For 13 years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research program has sponsored research on policy, systems, and environmental strategies focused on improving nutrition and eliminating health disparities among children. The program’s research has explored a full spectrum of food-related issues, from agricultural policy to food marketing to school lunches.
As part of this ongoing effort, the Foundation asked us to investigate nutrition practices in a rarely studied environment: juvenile justice facilities. We conducted a case study of North Carolina’s facilities, which include four long-term facilities run by the state, six state-run, short-term detention centers, and two short-term centers run by counties. Based on interviews with a sample of administrators at several facilities and the child nutrition program administrator at the state Department of Public Safety, we gained detailed information about the food environment for the youth who pass through these facilities.
What We Learned
Our look inside North Carolina’s juvenile justice facilities revealed that these youth receive a surprisingly wide variety of nutritious foods, served as part of innovative, comprehensive health and wellness programs.
In the area of nutrition, the facilities follow federal standards for school breakfasts and lunches, which include frequent servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. When they noticed that changing federal standards were leaving the youth hungry by dinnertime, the facilities made dinner portions larger. Youth do not have access to canteens or vending machines, and there are limits on the types of food visitors can bring them for birthdays or special events.
Menu planning is centralized for state-run facilities, which each buy their food from the same distributor. (The county-run facility in our study is so small that the director buys food from a local grocery store.) Menus run in cycles, but administrators make sure that they vary their plans so that youth who are staying at the facilities for an extended time don’t have to eat the same meals over and over. And facilities have flexibility—one of our respondents said that her facility brought out special foods for Black History Month, serving the meal along with nutrition lessons and taste tests.
Food is just one part of the wellness programs provided for youth in juvenile facilities. Each facility has a wellness committee that meets periodically. Besides healthy eating, these committees also support fitness activities, culinary classes, gardening, and information sessions with medical students.
Completing the Picture
Our overall impression, based on the quality of the food programs and the administrators’ care for the youth in their charge, is that North Carolina may be a model for other states. Because our study is one of the first to look at food and nutrition in juvenile facilities, there is plenty more research to be done. Specifically, we recommend further research into:
- the role of nutrition education in reentry for youth after they leave juvenile facilities
- improvements to policies and practices within juvenile facilities
- disparities in obesity and other health behaviors and outcomes among the largely African American, low-socioeconomic status population of these facilities
- other states’ nutrition programs in juvenile facilities, and how North Carolina compares.
This study is just a start, but what we have learned so far is that despite their restrictive nature and the at-risk population they serve, North Carolina’s juvenile facilities have designed food and nutrition offerings that promote health, wellness, and positive experiences. Conditions across the rest of the country are worth studying. For the thousands of American youth who spend time in these facilities, these programs could make a lifelong impact.