Catering to our cons

Canada’s prison system goes to great lengths to ensure religious faith matches food behind bars.

Housing a diverse population of inmates, penitentiaries must cater to special religious diets ranging from lacto-vegetarian Rastafarians to Hare Krishnas and Buddhist vegans. Correctional Service of Canada policy sets out guidelines for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who avoid meat with any blood left in it, to pork-free kosher Jewish menus and special considerations for Sikhs and Scientologists.

There are also requirements like deer meat and sacred strawberries for First Nations spirituality, items for Wiccan ritual meals served pot-luck style and green plantains and yams for Rastafarian feasts.

“It can be challenging, because you’re preparing menus for the general population, then you have all these special diets that you have to create as well,” said Donna Townsend, CSC’s director of food services. “But it’s just a matter of organization on the part of the kitchen.”

Each prison chaplain orders the specific diet required for the inmate based on the religion, then the institutional food service manager implements the plan. Lists and spreadsheets track the religious diets and physician-ordered medical diets with low-fat food or allergy requirements.

Special foods are also brought in for religious celebrations like Passover or Ramadan. And in some low-security settings, Townsend said inmates often prepare their own meals and take responsibility for their own food restrictions.

According to CSC policy, the provision of religious diets to inmates is mandated by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. CSC’s own mission statement accommodates the cultural and religious needs of all inmates as long as they don’t compromise security, including the “new and sometimes complex situations created by requests for religious diets.”

Barb Hill, director of policy development for the John Howard Society, said maintaining special diets during incarceration is critical.

“We’re a multicultural society. Just like there are lots of people on the outside who come from different religious and ethnic groups, the same happens in prison and we have to respect their religions,” she said. “I know how important it is for people to maintain their religious diets.”

While the bulk of gripes she hears about prison food is that there’s never enough, Hill said groups like Inuit have complained about the lack of traditional Northern food available behind bars.

“You can’t just go into the fridge whenever you want something, and you don’t have a lot of choice,” she said. “And even if they accommodate your religious diet, it may not be the most palatable food within that diet.”


Significant traditional spiritual/cultural/social events such as sweat lodge ceremony, pow-wow or round dance have a traditional feast as part of the ceremony; they may require sacred foods such as strawberries, deer meat, bannock, game or certain types of fish.


Follow Canada’s Food Guide; no dietary restrictions; fasting and abstinence are voluntary and optional spiritual practices; for some Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, including Good Friday, are occasions when they may limit or alter food consumption.


Food eaten by Hare Krishna devotees must be Prasadam (spiritualized) and must be prepared with the utmost cleanliness; utensils must not have been used to cook non-lawful foods like meat, poultry, eggs and fish; lacto-vegetarian diet prohibits foods made from slaughtered animal byproducts including lard, yogurt, sour cream, cheese and breads containing lard; in an ideal situation, a Hare Krishna devotee would prepare his own meals but if this is not possible due to security concerns in the penitentiary meals will come from the kitchen.


Members avoid eating meat with blood left in it, or other foods to which blood has been added.


Primarily lacto-vegetarians who eat certain fish; for special feast days items such as yams, dasheen, green bananas and plantains, coco and callalio are provided.


Kosher meat, poultry and fish; for major Jewish festivals kosher wine (in an emergency, kosher grape juice) should be available; during Passover leavened products such as bread, cake, cereal, macaroni and spaghetti is avoided and legumes are forbidden; each Jewish inmate is provided with five pounds of salami, two pounds of matzoh biscuits, one pound of kosher cookies and four pounds of kosher chickens during Passover.


Baptized Sikhs normally do their own cooking in institutions if security and space requirements allow; festival and holiday foods include special pudding and ghee.


The dietary practice of Wiccans varies depending on traditions by which a coven identifies itself and individual conscience; Wiccans participate in ceremonies that require ritual foods and feast foods such as cake or bread and carbonated fruit juice or wine. Feasting is a sharing of food potluck style.


Many follow a semi-vegetarian diet without beef, pork or poultry.


Pork and shellfish not allowed.

Information from the Correctional Service of Canada


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Kathleen Harris, Ottawa Sun, Jan. 21, 2008,

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 21, 2008.
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