Prison Food: The Grass-fed Model

How Many Cattle on a Green Hill?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Orin Zebest

Sky Meadows Pasture-to-Prison Cell Program is Profitable Prison Nutrition

by Guest Blogger, Susan Blasko

In an Open Letter to President-Elect Barack Obama, Sally Fallon Morrell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, challenged our country’s chief executive to focus attention on the cruel and unusual punishment that is taking place in Illinois state prisons. Many inmates have developed digestive disorders, and large numbers suffer from symptoms of low thyroid function (acne, hair loss, heart arrhythmias, frequent infections, depression, allergies, brain fog, fatigue, and constantly feeling cold).

The Open Letter recounts several cases of inmates receiving surgery for removal of a portion of the digestive tract to relieve severe pain, and one who received a pacemaker because he passes out every time he eats. These conditions are a result of the inmates’ new diet, which was implemented about 5 years ago. In case these symptoms don’t sound familiar to you, they are problems documented in the scientific literature from a diet high in soy. Vegetarians, beware!

That’s right, the Illinois Department of Corrections is now feeding a diet extremely high in soy to inmates of Illinois prisons. The reason? It’s more “cost-effective.”

So, let’s see, money saved on cheaper food equals lots more money spent on medical bills. I’m sorry, where’s the savings?

Contrast this with a Memorandum of Agreement between the White Post Facility of the Virginia Department of Corrections, and Sky Meadows State Park. Inmates at White Post are enlisted in animal husbandry at Sky Meadow to raise cattle for beef production. The program is a collaboration of several entities: USDA Farm Services (which implements a Conservation Plan), local Soil and Water Conservation Services (implementing a Nutrient Management Plan), and Virginia Tech (which performs studies on the health and nutrient content of the soil).

“My job is  monitoring and managing the natural resources according to these programs,” says Park Manager, Tim Skinner. I make sure that when the grass gets down to about three inches, the herd is rotated to another pasture. We want to maintain the right ratio of cattle to acres based on the type and amount of forage and soil that exists here.”

Livestock raised by the prisoners is used as a staple on their menu at the prison. This saves the prison money on its food bill, and keeps the prisoners healthy. Furthermore, when they make the transition to life outside the prison, they have a skill that they can use in the real world. In addition, the inmates are fulfilling the park’s mission – to preserve the pasture.

Sky Meadow State Park was donated to the state of Virginia by Paul Mellon with the mandate of preserving the pastoral landscape. This is unusual among parks. Most parks have the mission of maintaining the “natural landscape,” which is forestation. Skinner said, “When people come here to visit the park, they say, ‘Oh, isn’t this beautiful! It’s so natural!’ and I have to tell them, there’s nothing natural about it.” He explained that what is being preserved is the symbiosis between humans and nature, which is the definition of farming. When the settlers came they cleared forests and grew grass to graze their animals. This is part of the evolution of humankind, and as such, may also be characterized as “natural.” “We have more diversity of habitat now than when the park was opened,” says Skinner.

According to Sally Fallon Morell, President of the Weston A. Price Foundation, “This successful Virginia program produces enough meat to feed Virginia inmates a nourishing diet, and the surplus is sold to the prison system in neighboring Pennsylvania. This is a wonderful nutrition and training program that we feel can be duplicated in prisons across the U.S.”

To see a beautiful video of the Sky Meadows State Park click here.

Susan Blasko is a cancer survivor twice over. She now incorporates local farm fresh foods into her diet in her on-going quest for health. Susan is a volunteer chapter leader of the Weston A. Price Foundation’s Falls Church, Virginia chapter, and an assistant organizer of the Northern Virginia Whole Foods Nutrition meetup group. She was selected at random to speak at the USDA Listening Session on NAIS (National Animal Idenification System) that took place in Harrisburg, PA earlier this year. Here is the complete text of her remarks in a previous post on

As per usual, the photo illustrating this post is not the actual Sky Meadows park. It is for artistic purposes only! I would also like to nominate the Virginia prison system as Heroes of Sustainable Agriculture for this wonderful agricultural endeavor!


  1. What an awesome program! I believe in rehabilitation and in putting prisoners to work for something constructive. Why not grow their own food?
    .-= Cathy Payne´s last blog ..ONL053 Truth and Lies about our Food with Robyn O’Brien =-.

  2. What a terrible wast of a natural area. Beef production whether well intended or not is now known to be dangerous to our planet and our planet’s atmosphere. And not too good for us either. In addition, a “mandate of preserving the pastoral landscape” is a bit anti-park. The natural landscape is always harmed by the cultural landscape. There is no such thing as a win-win plan. Human activities today is no longer considered “natural”. As far as meat is concerned, I just celebrated my big 50th. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 14. The four food group chart at the time said I could eat beans instead of meat, fish or dairy. So I quit for the animals and never backslid. Too bad you have to maintain your park as a meadow for cattle. If you would like advice on how to return acres to the natural landscape (not groomed as in forestation) let me know and I’ll give it a look.
    .-= Richard Stafusky´s last blog .. =-.

