The Worst Prison Food Dish Is Finally Off the Menu in New York

Prison food is awful, but prisoners say the Nutraloaf—a gruesome mix of oddball ingredients formed into a log—is the worst. As of this week, however, the loaf is off the menu in New York State.

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Dec 19 2015, 12:00am

Photo via Flickr user thrivingveg

With the exception of bread, foods that come in loaf form are a pretty maligned bunch. Even though meatloaf seems to make a culinary comeback every now and again, they are too often the stuff of a sad school lunch, a lifeless gray-brown thing slathered in ketchup and eaten below buzzing lights, washed down with 2-percent milk. But whatever you remember, you had it easy.

Consider the Nutraloaf, the "disciplinary brick" of a meal served to prisoners who had been sentenced to a stint in solitary and then subsequently earned a spot on the loaf list for bad behavior such as throwing utensils, food or bodily waste, or disobeying orders during meal time.

Prison food is awful, but prisoners say the loaf is the worst. There are a variety of different Nutraloafs throughout the US prison system, made from stuff like chickpeas, ground beef, and applesauce, or carrots and un-skinned potatoes. All are universally revolting, and prisoners are known to go hungry rather than eat the brick, also known as the "confinement loaf" and "special management meal." Prisoners have filed lawsuits to get rid of the loaf, arguing that it is cruel and unusual punishment.

Today, New York prisoners have something small to celebrate—the loaf is off the menu in New York State.

"We will eliminate the loaf," said Alphonso B. David, the chief counsel to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

Cuomo's administration is making a number of changes to New York's solitary confinement policy, and groups supportive of prisoners' legal and human rights are cheering the changes.

In solitary, food as punishment is one of the last recourses to discipline available to prison officials. But it is fraught with ethical dilemmas. Though prisons generally serve meals that meet minimum nutritional requirements, the loaf was seen as going too far.

"Most people are appalled at using food as punishment," Karen Murtagh, director of Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, told The New York Times. She argues that people generally think that kind of punishment is a thing of the past, when stocks and other primitive punishments were the norm.

You can watch videos of journalists eating the loaf and their subsequent repulsion, but one Chicago Magazine food critic perhaps describes the experience best:

The mushy, disturbingly uniform innards recalled the thick, pulpy aftermath of something you dissected in biology class: so intrinsically disagreeable that my throat nearly closed up reflexively. But the funny thing about Nutraloaf is the taste. It's not awful, nor is it especially good. I kept trying to detect any individual element—carrot? egg?—and failing. Nutraloaf tastes blank, as though someone physically removed all hints of flavor. "That's the goal," says Mike Anderson, Aramark's district manager. "Not to make it taste bad but to make it taste neutral." By those standards, Nutraloaf is a culinary triumph; any recipe that renders all 13 of its ingredients completely mute is some kind of miracle.

Nutraloaf, it turns out, is aptly named—a brick of nutrition, nothing more, nothing less. The absence of the experience of food as food, something with taste, is a chief part of the Nutraloaf punishment.

"Food is very important to prisoners in a deprived and harsh environment; it is one of the very few things they have to look forward to," David C. Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, told the Times. "And when you mess with prisoners' food, that leads to unhappy prisoners, which lead to management problems."

Eliminating the loaf could have an immediate effect on prisoners' and correctional officers' moods.

"I view it as a tremendous step forward," said Murtagh, who described the loaf as "a disgusting, torturous form of punishment that should have been banned a century ago."

Prisoners have been trying to take the loaf off the menu for decades. In a 1978 Supreme Court case, Arkansas prisoners successfully sued arguing that their conditions were cruel and unusual. Part of their case centered on "grue," a loaf-like mix of meat, potatoes, syrup, vegetables, and more. Suits against prison loaf have been filed in several states including New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

New York's loaf was made from shaved carrots, skin-on potatoes, whole and all-purpose flour, 1-percent and dried milk, yeast, salt, margarine, and a large serving of sugar. The New York Times has a recipe for it. Served thrice-daily with a glass of water and a side of cabbage, it was a grim affair.

While the loaf will be eliminated, the new menu isn't exactly haute cuisine. The new punishment breakfast will include a piece of fresh fruit, two hard-boiled eggs, two slices of American cheese, and four slices of bread. Lunch and dinner throw in two servings of lunch meat and coleslaw and ditch the eggs.

Meanwhile, out in Arizona, "America's toughest sheriff" on a mission, Joe Arpaio, has served food salvage (food that would otherwise be thrown out at another venue) and placed prisoners on diets of bread and water, served twice daily. A spokesman for Arpaio said that these meals are nutritionally satisfactory. The meals were punishment for desecrating the American flag hanging in each prison cell.

In a video, when Arapio was presented with a Nutraloaf, he said he "wouldn't eat this." Taking a bite, he cringes.

Ironically, some free citizens pay for the opportunity to eat prison loaf. Meanwhile, on the inside, inmates do whatever they can to spice up the bland day-to-day of prison fare. They may consider some of their fellow inmates in New York to be lucky that they will never again face the prospect of Nutraloaf.