Learning about nutrition in the prison system

Nutritional sciences student Rachel Hahn teaching a prisoner how to make healthy dietary choices.

Nutritional sciences student Rachel Hahn teaching a prisoner how to make healthy dietary choices.

For the first time, two nutritional sciences majors are interning with the prison system. Rachel Hahn is interning at Milwaukee County House of Corrections in Franklin, Wis. and Laura Danner has an internship with Wisconsin Books to Prisoners. The students are able to share their knowledge of nutrition and learn about dietary options in the prison system.

Learning about nutrition

While having a conversation with her grandfather last fall, Hahn wondered about the possibility of serving prisoners through nutrition education. She reached out to Clinical Associate Professor and Internship Coordinator for the Nutritional Sciences Program Lora Taylor de Oliveira, MPHD, MBA, RD, and found that an internship with the prison system had never been done in the program. Through a series of connections, Hahn obtained an internship as a Life Skills Class Educator with Milwaukee County House of Corrections.

For each class session, after making her way through security and being escorted down windowless hallways, Hahn met with her 13 students. Class periods included students reading materials, completing worksheets and participating in discussions about health and nutrition.

Hahn focused the class discussion and class lessons on the role that living a healthy lifestyle plays in recovering from drug/alcohol abuse, sex abuse and mental abuse. Another area of classroom conversation was about living in a community that may not support healthy living, such as a food desert.

Hahn explained, “To establish trust with my students, I had to open up about myself a little. This approach created productive conversations about health topics, and everyone benefited from the experience.”

Creative approach to recipes

Danner became interested in working with people in prison after learning about prison ministries at her church. When she was connected with Wisconsin Books to Prisoners she was thrilled to join the organization as a student intern.

For her main project, Danner helped create the Canteen Cuisine Cookbook. She collected letters from individuals who are incarcerated. They described recipes they created using the foods available to purchase at their canteen. Her role was to transcribe the mostly handwritten recipes, arrange them into a standard recipe format and perform a nutritional analysis of each recipe.

She also worked on an analysis of the foods provided by the prisons in the cafeteria using weekly menus provided by prisoners. Danner collaborated with a registered dietitian who is employed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to discuss the designation of modified or medical menus and learn more about how nutritional needs are met across the population.

Danner explained, “Through this internship, I have learned that lack of appropriate nutrition options can cause harm to prisoners. Most of the food and beverage options sold in the canteen are nutrient-poor and high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugar. I believe more work needs to be done to help prisoners make healthier choices at the canteen.”

Future plans

Both students plan on continuing their education to better connect their passion for nutritional sciences to community advocacy. Hahn plans on pursuing a master’s degree in Public Health next spring. She is considering programs at the UWM Zilber School of Public Health and Northeastern University, and looks forward to serving the community through education.

This fall, Danner will enter the Interdisciplinary Program for Biomedical Sciences at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She plans to continue studying the effects of varied nutritional states on human physiology.

As Danner explains, “I chose nutritional sciences as my major because I experienced dramatic changes in my own health after changing my eating habits. I want to help others explore the connection between nutrition and health in their own lives.”