Sodium-Reduction Effort Improves Health of People in Custody


PORTLAND — A partnership between the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is significantly reducing the amount of sodium in meals at the state’s 14 correctional institutions.

DOC’s Food Services staff and adults in custody who work in the kitchens serve more than 16 million meals a year, with a food budget of just $2.55 per person per day. By purchasing and substituting low-sodium versions of food products, as well as revising recipes and food preparation techniques, DOC, in consultation with OHA, drove down sodium in meals by close to 20 percent in the first two years of the project. DOC supports these efforts by offering classes about overall health and how to reduce sodium intake.

Incarcerated adults at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution prepare lower sodium tortillas.

For example, DOC used to purchase tortillas from outside vendors. Now, they are prepared by the incarcerated men at Two Rivers Correctional Institution. The handmade version has 20 percent less sodium. DOC’s goal is to reduce sodium in all bread recipes by the same amount.

“Most of the salt we consume isn’t added at the table. It comes in the processed, packaged and restaurant foods we eat in mealtime staples,” said Lillian Shirley, public health director for the Oregon Health Authority. “High blood pressure damages a person’s circulatory system and is a major contributing factor to heart attacks and strokes, which are costly medical conditions to treat.”

“Ninety-five percent of Oregon’s incarcerated adults will eventually be released. When they re-enter society healthier, that saves money on health care costs and contributes to healthier communities for all of us,” Shirley said.

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 adults in custody. In turn, the costs to taxpayers for treating these illnesses will decrease. Lower sodium items are generally more expensive. When there is higher demand for healthier low-sodium items, the cost of these items may come down.

DOC has several programs to educate adults in custody about health, and how to successfully manage their own wellness upon release. One such class is the Living Well Program at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution (EOCI) in Pendleton. Living Well is a self-management workshop that supports increased health literacy and healthier decision making.

“When I came to EOCI, I had several substantial health issues. I had just been told I was borderline diabetic and, I was 60 pounds overweight. The combination of the [classes]and the amount of options available to practice what I’ve learned has made a tremendous change in me and my life,” a participant wrote to the instructor upon completing the program.

“Today, I do not use a cane or take meds. I’m no longer overweight and borderline diabetic. My cholesterol and blood pressure are back to normal. Besides the physical changes, I’m also confident in my knowledge of how to continue to manage my life around my chronic conditions, both in prison and later when I get released. You may not see the enormity of the change, but I do. I hope to take everything I have learned and share it with anyone who might need it in hopes that their lives will improve.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided funding to OHA to reduce daily sodium intake by bringing public health and institutional food service providers together to make lower sodium foods more readily available. Combined, heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death in Oregon, accounting for a quarter of all deaths in 2017. Diets high in sodium can increase blood pressure, leading to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

For additional information, there are video interviews with DOC leaders responsible for nutrition and purchasing posted on OHA’s Place Matters Oregon website, which includes data and evidence-based strategies to help Oregonians move more, eat healthfully, be tobacco-free, and decrease excessive drinking.

About Author

Jennifer Black is a Communications Manager at the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC). The mission of the DOC is to hold offenders accountable for their actions and reduce the risk of future criminal behavior. The department has custody of adults sentenced to prison for more than 12 months, housing approximately 14,900 adults in 14 state prisons throughout the state.

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