The Hawkins Center for Women, part of the Arkansas state prison system, recently saw 12 women graduate from a six-week pilot course focusing on life skills they can put into action on the outside. The inmates learned to shop for food and prepare nutritious meals on a budget.
Mark Warner, the prison’s deputy warden, taught the first class and said he is excited about seeing cooking classes as part of the prison’s re-entry program.
“Releasing women with nutritional education will make a difference in their lives and can make a huge difference in the lives of Arkansas families and children who benefit from healthier meals,” Warner stated in a media release. “[This is] absolutely the most popular program we’ve offered.”
One of the graduates praised the program. “I have learned to cook healthy and feed me and my girls on a budget. I can now go home and teach my girls life skills they need,” she said.
The course is a joint venture between Hawkins Centre and Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance (AHRA), an organization dedicated to providing “a unified effort to reduce hunger and improve access to nutritious food by providing tools and resources, empowerment, advocacy, education and research.”
While some prisons teach gourmet cooking as part of their education programs, which is useful for training and obtaining work upon release, basic cooking skills are valuable to have as well, and can help improve quality of life. And it’s a skill that can get passed down and have an impact on the health and wellbeing of the next generation.
The Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) reports that the average American household spends around $7,000 on food per year, and more than $3,000 of that is spent in restaurants and takeout. BLS also reports that the average annual median wage for an American worker (fulltime) is $44,564. It should be noted that the median comes between the $64,000+ for professional workers and the $28,000 average for service workers. But no matter how you look at the numbers, food takes up a very large portion of a budget.
Cooking the majority of one’s meals at home makes a tremendous difference in household finances, especially for households where money is tight. But money isn’t the only benefit to having basic cooking skills. Fast food meals are notoriously unhealthy, and with the ongoing obesity crisis in America that has nearly half the population weighing in far above healthy numbers, frequent trips to restaurants where fat, salt, and supersized portions abound can literally equate to a death sentence.
Of course, it’s possible to eat healthy while eating out – if you have the money for it. Remember, the vast majority of people in the prison system are disenfranchised to begin with. They are not typically white collar workers jaunting down to the organic shop for a kale smoothie and a wheat berry salad, shelling out $25 or more a meal. The people who need cooking skills the most are those who have a very limited budget and limited access to healthy food, such as those living in food deserts – typically urban places where it’s difficult to find supermarkets with fresh, nutritious, and affordable food.
A lack of cooking skills combined with a limited budget and easy access to fast food and takeout instead of markets with fresh produce can add up to both health and financial problems that affect a whole family for generations. The simple act of learning what is good to put in your body and how to budget for the healthy food you need, along with how to prepare it, should be taught not only in every prison, but in every school and in every household in America.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.