  3. Richard,

    Perhaps you have not been caught up on the extreme health benefits of grass-fed meat, not only for consumers, but for the environment as well. Omega-3’s are just as high in grass-fed beef as in wild salmon and fat and cholesterol levels are comparable to that of a boneless skinless chicken breast. The pastures will benefit from natural fertilizers and the cattle will consume the good grass; thus lush, thick vegetation will regrow and trample the ‘weeds’ which may also be in the pasture. Beef as an agri-business is indeed horrible for the environment and the negative carbon footprint it leaves. Raising beef cattle in their natural environment provides not only a serene setting, but an extremely healthy atmosphere for the community and the pastures.

    I commend you for being a vegetarian for so long, however you should be careful as to bash a great program such as this, which is primarily tutoring these inmates to a healthier diet as well as a valuable life skill, rather than slowly killing them with an unhealthy diet and having a negative impact on the world when they are released from prison.

    Check your sources, sir.

  4. Immates should grow organic produce and live on a vegan diet.

  5. Impressive!

    To the vegetarians and vegans: i’m sorry, but what you see here is real, organic agriculture. That pasture land never needs to be turned, so it continually sequesters CO2 in the soil. No inputs are necessary, as the cattle (and presumably other livestock) feed the grasses everything they need. Little to no mechanization is necessary because the cows replace combines, tractors, manure spreaders, etc. And the cattle, eating the correct diet do not produce methane levels generally associated with livestock production in industrial situations.

    This is closed loop, ecologically beneficial and far more sustainable than organic produce gardening/farming. (And i say this as an organic gardener and a professional horticulturist.)

  6. Oh wow, you made it to HuffPo.
    That would explain the nutty vegan comments that u don’t normally get.
    But that’s HuffPo, they don’t give much play to the GF consumer, my main “beef” with them. Hopefully more of ur posts will make it on and we can be fully repped in the media.

  7. Mike Hare says:

    Little upset that to get grass fed beef my options are to pay $2 or 3 dollars and OZ. via mail order or steal a car in Virginia. What really amazes me is that USDA has anything to do with a program that is about something that makes sense. Their usual business model is more often, whatever the lobbyists want.



  9. Kimberly Hartke says:

    Wow, Barb, thanks for the history! The new Illinois governor is working toward more local foods farm jobs, hopefully he will reverse the situation.

  10. Hi, I am somewhat disgusted by what the article by Susan Blanko raises as a solution to poor prison diets. In reading this article I cannot help but become increasingly tired and angered of hearing how prisoners are being treated with all the amenities and consideration of decent people. If you are telling me that the prison system puts the prisoners to work growing their own foods pastured and organically on prison designated land, that would be understandable since so much of my hard earned taxes go to support these criminals, so much so that it is difficult for me and those I love to afford the highest quality pastured food items we desire to consume. Sure they can eat well in prison if they grow it themselves and sell at reduced rates to those who’s lives they have impacted and altered due to their various criminal behaviors. This would give decent people a boost and fortify the idea of paying back a debt that is due to a community for their deeds ill received. Otherwise, why should I care what nutrition prisoners have when decent, hardworking, law abiding citizens are struggling to provide for their families while criminals are sitting high and dry on our dollars eating all the best the earth can bare? Give me a break! Perhaps the purpose of public lands should be designated for the use and benefit of law abiding citizens and not for those who disregard the rights of decent people. If more writers would advocate for the decent people and the victoms of crime, they would be speaking to the beliefs of the majority when they write instead of pandering to the lawless who continually challenge our economy and lifestyles.

  11. Kimberly Hartke says:

    Tom–please read this blog post and the comments that follow.

    We are obligated by our constitution to give prisoners a sustaining diet. It may help them reform and change their ways to receive proper nutrition, as many likely suffered malnutrition before entering a life of crime and misdemeanors.

    While I understand your frustration, we need to care about even the worst among us to maintain our humanity and charity. Even Jesus reached out to the sinners because they needed him the most.


  1. […] than creating an environment of rehabilitation.  In a wonderful example of institutional reform, inmates at the Virginia Department of Corrections are raising  livestock on a local farm for use in prison meals. This keeps them healthy, provides them with healing outdoor […]

  2. […] The first blog story to get a coveted link from Huffington Post is Prison Food–The Grass-fed Model by Susan Blasko. Mike feeding a baby […]

  3. Hair Loss Children…

    A Light Green Saw Briar Growing Among Palmetto Fronds is digitally printed on archival photographic paper resulting in vivid, pure color and exceptional detail that is suitable for any museum or gallery display. Finding that perfect piece to match your…

  4. […] now a WAPF Chapter leader, and wrote a story for this blog which was linked to by Huffington Post, Prison Food, the Grassfed Model. She also is organizing classes, movie screenings and other events to bring these food freedom and […]

Speak Your Mind