Cooking up change with Oregon Department of Corrections

I love to cook – mostly because I love to eat. Besides, there’s nothing that helps me turn off my mental to-do list, relax and be creative like preparing a delicious, healthful meal.

I know I’m not alone, as thousands of cooking blogs, TV shows and Instagram feeds attest. One of my favorite recipes is for shakshuka (look for it at the bottom of this post). But I think even more people would enjoy cooking and do it regularly if the food industries and systems around us made it easier and affordable for everyone to put together a healthful meal.

Let’s take just one aspect of healthful eating – sodium. Consuming too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease. Nearly 9 in ten Americans eat more than the recommended daily amount. But it’s not because we lack the willpower to put down the salt shaker.

Physicians, health advice columns and news articles with headlines like “Ten Easy Ways to Cut Down on Salt” tend to frame reducing sodium as a purely personal challenge. And there are many meaningful things that individuals can do, like cooking from scratch with fewer processed ingredients, checking food labels, and eating more fruits and vegetables, which are naturally low in sodium.

Yet the reality is, most of the sodium we eat isn’t added when we cook or salt our food at the table. Instead, 70% of the sodium we eat comes already baked into processed, prepackaged and restaurant foods – including grocery staples and commonly used items like bread, salad dressing, cheese, pasta sauce and soup bases.

Sure – if you have the time, ability and resources – you can bake your own low-salt bread or hunt for the special low-sodium variety at the grocery. But how much easier would it be if most store-brought bread simply came with less salt?

The fact is, our large, society-wide systems that process, package and serve much of the food we eat have far more control over the amount of salt we consume, individually and collectively, than we do. These systems include not just food manufacturers but also important places in our communities that are responsible, every day, for feeding thousands of people on a budget – places like schools, assisted living centers, hospitals and correctional facilities.

Here’s the good news: We can change these systems in ways that improve the healthfulness of the food they provide and the many people they serve. Some of these systems, including the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), are already leading the way.

For example:

  • Dieticians for Oregon state prisons – with help from the Oregon Health Authority and a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – are reformulating recipes to use less salt.
  • At Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Deserae, an inmate and lead cook, chooses herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor meals and incorporates more fruits and vegetables (watch Deserae’s video, below).

  • And DOC leaders are wielding their purchasing power as a large state agency to push the national food companies they buy from to provide lower-sodium options for soup bases, cheese and other staples that prisons purchase in bulk (watch their story, below).

Through these and similar efforts, and with a food budget of just $2.55 per inmate per day, the DOC has managed to drive down sodium in inmate meals by 17% since 2016. Multiplied across a statewide prison population of nearly 15,000 adults, these kinds of changes hold enormous potential for slowing the rapid rise in cardiovascular disease among inmates, as well as the costs to taxpayers of treating them.

Decision-makers for other big systems and communal settings can learn from DOC’s successful model and by working with public health experts. School systems that require food purveyors to meet higher nutritional standards are another example of using purchasing power to demand more healthful options at a reasonable price. If industries don’t respond, they risk losing out on huge contracts worth millions of dollars.

The point is for our food system to make it easier for us to prevent cardiovascular and other chronic disease, instead of harder. Yes, you and I can lower our individual risk by using less salt when we cook and eat. But to increase the opportunities for all Oregonians to live healthful lives, we can’t stop there. We have to change the system.

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