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Flint, MI—On the third floor of the Genesee County Jail, LaShanda Jackson asked the small crowd of incarcerated women if they’ve ever felt “hangry.”
She was met with nods of understanding, laughs, and several “Oh yeahs.”
“So we’ve all been there, right? You can catch me on a day where I have not had breakfast, and I have not had a snack, and then lunchtime comes, and my coworker comes into my office,” Jackson said. “And I may lash out because I’m hungry and I’m angry.”
A lack of food can affect your mood, Jackson explained. But the kinds of food you eat have an effect on your mood too.
With a new class called “Eat healthy, be active,” Jackson aims to educate people in jail on the importance of nutrition, and how to eat, cook, and shop for foods that are good for their physical body as well as their mental health.
Jackson held her first class at the jail on Oct. 13, and will be coming every Wednesday to make a new meal, and explain what each ingredient does for the body.
“I’ll make food, but I’ll also talk about why I am giving them this food. It’s going to be a whole curriculum about eating healthy and being active, and how important that is for your body, but also how good it is for your mind,” she said.
Jackson is a community nutrition educator through the Michigan State University Extension. She teaches nutrition classes for children at the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village but has also worked with adults, families, and incarcerated individuals. She’s also worked to educate people about lead-mitigating foods in the wake of the Flint water crisis.
Jackson studied nursing and criminal justice at Wayne State University, and is now working on her Ph.D. at Michigan State University studying the correlation between crime and nutrition.
“Everything you eat is connected to your brain, and that’s the most important component of your body,” she said. “If you feed your brain right, your body will act right.”
Jackson said a lot of the people she’s taught didn’t know very much about nutrition, or what vitamins are in different foods, or what their bodies need to function, before her classes.
“When another person comes in and educates you, now you start to change the whole dynamic of how you eat,” she said. “Now you know how to go to the store and pick up certain things you feel you need for your body. So it’s like enriching their lives a little bit more.
Jackson’s classes are part of the jail’s educational program called I.G.N.I.T.E. Incarcerated people participating in the class will learn how to prepare the meals, but will also be able to eat them.
On her first day of classes, Jackson made a “healthy version of a taco.” Instead of using tortillas, she used lettuce as the taco shell. She said one man in the earlier class told her that this was his first time eating lettuce.
“Greens are one of the things that’s good for your digestive system. A lot of us have issues with that, and we don’t know why our bellies are not feeling right,” she said. “It’s because we’re not using greens inside our diet.”
For the taco filling, Jackson used diced sweet potatoes, zucchinis, black beans, ground turkey meat, and tomato sauce. She seasoned it all with garlic, which she said is good for your immune system, as well as oregano and cumin.
“So you want to look at it like the colors of the rainbow. You have red, which is tomatoes, which are good for your heart. Orange, which is a sweet potato, which is good for your mood,” Jackson said.
Once the food was finished cooking, each person came up to grab a plate and try a taco. They got to add diced tomatoes, reduced-fat cheese, and hot sauce to it if they wanted.
A few of the women said they’d never had a sweet potato or a zucchini before—although they could hardly notice the veggies in the taco with all of the seasonings. Some of them remarked that their children would probably enjoy the tacos too. One woman said she felt better already after eating the meal.
The class goes for six weeks. Next week Jackson will be talking about moderation and making turkey sliders. For the last class, she’ll be making steak fajitas. Once the individuals complete the course they’ll get a certificate that they can present to their judge in court. Jackson said she would also attend court hearings and speak to their participation in the program.
“It’s not about giving inmates gourmet food,” Sheriff Chris Swanson said during a press conference about the new class on Sept. 8. “It’s about teaching folks how to eat when they go to their next place when they go out here.”
Jackson said she hopes the people she teaches in the jail will take what they learned in her classes outside of the jail and into their lives at home. She said she believes that if people can eat healthier, they’ll feel better, and be able to make healthier choices for their lives.
“It’s called ending generational habits because now you’re ending it with you. That’s what we’re about. Putting an end to what existed before us and starting brand new with us,” she said. “It’s time to start implementing new morals, new ways of doing things. Not how my mother taught me, how her mother taught her. It ends with me.”
Jackson said the jail will try to track the outcomes of incarcerated people following the newly implemented nutritional classes. She said she thinks promoting healthy eating at the jail may even end up helping the jail deputies out, by reducing behavioral problems.
“This may change the whole dynamic of the whole entire criminal justice system, just through how we’re feeding people,” she said.