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A Hunger for Fresh Food, a Taste of Chutney, and Freedom


Food (in)Justice & Incarcerated South Asian Americans
By Savannah Kumar |
APRIL 26, 2021
South Asian Americans have endured dehumanizing and humiliating treatment in courtrooms and while incarcerated throughout our time in America. In 1923, the United States Supreme Court revoked the U.S. citizenship of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh man born in India, based largely on the logic that South Asians and their descendants would carry a perpetual and inescapable non-white foreignness with them.1 Two decades later, another U.S. court convicted and imprisoned Thind in Nebraska for operating as an unregistered spiritualist minister. During the trial, Thind had been asked to remove his turban even though he kept his hair covered and uncut as part of his faith. He was ultimately given the maximum sentence of ninety days in county jail and a $100 fine.

Once he was imprisoned, Thind was subjected to further humiliation. A photo of Thind published in the Omaha World-Tribune on July 2, 1942 displayed him with the headline “Fruitarian Spirit Teacher Dines on Bologna in Jail” and the caption, “Dr. B. S. Thind...Towel for a turban, mush for breakfast.” Another article published two days later in the Nebraska State Journal on July 4, 1942 and titled “Fruitarian held in Omaha jail is afraid of diet” compared his normal diet to the food he was served in prison:

“[Thind] is going to eat Douglas county jail food if it kills him. And he said Thursday, it probably will...To him an average menu is: Breakfast, lemon juice and warm water; lunch, vegetable greens, dairy products, an occasional piece of whole wheat toast and rarely some meat; dinner, fruit. To date he has been served in jail two bologna sandwiches and coffee for dinner, mush and four slices of bread for breakfast. He spooned down a little of the mush.”

According to the article, Thind stated, “I won’t embarrass the authorities by refusing to eat...They’re only following orders. If they want to kill me, why don’t they do it instead of undermining my physical well being.”

Nearly ninety years later, the carceral system continues threatening the wellbeing of incarcerated people by routinely depriving them of nutritionally and culturally appropriate food, while also violently force feeding them when they engage in resistance.
Photograph identified by an incarcerated person as dinner served in Oklahoma state prison in 2020. Oklahoma spends less than $1 per meal feeding incarcerated people and the meals often lack fresh fruits and vegetables.
Food can provide a deep sensory connection to home, especially when that “home” is a place one has left behind. Particular dishes can become a connection with ancestors and meals can be reminders of cherished times with loved ones. An incarcerated person sentenced for the average length of time (three years) is subject to approximately 3,000 meals behind bars. They do not have control over these meals and are forced to eat for survival rather than health or nourishment. For context, consider that many in our South Asian American community take care to reserve special in-flight meals for long flights (options often include Halal, Hindu - Vegetarian, Hindu - Non-vegetarian, or Jain) to avoid eating generic airplane food for even just one meal–-despite having the ability to bring food from home to supplement their airplane meal. Eating foods we are familiar with can make us feel safe, connected, and comforted, especially when we’re miles away from home. Incarcerated people are denied all of that.

Courts have interpreted the Eighth Amendment as prohibiting prisons from depriving incarcerated people of “the basic necessities of life,” but prisons are functionally given wide discretion to serve anything they want as long as the food appears to meet basic nutritional standards. Meals behind bars routinely fail to meet minimum nutritional needs and are, at times, rotten and unsanitary enough to cause sickness. According to a survey conducted by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) in 2017:

65% of incarcerated respondents reported that the food made them sick during the last year;
66% reported they were served food that was moldy, spoiled, contained bugs, or was not intended for humans in the past year;
Nearly 40% indicated they were only served fresh fruit or vegetables “once in a while” or “never.”

Furthermore, carceral facilities fail people who have special dietary requirements for cultural, health, or personal reasons. 70% of those with special dietary needs did not have their needs met according to the 2017 IWOC survey.

Ra Avis, a Chicana Desi woman, shared in her oral history interview about her incarceration in California:

“I don’t eat beef traditionally. And because of a lifetime of not eating beef, my body doesn’t digest it. So even if you give me something, I just throw it up. They wouldn’t tell me what the meat in the product was; it was some kind of compressed meat sandwich thing that was distributed and the gravy had meat clumps in it, but nobody would tell me what it was.”

Photo of “sloppy joe” containing an unknown type of meat at a Texas prison in 2020.
Avis explained that to receive accommodations for her dietary needs, she’d have to declare her religion as Hindu, which would preclude her from meeting her social and spiritual needs:

“Without me filing my religion as Hindu—which I couldn’t do because then later I wouldn’t be allowed to go to things like church or things like that, or other outside events—I was kind of stuck between these situations and I basically just stopped eating. So I would have two eggs and cheese on Saturday. And I feel like I should have missed food more than I did, but maybe I was just so hungry that I didn’t notice it.”

A 2020 report by Impact Justice revealed that, like Avis, 94% of incarcerated survey respondents could not eat enough to feel full while incarcerated, revealing a problem with inadequate food and nutrition generally. And those who request religious or cultural diet accommodation face specific discrimination and deprivation. People who request Halal, Kosher, vegetarian or vegan meals, for example, are routinely denied these meals, forcing them to choose between culture/religion or survival. Current law establishes that incarceration necessarily restricts some constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion when, for example, there is a “legitimate penological interest.” But prisons can invent ways to trace nearly any decision back to such an interest. Even when incarcerated individuals successfully navigate the bureaucratic hoops to secure religious diet accommodations, they often end up facing retaliation and added scrutiny that can lead to disciplinary infractions.

