Prisoners and patients as diners, and the universality of dignity

As a spinoff of the Prison Week post on Tuesday, this story stems from an email conversation I had with chef and author Jim McGrody over the last month or so. Chef McGrody is the author of What We Feed Our Patients: The Journey, the Struggle, the Culture, and How One Unrelenting Chef is Changing the Way Patients in Hospitals Eat, and was featured in a section of a GQ article titled "The Best Place to Eat Right Now," written by James Beard Award-winner Brett Martin.

The article details how McGrody has brought about something of a revolution in the way hospitals feed patients, starting with the Rex Hospital in Raleigh, NC. Software catalogs all patients' dietary needs and counterindications, and a trained kitchen staff prepares fresh food sourced as locally as possible. It's pretty idyllic, but they're making it work.

McGrody wrote his thin book to outline his philosophy and practices, which are in truth pretty simple and rational -- so exactly what most hospital administrators wouldn't choose without promoting, right? I figured this book might make a fun addition to my library at work, so I put it into a recent book order.

When it arrived, it seemed less appropriate for the collection than I had anticipated. As I considered whether to put it into the staff collection or not, I flipped through it a bit, and randomly arrived on the following passage:

Frozen Broccoli Cuts
These should only be served in prisons. They are mostly stems and are not good for anyone … well, except prisoners. Try fresh steamed broccoli florets instead.

My jaw dropped. This man, who was advocating for the equal dignity of all people, patient or public citizen, and the right to be fed good, nourishing food, was apparently throwing prison inmates overboard. Greatly disappointed, I did what we all do these days: I wrote a sternly-worded email. After pointing out that the nutritional content of broccoli stems is actually greater than florets, I wrote:

The facility in which I work has a massive greenhouse and horticulture program, and we grow thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables that are in turn served to our inmates; sometimes those supplies are frozen to make that harvest last. But make no mistake, these inmates have it better than many hospital patients, and indeed better than many free citizens responsible for their own nutrition. A broccoli stem is more nourishing than a package of ramen noodles, a Honey Bun, or a large order of French fries. To imply that we are either doing a disservice to our inmates by feeding a diet that includes broccoli stems – or that they are deserving of what you describe as a cast-off ingredient – dehumanizes these men and women in a way that I am sure you would find highly objectionable if it were turned toward the patients you feed.

And as it turns out, that last sentence was right. McGrody responded:

First, I want you to know that when I wrote that, I meant no disrespect towards anyone. It was not meant to belittle anyone or anyone's situation. I was trying to paint a picture of how [hospitals are] using very institutionalized ingredients (mainly for contractors to have a deeper profit margin). ... My point was to push the local, fresh produce that is so easy to obtain. My mission is to have great food for our patients. I am sorry that message was lost and perhaps I could have used a different example.

He continued:

I also want to note that I have worked with dietitians from our maximum security prison here in Raleigh. They have toured our operations and we have given them tips and advice on how to improve their food. I learned a lot...and I know there are extreme financial demands on how the food is purchased and produced. It was a very eye-opening experience to hear their side of the business and the challenges they face. I will continue to work with them in any capacity to make better food. This is why I wrote that book.

A boilerplate apology would have been enough, but also easy enough to just type without any really emotion or meaning. The fact that McGrody is apparently already working with correctional food service agencies makes me extremely happy, and reassures me that it was indeed just a bad attempt at example-by-levity.

I'm very proud of the work my facility does to grow its own food, and the enthusiasm with which our garden crew strives to over-produce every year -- the more we don't need, the more that gets donated to Second Harvest. We're talking thousands and thousands of pounds of produce annually. What my conversation with Jim McGrody illustrates is that decent people everywhere recognize the need to treat those in our care with dignity and respect, whether they are infirm or incarcerated. And that includes how and with what we nourish them.

For more on the book, What We Feed Our Patients, go to the official website; for McGrody's kitchen operation and training program, visit Black Hat Chefs. Some typographical edits were made to McGrody's written remarks.