In California hospitals and prisons, vegan food is now a right, not a privilege

It's a win for plant-based advocates across the state. But is the desired outcome better health or slimmer budgets?

On Tuesday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a Senate bill that requires a vegan option on the menu at hospitals, health facilities such as nursing homes, and state prisons. The legislation, which was introduced by Democratic Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley in February, and passed the state senate with unanimous support in May, expands the definition of “healthy” food in the state’s health and penal codes specifically to include plant-based meals.

For advocates of veganism, it’s a major win.

“We were freaks for so many years,” says Judie Mancuso, founder of Social Compassion in Legislation, a lobbying group that focuses on animal welfare and sponsored the bill. “Now, it’s in the state legislature, it’s in peoples’ households. They [lawmakers] have a daughter, they have a niece, they have somebody who is doing plant-based because of something they know, whether it’s for health, or ethical reasons.”

Just as hospitals and prisons already have a responsibility to provide kosher, vegetarian and halal meals for religious purposes, so too will they now have to provide plant-based meals for vegans.
Californians have promoted vegan eating for a century, but only recently have government institutions been getting in on the action. Last week, for example, the City of Berkeley passed a Green Mondays resolution pledging to go animal-free once a week. Why’s that? Because the state has the toughest greenhouse gas emissions standards in the country—and going vegan, as study after study has shown, is a good way to cut down.

If environmentalism is a California virtue, so is religious tolerance. That’s relevant because language in the state bill indicates that veganism is an “ethical dietary belief,” something akin to a traditional religious observance.

“When I go to lunch, I can choose food that meets my health, ethical or diet choices, but people in a hospital bed or prison often can’t,” Skinner said after May’s Senate vote. “Access to nutritious food that meets health or cultural needs is a basic human right.”

Mancuso agrees. She regales me with stories about trying to eat vegan in hospitals—meals consisting of iceberg lettuce and extra sourdough rolls pulled from food trays. One of the bill’s supporters testified in the state legislature that, after childbirth, a request for dietary accommodations meant she was served Coke and Oreos for breakfast.

In hospitals, “you shouldn’t be discriminated against” for being vegan, Mancuso says.

I point out that, legally, discrimination refers to being treated differently, or unfairly, on the basis of personal characteristics like race, gender, religion, national origin, or disability. Is she saying that being vegan is on par with religious dispensation, or physical disability?

“Yes,” Mancuso answers. “As long as I’ve been vegan, if I’ve eaten something that is an animal product, once it hits my stomach, it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s not, ‘you just don’t like it.’ It has an effect on you. You get sick.”

The bill, which calls for the program to be “cost-neutral” to the state’s department of corrections, may also have financial benefits. While an early analysis estimated that a plant-based diet for 10,000 of the state’s 129,319 inmates would increase costs by $730,000, a later analysis found that vegan options actually have the potential to be cheaper than traditional prison food.

As an example, Mancuso directed me towards a fact sheet, published by the Humane Society, about the cost savings of vegetarian prison food in the Maricopa County, Arizona prison system. It approvingly noted that meat-free meals cost “on average $0.50 each, much less than the national average of $2.50.” But that program, implemented by notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio to save $100,000, generated widespread controversy. Media outlets reported Maricopa’s facilities were serving horrid, plant-based slop to inmates. More recently, in 2017, 23 of the county’s inmates engaged in a hunger strike to protest what they felt was nutritionally and gustatorily inadequate food.

Prison food already tends to be plagued with issues, with incidents of foodborne illness six times more likely in the correctional population. So it’s important that vegan meals served in California are, as mandated by the bill, “conducive to good health”—and not just a cost-cutting measure.

Compliance with the spirit of the law may be easier in hospitals and health care facilities, which are already required to employ dietitians

The federal prison system may have had more success in doing so, so far: In 2017, items including tofu fried rice, soy taco salad, bean burritos, and soy hot dogs and burgers were added to its national menu.

Compliance with the spirit of the law may be easier in hospitals and health care facilities, which are already required to employ dietitians. On-site dietary professionals are more likely to ensure that plant-based menus are suitable, allowing staff, patients, and their visitors patients to eat comfortably in accordance with their beliefs—and with doctor’s orders.

That last point was underscored by the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the health benefits of plant-based diets, and co-sponsored the bill.

“If you ever were concerned about somebody who was in the hospital, maybe for a heart problem, and the next morning, the breakfast tray arrives, piled high with sausage, and bacon, and scrambled eggs, and lots of unhealthy foods, the very foods that got them there in the first place, and you’re wondering, why don’t hospitals serve anything healthy? Today is a whole new day,” said founder Neal Barnard in a video message.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.