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Use of Nutraloaf on the Decline in U.S. Prisons

After decades of using food as a means of discipline, prison officials across the country are increasingly turning away from punitive diets as a response to misbehavior by prisoners.

One food that has been commonly used as punishment is known as “nutraloaf” – a concoction of mashed-together ingredients that are baked into a brick-like loaf designed to meet basic nutritional guidelines, but which is deliberately made with a bland and unappealing flavor. Recipes vary from state to state, but usually include some kind of meat, potatoes, rice, beans and other vegetables or grains. At some facilities, nutraloaf is simply leftovers from the day’s meals dumped into a blender and then cooked.

Historically, the use of such punitive diets has been limited to disciplinary units, Special Housing Units and other segregation cells. For the most part, prisoners receive nutraloaf or similar meals in response to food-related misconduct, such as throwing food at guards, though in some facilities nutraloaf can be imposed for a wide variety of disciplinary and security management reasons.

Using food as punishment has been a practice in American prisons since the 19th century, when bread and water diets were a common tool for making prisoners behave. In the 1970s, Arkansas prison officials popularized the use of “grue,” made by combining “meat, potatoes, oleo [margarine], syrup, vegetables, eggs, and seasoning into a paste and baking the mixture in a pan,” according to a court ruling. The use of “grue” was discontinued after a federal court found its use in a segregation unit to be a component of unconstitutional conditions. See: Hutto v. Finney, 410 F.Supp. 251 (E.D. Ark. 1976), aff’d, 548 F.2d 740 (8th Cir. 1976), aff’d, 437 U.S. 678 (1978).

Before falling from favor, the use of punitive meals was popularized over several decades. At least a dozen state prison systems still use some form of nutraloaf or food loaf, and Benson Li, food service director for the Los Angeles County Jail and former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, said over 100 facilities across the nation utilize food as a form of punishment.

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) continues to use nutraloaf in special management units, according to a February 9, 2016 report by radio station WUFT-FM, though state prison officials claimed it was “not used for disciplinary reasons.” PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann disagreed.

“The bottom line is it is a form of punishment,” he said. “They don’t serve the loaf to the general population or the officers.” He also noted that other prison systems are able to maintain discipline without resorting to nutraloaf, adding, “When you create a food item that is so unpalatable that prisoners just can’t eat it ... then, in effect, you are denying people food.”

The FDOC’s nutraloaf recipe consists of carrots, spinach, dried beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, water, grits and oatmeal, mixed and baked for 30 to 40 minutes. In Pennsylvania prisons, “food loaf” is made with milk, rice, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal and beans.

Litigation has fueled growing resistance to the use of nutraloaf in recent years. At least 22 lawsuits related to punishment diets have been filed since 2012, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that nutraloaf could serve as the basis for an Eighth Amendment claim when actual injury was alleged. See: Prude v. Clarke, 675 F.3d 732 (7th Cir. 2012) [PLN, May 2013, p.28].

The American Civil Liberties Union has stated that punitive diets such as nutraloaf are “sort of legally right on the line,” although the American Correctional Association (ACA), which establishes accreditation standards for correctional facilities, discourages them. An informal survey by Li found that 40 percent of the prisons that responded indicated the use of nutraloaf was decreasing.

As noted by David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, “The fading use of nutraloaf is part of a larger long-term trend toward professionalization, and, in most respects, more humane conditions.”

The prison systems in California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York have banned nutraloaf as a disciplinary tool.

“It goes to the heart of the question of what is the purpose of prison: is it meant to be retributive or is it meant to be rehabilitative?” asked Heather Ann Thompson, a mass incarceration historian at the University of Michigan. “We want people to come back healthier, not less healthy. So nutraloaf is a very short-sighted way of dealing with punishment, at the very least.”

Those who are working to provide healthier prison meals find themselves fighting a constant battle between improving the menu and staying within limited budgets. Laurie Maurino, a registered dietician and the food administrator for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said her focus is on creating healthy, lower-sodium meals that prisoners will still want to eat.

“We’re not serving them steak and lobster or anything,” she stated. “But food is the one thing that inmates look forward to in a day. Inmates with full stomachs are happy inmates, they’re not going to be getting in fights. A lot of times riots have started after a bad meal.”

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has reported a dramatic decline in the use of nutraloaf as a form of punishment. The department served nutraloaf almost 1,000 times in 2010 according to spokesperson Taylor Vogt, but by 2014 that number had fallen to just 385. Nutraloaf was discontinued in New York prisons in December 2015.

In Vermont, the state Supreme Court ruled in March 2009 that prison officials must hold a hearing with due process protections before imposing a nutraloaf diet. [See: PLN, Aug. 2009, p.32]. As a result, the use of nutraloaf has declined significantly.

“I was just really offended by the idea that in a civilized society we would do that to people, no matter what they did,” said Seth Lipschutz, the attorney who argued the case. “Since we won, this stuff is hardly ever used in Vermont. It’s still technically on the books but they have to give inmates procedural due process now. But they don’t use it because they figured out how to get along without needing it.”

One jail official who plans to continue using food as punishment – and who makes no apology for it – is Joe Arpaio, the infamous sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, who won a lawsuit filed by prisoners challenging nutraloaf diets.

“When they assault our officers or do something wrong, we place them in lockdown and take away their regular meals,” Arpaio said. “They won’t do it again if they like the regular food.”

In a video posted online, the sheriff was shown taste-testing nutraloaf. His assessment? “You know, quite frankly, I wouldn’t eat this.”

Sources:,,,,,,, New York Times

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Related legal cases

Prude v. Clarke

Hutto v. Finney