Maggots were not on the menu, but have allegedly been among the fare at more than half a dozen U.S. prisons served by the Aramark corporation over the past five years.
Moldy, rotted and gnawed by rats. Food shortages, meals cut to two rations a day.
And why should we care?
Because, according to the Geneva Convention, not even the most brutal adversary in time of war can, upon imprisonment, be denied adequate food and shelter. Because if we count ourselves as humane—we cannot prey on those who are in our care, whether they’ve proclaimed themselves our enemies or they’re “merely” incarcerated citizens.
The growing awareness of, and belief in, food as a human right might be a partial outgrowth of the world-food movement. Not as an original idea, but as one that has legal teeth. There’s never been a time in which the idea of safe, healthy, nutritious and sustainably grown food is broadly seen as essential as freedom and self-determination themselves.
Like any fervent belief, it spills over, takes on new and unexpected forms in both government institutions and mainstream corporations. In 2012, Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer instituted an odd policy to boost morale at the ailing company—free food for all. Vegetarian choices, a juice bar and a free medical clinic. Business Insider magazine projected the company would spend $20 million annually to feed employees at its Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and San Francisco facilities.
Why drop $20 million for something that employees would typically cover themselves? Because, in part, Mayer acted on the belief that the institution shared responsibility for the welfare of its employees. And food, obviously, is fundamental to welfare.
We have a long way to go before the idea of food as a fundamental right—and the laws that put teeth in it—is a living, breathing thing in all U.S. institutions. But we’re making progress. In August of 2014, Michigan governor Rick Snyder (now under fire for the contaminated-water scandal in Flint) fined Aramark $200,000 for contract violations and appointed an independent examiner to oversee Aramark’s operations.
In July 2015, Snyder cancelled Aramark’s $145 million contract with the State Department of Corrections, citing—in addition to the food issues—numerous counts of Aramark employees smuggling drugs into prisons and other offenses.
There’s some irony in seeing multiple institutions battling each other over the welfare of prisoners. But it’s reasonable evidence that there are those who see food—and the quality of food—as such an essential right that neither governments nor corporations can deny.
Officials at Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas, learned this the hard way, when inmates rioted over inadequate food and healthcare in February 2009, burning sections of the prison, ultimately causing more than $1 million in damages. They got off easy; inmates rioting at Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas, (maggots in meals, filthy living conditions) so badly damaged the prison last February that the facility had to be abandoned, leaving the county owing $128 million for the construction of a prison no longer habitable.
The average cost of a prison meal, according to California figures, is $2.45 per day, per inmate. In other words, Willacy will now pay 50 times more for a prison it can’t even operate than it would have cost to feed inmates an adequate meal over the course of a year.
Aramark’s $145 million loss of the Michigan prison’s contract is small potatoes. The Philadelphia corporation earned $14.83 billion in 2014—about $3 billion less than Iceland’s Gross Domestic Product in the same year.
In the course of “enriching and nourishing lives,” (according to its website,) Aramark is paying $2.75 million in class-action damages to New York employees (for allegedly shaving hours off paychecks), fighting a whistleblower suit (alleging altered dates on preserved food in an Adrian, Michigan prison), and duking it out with student organizers of The Fight for Just Food at the University of Chicago.
The list goes on. But Aramark isn’t alone in facing allegations of profiteering from substandard food. Food service giant Chartwells (“We’re meticulous about fresh ingredients”) paid $19.4 million last year in a whistleblower suit that charged the company over-billed District of Columbia public schools, served spoiled food, failed to deliver enough meals to students and delivered food of poor quality.
The idea that adequate, healthy food is a fundamental right hasn’t sunk in at every corporate boardroom.
But it has converted as many as 18 state governments in the last decade. The Pew Charitable Trusts note that in holdouts such as California, residents convicted of a crime after 1996 and current drug users are banned from food-stamp programs (formally called the CalFresh program).
Under the Geneva Convention, if you had been captured after bombing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, you would—in accordance with international law—be adequately fed and sheltered. But if you’d stolen a television set in L.A., you wouldn’t.
Clearly there are some inconsistencies in the idea of what constitutes a right, and who’s eligible for protection under it. As an institutionalized concept, it goes all the way back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, as a kind of amendment to the United Nations Charter, which some activists argued had no teeth when it came to human-rights violations against individuals. And it’s been nearly as difficult to see the right to food adopted in a formal, proactive manner as it was to ratify the Convention on Genocide—adopted by the U.S., finally, in 1988, after President Reagan used it to diffuse criticism against his laying a funerary wreath at a Germany’s Bitburg cemetery in 1985, where more than 200 SS officers were interred.
Still, we’ve come a long way since U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told British journalist John Pilger, in a 1976 interview, that citizens of starving nations who claimed the U.S. was an imperialist nation didn’t deserve food relief.
We’re winning. There are holdouts, and there are some who’d rather see a dollar than a well-fed kid, but we’re winning. We’re winning with the idea that adequate food is a fundamental human right that reaches across nationality, political identity, religion or legal status.
When corporations such as Yahoo begin to see quality food as a benefit due to employees, we’re winning. But perhaps the best example comes from Bard College in New York, which threw Aramark off campus in 2012 after the company wanted to charge its $11 an-hour outsourced employees $800 a month for health care.
The college fired the food-service giant and hired locals, with full medical coverage and benefits. Zeke Perkins, one of the student organizers of the three-year campaign to oust Aramark, writes that the win means that Bard’s service workers no longer have, “to choose between putting food on their tables and providing healthcare for their children.”
Why? Because enough people got it. Saw it. Believed in it and acted on it.
Food isn’t a privilege. Food is a human right.