Nutraloaf: What It’s Like To Eat In Prison

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PHOTO: From left to right, Salt Pork, Indian Mush and Nutraloaf

What is Nutraloaf? Nutraloaf is the standard meal served three times a day to prisoners receiving disciplinary measures in United States prisons. Throughout human history, food or withholding of food has been used as a disciplinary measure, or a form of torture. In the early 20th century, before federal regulations were put in place regarding prisoner nutrition, a typical punishment meal was a glass of water and one slice of white bread.

Nutraloaf: The New Bread and Water

This is Pennsylvania’s official recipe for Food Loaf, aka Nutraloaf. Inmates typically eat 4oz. slivers with their hands, utensils are not provided and might eat nothing but this for as long as one week. While Pennsylvania’s recipe is clearly intended to be as bland as possible, some states, prepare recipes with garlic powder or other intentionally off-putting flavors.
Recipe courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections:

Recipe makes 21 servings.

10 ½ cups reduced fat milk, 2%
26 ¼ cups white rice, cooked
5 ¼ cups potatoes, grated raw, flesh and skin
5 ¼ carrots, grated
5 ¼ cabbage, shredded
15 ¾ cups oatmeal, dry
15 ¾ cups garbanzo beans, with liquid, mashed
1 ½  cups margarine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients thoroughly in mixing bowl. Place paper liners in loaf pans, scale 29-30 oz. of batter into lined loaf pan. Bake for one hour and 15 minutes. Place on wire rack and cool thoroughly.

It is hard to eat healthy in prison. Meals are served three times a day and are often more processed than a public school lunch, which are barely palatable at best. Often the meals are shaped by government regulations, from portion size to content.

It’s even harder to eat on a restrictive diet. Vegetarian inmate and Canadian publisher of Cannabis Culture Magazine, Marc Emery, described his vegetarian meals:

“When lunch was served on Saturday, I was very hungry. They haven’t made my diet “no flesh” (vegetarian) yet, as they haven’t transferred instructions from SHU (Segregated Housing Unit, “the hole”). Lunch was chicken and potatoes and mixed frozen-type vegetables. I saw from the return trays most people left various parts, as the quality is very poor, but I devoured it all: threw all those mixed vegetables in, added the potatoes, stripped the chicken off the bones, added the gravy, and ate that down. I would have eaten the other guy’s meal, too! Go to solitary for 3 weeks and you don’t complain about food much after that. You can’t wait for mealtime. I actually had an apple on Sunday (it was a Red Delicious; in solitary you just got unripe Granny Smith apples) and banana Saturday; any fruit is definitely appreciated. My stomach had shrunk from the reduction in food volume while in “the hole”.

Ladybud’s Diane Fornbacher and Angela Bacca visited Eastern State Penitentiary in downtown Philadelphia to sample Nutraloaf and other prison cuisine.

Salt Pork, Indian Mush & the Infamous Nutraloaf

Delicious prison salt pork.

Delicious prison salt pork.

Salt Pork & Indian Mush was served as a lunch or dinner meal. Breakfast would typically consist of a glass of whole milk and a slice of white bread. This was a typical prison meal in the 19th and early 20th century. While this wasn’t a meal served every day it would typically be made in large batches and served for many days in a row. The pork is salted primarily to preserve it in varying temperatures and muggy weather. Indian “Mush” is a variant of an early recipe coined by pilgrims in the 17th century. It can be served plain as just cooked cornmeal or sweetened and spiced. At Eastern State Penitentiary it is served with a light drizzle of molasses.

DIANE FORNBACHER: This looks like uncooked cornmeal.

ANGELA BACCA: It looks like polenta to me, I hate polenta… (takes a bite) Oh! that’s not very good. Want to taste?

DF: When you put it like that!… (takes a bite of salt pork) It tastes like corned beef, not as salty as some of the salt pork I have had. I could use the mush to wheat-paste the city! It is quite flavorless, very granular.

AB: Ew, this meat looks like a turkey neck or something.

"Indian Mush"

“Indian Mush”

DF: I really like it, as a matter of fact. Nowadays I am sure the quality of food has been lowered in prisons since 1849. It’s like old airplane food.

AB: Eddy Lepp says it is very processed. Wonder bread, Kraft sliced cheese, canned peas and carrots… just really processed.

DF: The Indian mush actually tastes better without the molasses. It makes it taste sort of like how high-school wood shop smells.

AB: The meat smell! It reminds me of Catholic school fundraisers on St. Patrick’s day, it makes me want to puke, ugh.

AB: I kinda like the Nutraloaf. It’s not awful, needs some hot sauce. It is like a very dense, flavorless hash brown. I like this much better than the Indian Mush.

DF: I need to get the recipe for this. I think it would be much better with raisins or nuts, maybe some mushroom gravy.

Eastern State Penitentiary – The Model Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary inspired the design of most prisons built in Europe, Asia, South America and Australia during the 1800s. There are about 300 copies in all. Dozens are still in use today. However, most American prisons were modeled after Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State.

A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests” found that Black people were 4.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than Whites, despite equal usage rates. Towards the exit of the Eastern State Penitentiary is an installation by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, “Family Interrupted” asking museum-goers to react to the following facts:

  • One in every 28 adults were in prison, jail or on probation or parole in Pennsylvania in 2009. (Pew Report, 2009)
  • There are more than 1.7 million children in the United States with an incarcerated parent, including one in 15 Black children, one in 42 Hispanic children and one in 111 White children. (The Sentencing Project, 2009)
  • Over half of incarcerated fathers reported they were the primary source of financial support for their children prior to their incarceration. (Glaze and Maruschak Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families, 2008)

Below are some responses from the public:

We had a strong reaction.

DF: (sighs) People are so ignorant. The world is not black and white like that. It makes me feel really sad because the facts are here and still people wont even look at them. They want to revert back to judgment rather than the solutions. They want to look for punishment rather than compassion and sensibility. I don’t doubt that a lot of the people who go to prison actually deserve to belong there but I resent having to pay for the very many people who don’t.

AB: I try to look at the situation objectively. To me, I think people with this point of view lack some critical thinking skills. They don’t think to question everything. They don’t ask why, they just accept.

DF: Obviously I am immersed, so my views and experiences are personal rather than this nebulous disconnect people who have not experienced this feel. I understand it, but it’s disheartening and there is a lot of work left to do to fix these injustices.

AB: Everyone should always be asking “why?” If you ask “why?” a lot you might come to a different conclusion about things.