Feeding off the “Most Popular Program”

Feeding off the “Most Popular Program”

The Hawkins Center for Women, part of the Arkansas State prison system, was pleased to recently graduate 12 women from a six-week pilot course earlier this year. The graduates learned to shop for and prepare nutritious meals on a budget.

Mark Warner, deputy warden, taught the first class and is excited about seeing cooking classes as part of the prison’s re-entry program.

“Releasing women with nutritional education will make a difference in their lives and can make a huge difference in the lives of Arkansas families and children who benefit from healthier meals,” Warner stated in a media release. “[This is] absolutely the most popular program we’ve offered.”

One of the graduates noted, “I have learned to cook healthy and feed me and my girls on a budget. I can now go home and teach my girls the life skills they need.”

The course is a joint venture between Hawkins Centre and Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance (AHRA), an organization dedicated to providing “a unified effort to reduce hunger and improve access to nutritious food by providing tools and resources, empowerment, advocacy, education, and research.”

While some prisons teach gourmet cooking as part of their education programs, which is very useful in learning life skills and obtaining work upon release, perhaps even more weight should be given to basic cooking skills as well. As noted in the graduate’s statement, her ability to feed her children healthy food on a budget is something she will teach her children. The skill set gets passed down and can have a very large impact on the health and quality of life of that entire family’s generation.

The Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) reports that the average American household spends around $7,000 on food per year, and more than $3,000 of that is in restaurants and takeout. BLS also reports that the average annual median wage for an American worker (full-time) is $44,564. It should be noted, however, that the median comes between the $64,000+ for professional workers and the $28,000 average for service workers. However, any way you look at the numbers, food takes up a very large portion of the budget.

Cooking the majority of one’s meals at home makes a tremendous difference in household finances, especially for households where money is tight – but money isn’t the only benefit of having basic cooking skills.

Fast food meals are notoriously unhealthy, and with the ongoing obesity crisis in America, which has nearly half the population weighing in far above healthy numbers, those frequent trips to restaurants where fat, salt, and supersized portions abound are literally a death sentence.

Of course, it’s possible to eat healthy while eating out – if you have the money for it. Remember, the vast majority of people in the prison system are disenfranchised, to begin with. These are not your white-collar workers jaunting down to the organic shop for a kale smoothie and a wheat berry salad at $25 or more a meal. The people that need cooking skills the most are those that have a very limited budget and limited access to healthy food, such as those living in food deserts.

Combined, a lack of cooking skills with a low budget and being closer to fast food and takeout instead of markets with fresh produce adds up to health and financial problems that affect the whole family for generations. The simple act of learning what is good to put in your body and how to budget for the healthy food you need, and then how to prepare it should be a program taught in every prison, in every school, and in every household in America.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2017) and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News, and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and FederalCriminalDefenseAttorney.com.