Not only do prisons deprive incarcerated people of food connected to their cultures, they often punish people who try to use personal spices or sauces to “enhance the bland food or cover up an unpleasant taste.” Prison diet can also exacerbate people’s existing health issues and the poor diet in prison can trigger additional and lasting health challenges. One such example is that of Vyasar Ganesan’s father, a diabetic who was incarcerated in a Texas prison. In his oral history interview, Ganesan shared:

“I remember Dad hated prison food. He would beg the guards to let him cook and I remember he would beg for kitchen duty and never got it for some reason or the other. And I think that part of the reason is that Dad was a diabetic person at the time and he was dealing with a lot of health problems because of the prison diet. It was not diabetic friendly at all. And he was suffering so much because of that. When we visited, he would beg us to go to the vending machines and buy him snacks. He would beg us to put a little bit of money in his commissary account so he could get nicer meals, so he could afford diabetic meals that the prison could give to him. ‘Cause food was such a huge part of his life growing up, and his identity.”

Ganesan’s father spent much of his son’s childhood in prison. Though Ganesan knows his father cooked “miracles of South Indian food,” he missed out on learning about his South Indian heritage while he was growing up. “It would have been really nice to have that exposure to [his South Indian cooking] as a teenager,” reflected Ganesan. Ganesan’s father was released from prison when Ganesan was in college. “I remember after he got out...we would cook together a lot. He’d feed me constantly. He was just so grateful to be able to grow his own vegetables, and make his own chutney, and use his own spices, and do everything his way.”

The archive reveals that incarcerated South Asian Americans throughout history have struggled to access appropriate food. South Asian immigrants who arrived at Angel Island Detention Center in California in the early 1900s likely did not have access to traditional cuisine from their homelands and endured meals that detained people universally disliked. While other ethnic groups had strong networks of cultural organizations advocating for them, there were few non-detained South Asian Americans to advocate for detained South Asian immigrants at the time. Eating arrangements, like other aspects of Angel Island, were racially segregated into a European dining room, and a Chinese and Japanese dining room.2 South Asian Americans presumably ate with the other Asians, but the archive is unclear on this detail. The two groups were served different meals, but neither appear to have reflected uniquely South Asian cuisine. Kala Bagai, new to America, shared a bit about her distaste for the food at Angel Island in 1915:

“I couldn’t speak a word of English. When the eating time came, they said ‘Chow, chow, cow,’ so I understood that means to eat. So I went over there. I didn’t like the food at all. But I saw that they were selling some fruits, so I bought some fruits. But I did not know how much money to give. So I took the money and put it in my hand . . . and let him take whatever he wants.”3

While some South Asian immigrants had money to purchase alternative food to supplement or replace the daily meals, not all had such access. The archive reveals that Asian immigrants staged riots in the Angel Island dining hall to protest the food they received, but is unclear what role South Asian Americans played in these riots as they appear to have been led by Chinese immigrants. Eventually, a sign was posted in a Chinese language warning diners not to make trouble and not to spill food on the floor.

Over one hundred years after Kala Bagai’s detention on Angel Island, South Asian Americans incarcerated in immigration detention facilities are still denied basic wellbeing after they complete arduous journeys. For example, at an immigration detention facility in Southern California, officers offered Indian immigrants who were Sikh and vegetarian no choice but to eat meat sandwiches that were still frozen in the middles.

While the archives are unclear about South Asian Americans' participation in resistance movements at Angel Island, many South Asian Americans held in U.S. immigration detention centers today are protesting the conditions of their confinement and confinement itself. The response to their resistance reveals the cruel contradictions of the carceral state: officials deprive detained people of food, but painfully force-feed them when they engage in protest.

In 2019, at least two South Asian asylum-seekers were released from detention after 75 days of hunger striking in addition to weeks of torturous force-feedings. They reported that while in ICE detention, officials cursed at Indians, denied Hindi and Punjabi speakers access to translators, and forced vegetarian South Asian asylum-seekers to wait until everyone else had received food before allowing them to eat. The asylum-seekers experienced "animal-like treatment." When they tried to speak out in protest, officials placed them in solitary confinement for days or weeks on end.

Last year, eight South Asian asylum-seekers were force-fed and force-hydrated after engaging in a months-long hunger strike regarding the horrific conditions they experienced in detention and the need for their release into the community. Immigration officials deported other hunger-striking South Asian asylum-seekers even as they faced persecution in their countries of origin and needed immediate, critical healthcare.

Approximately 2.3 million people remain incarcerated in a sprawling system of immigration detention facilities, state prisons, local jails, federal prisons, juvenile detention, and other carceral facilities in the United States. All of these people have been stripped away from their homes and denied the meals that bring them comfort and health.

We must address food injustices and other indignities that all incarcerated people experience daily. But let me be clear: carceral spaces are defined by deprivation, and no amount of reform can undo the fundamental injustice of depriving people of their freedom.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative in 2020, the American criminal legal system held almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, along other with other carceral facilities.

1. The Court in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind reasoned:
“It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white...it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry...What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.”
2. Erica Lee & Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. By Erika Lee and Judy Yung (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 60).
3. Id. at 154-155.

Savannah (she/they) is a civil rights lawyer and community artist working on decarceration. Savannah's fellowship project involves bearing witness to South Asian Americans whose lives have been impacted by incarceration in jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and immigration detention centers. Savannah is collecting these intergenerational narratives and offering them back to the community to facilitate healing and solidarity. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.