D.C. jail food is so rotten or processed that inmates throw two-thirds of it away, according to a new survey

D.C. jail food is so rotten or processed that inmates throw two-thirds of it away, according to a new survey

According to a release of a DC Greens study on food insecurity in D.C. jails, study found that a vast majority of respondents reported being served inadequate food on an occasional to frequent basis.

The disturbing conditions inside the D.C. Department of Corrections’ facilities are highlighted in the study “‘We’re Hungry in Here‘ – Food Insecurity Behind the Walls of D.C.’s Jails” amid proposed legislation of the FRESH STARTS Act in the District.

With the help of DC Greens, Daniel Rosen, and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Leonard Bishop, 330 prisoners participated in the surveys. The study, combined with insights from Darby Hickey, Policy Counsel at DC Justice Lab and Daniel Rosen, returned citizen and justice reform advocate, paints a distressing picture of rampant hunger, inedible meals, and restricted access to nutritious food.

Key Findings:

Hunger behind bars. The survey exposes dissatisfaction after meals (89%), between-meal hunger (94%), adverse physical effects (80%), and detrimental mental health effects (75%); additionally, 90% lacked access to fresh fruit, and 75% to fresh vegetables.


Quality of served food. Residents frequently receive highly processed food, such as “Textured Vegetable Protein” (TVP), bologna, and unidentifiable meat patties, with 89% expressing concern about the nutritional adequacy and potential long-term health impacts on the incarcerated population.


Meal avoidance and food waste. 85% of respondents admitted to avoiding the meals provided, contributing to high rates of hunger and food waste. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were skipped by 60%, 70%, and 60% of residents, respectively. 

Unsafe and spoiled food. 70% percent of respondents reported receiving spoiled or rotten food, such as rancid milk and moldy bread, with widespread complaints of roaches, rodents, food poisoning, and gastric distress.

In a proposed legislation by D.C. Councilmember Brooke Pinto in February 2023, the FRESH STARTS Act of 2023 seeks to improve nutrition in Department of Corrections facilities, setting nutritional standards, implementing the Good Food Purchasing Policy, enhancing oversight and providing hospitality career training to reduce recidivism and support successful reentry. The DC Greens survey highlights the dire need for this legislation to pass.

The Des talked to Daniel Rosen, an advocate for criminal justice reform and a key figure in exposing the alarming issues within the jail’s food system, as well as D.C. Justice Lab’s Darby Hickey.


Rosen shared insights into the survey distributed to inmates, “I spent a year inside the jail in 2016-2017, and I had a pretty good idea of what the results would say. Everyone inside cares about the food,” he explained. The high response rate highlighted the significance of the issue among the inmate population.


D.C. Justice Lab’s Darby Hickey highlighted the importance of hearing directly from incarcerated individuals, shedding light on experiences often ignored or forgotten. The survey’s findings, surprising were also expected, “underscore the societal values reflected in how we treat individuals in detention facilities, with food playing a central role in conveying care or indifference,” she said

One striking revelation was the insufficient number of residents involved in the kitchen operations. Rosen expressed his surprise, stating, “I’m thinking to myself, was it possible that only eight residents work in that kitchen?” This raised questions about the viability of using the kitchen as a workforce development opportunity, as envisioned in the proposed Fresh Starts Act.

Rosen emphasized that the problem extended beyond just the quality of the food. Approximately two-thirds of the food served in the jail was not consumed, leaving inmates with the option of resorting to the commissary, which offered predominantly unhealthy, processed foods. This financial burden further exacerbated the challenges faced by inmates and their families.


The financial aspect of this issue was illuminated when Rosen shared that the city pays Aramark over six and a half million dollars annually for food services, with approximately two-thirds of the food going to waste. “Aramark is looking for a new food service director at the jail,” Rosen mentioned, noting that the current structure overseen by Aramark lacked transparency and efficient workforce development.

Hickey expressed optimism about the FRESH STARTS Act transformative potential. The act introduces provisions for transparency, oversight and task forces with expertise in corrections, nutrition and workforce training. The act aims to establish nutrition standards, providing a framework for accountability and improvement. Community members can engage by advocating for the Fresh Starts Act, reaching out to local officials, and staying informed about jail conditions.


Hickey underscored the importance of passing the Fresh Starts Act and holding officials accountable for implementing effective reforms. The well-being of individuals in D.C. jails, as reflected in their plea, “We’re hungry in here — HELP!” demands urgent attention and concerted efforts to improve conditions and create a safer community.


The report underscores an urgent need for comprehensive reform within the jail food system, as revealed by the survey’s distressing findings. 


“Three times a day, we tell the District’s sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in D.C.’s jails that we don’t care about them when they’re handed inedible, unhealthy food trays,” Rosen said. “It’s to the point that some of us go to sleep hungry, refusing to eat the food provided to us, and that’s not by choice.”


See the full study here.


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