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Prison foodways in "Orange is the New Black"

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Published onMar 25, 2024
Prison foodways in "Orange is the New Black"


The current study adds to the literature on prison foodways and media studies by exploring the role of prison food on the show Orange is the New Black (OITNB). Specifically, this project aimed to better understand the nature of televised incarceration experiences through the way in which incarcerated characters interacted with food in the scenes. Through an analysis of 601 food-related scenes in OITNB, findings suggest: 1) food is a vehicle for additional layers of institutional control of captive bodies; 2) food plays myriad non-food roles such as medicine, a transactional medium, a vehicle for contraband, and even sexual pleasure; and 3) food, primarily in OITNB’s prison kitchen, offers empowerment to incarcerated women albeit through disempowering tropes and stereotypes. Keywords: Prison shows; prison foodways; Orange is the New Black; women in prison; media and food; fictional characters and food

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is an award-winning Netflix series that ran from 2013 to 2019. This series follows Piper Chapman, a privileged white woman, as she navigates a 15-month sentence at Litchfield Penitentiary after being convicted of smuggling drugs for an ex-girlfriend ten years ago. The series has accumulated many awards and is notable for featuring a cast of majority women and exploring diverse sexual, racial, and gendered bodies within the prison context (Ford, 2020; Kern, 2018; Lauzen, 2017). The current study adds to the literature by analyzing the role of food relating to the incarcerated women throughout all seven seasons of the popular and critically acclaimed Netflix show.

Recent scholarly works examining OITNB include intersectional and post-feminist analyses (Ford, 2020; McHugh, 2015; McKeown & Parry, 2017; O'Sullivan, 2016; Schwan, 2016; Thomas, 2020), examinations of race (Belcher, 2016; Enck & Morrissey, 2015; Thomas, 2020), sexuality (DeCarvalho & Cox, 2015; Schwan, 2016; Symes, 2017), religion (Jenkins & Wolfgang, 2018; Shoemaker, 2017) and issues of social justice (Caputi, 2015). The series highlights incarcerated women’s ability to be agents of change (Fernández-Morales & Menéndez-Menéndez, 2016) and the complexity of their lives (McKeown & Parry, 2017). An edited volume, Feminist Perspectives on Orange is the New Black: Thirteen Critical Essays (Householder & Trier-Bieniek, 2016), was published by an academic press in 2016, further suggesting that this television phenomenon can be interrogated in several ways to add to the dialogue about women’s imprisonment. However, no research has yet approached the show from a foodways perspective, though a cookbook based on the show was published in 2014 (Kohan et al., 2014). A critical examination of food’s role in OITNB allows us to understand better how the media portrays incarcerated women to audiences.

Food is a highly salient yet often overlooked aspect of incarceration (Einat & Davidian, 2019; Gibson-Light, 2018; Godderis, 2006; Higginbotham, 2010; Montford, 2023; Smoyer & Lopes, 2016; Ugelvik, 2011; Vanhouche, 2022). Experiences with food behind bars, whether in the cafeteria, at the commissary, through bartering, or while cooking in one’s cell, powerfully influence relationships, identity, and status (Cate, 2008; de Graaf & Kilty, 2016; Earle & Phillips, 2012; Godderis, 2006; Minke, 2014; Smoyer, 2015; Stearns, 2019; Valentine & Longstaff, 1998). Food is also a gendered practice in the real world and correctional facilities. The creation of food behind bars facilitates a sense of personal agency, control, domesticity, creativity, and community for women (de Graaf & Kilty, 2016; Stearns, 2019). The field of prison foodways could be broadened by including analyses of prison food within popular culture, especially as the extant scholarship relies heavily upon interviews and ethnographies.

Media Spaces and Women in Prison

Media has long been recognized as having the power to construct and shape our understanding of reality (Bryant & Oliver, 2009; Davis, 2020; Gerbner et al., 2002; Holtzman & Sharpe, 2014; Shrum, 2009). Visual media reveals hegemonic stigmas, norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes (Anderson, 2005; Davis, 2020; Fujioka & Neuendorf, 2015; Glascock, 2001; Signorielli & Bacue, 1999) and is especially pervasive in the modern era due to streaming services such as Netflix, a new form of entertainment that has altered the social, legal, cultural, and economic conventions associated with television as a medium (Tryon, 2015).

Overall, media representations of women rely on reductionist tropes and stereotypes, which serve to suggest to audiences that particular gender, race, class, and sexuality-based behaviors are naturally occurring rather than socially constructed performances (Pozner, 2010; Signorielli & Bacue, 1999). Depictions of women in prison, specifically, emphasize violence and sexuality when, in fact, most of prison life is quite mundane (Cecil, 2007; Ross, 2012; Van den Bulck & Vandebosch, 2003). As most individuals will not experience imprisonment firsthand nor visit penitentiaries, public knowledge about the prison industrial complex is primarily shaped by movies and television (Cecil, 2007; Foss, 2018; Kern, 2018; Shoemaker, 2017; Van den Bulck & Vandebosch, 2003). This is particularly troubling as movies and television have historically misrepresented life in prison to entertain or titillate rather than depict reality (Bratten, 2018; Wilson & O'Sullivan, 2004). These misrepresentations and inaccuracies may disrupt efforts to create a more just and fair system since the public’s understanding of the prison experience is distorted, reductionist, and heavily manipulated (Foss, 2018; Ross, 2012; Van den Bulck & Vandebosch, 2003).

OITNB belongs to a genre of visual media known as Women In Prison (WIP) that emerged in the 1920s with a history of exploitation (Bratten, 2018; Ciasullo, 2008; Ford, 2020). The WIP genre, situated within historical and social milieus, reflects tropes, norms, and values about not only imprisoned women but women in general. Tropes appear again and again in women’s prison films, such as lesbianism, “bad girls,” and violence, which serve to reduce criminalized women to one-dimensional characters (Bratten, 2018; McKeown & Parry, 2017). Scholars have noted that the presentation of imprisoned women tends to be white-centric, emphasizes violent crimes rather than non-violent crimes, downplays the significant role played by women’s trauma histories, and accentuates sexualized activity (Cecil, 2007).

OITNB has made women’s incarceration issues more visible, though even in critically-minded WIP programs, there exists a tension between the need to entertain and the desire to educate (Cecil, 2007; Demers, 2017; Schwan, 2016; Terry, 2016). Weiss (2014) argued that OITNB’s most significant contribution lay in its portrayal of non-conforming gender types, yet privileges screen time and intimate scenes for bodies that meet acceptable standards of (white) feminine beauty. Belcher (2016) suggested OITNB’s portrayal of diversity as a form of neoliberal multiculturalism, masking a centering of whiteness and privilege. For example, after a confrontation between a white character and a black character regarding white guilt, the camera focuses on the white woman’s facial expression as the black character walks out of the frame. The show’s producer has said many times in interviews that the white, attractive, upper-middle-class main character is a “trojan horse” to draw in a mainly white, middle-class audience; this may further stereotype women of color and/or poor women who are imprisoned (Caputi, 2015; Demers, 2017; Enck & Morrissey, 2015; Schwan, 2016).

Media Spaces and Food

Food in movies and on television reflects cultural values and mores and can highlight broader cultural topics (Anderson, 2005; Fahy, 2018; Matheson, 2017; Michalak, 2018; Miller & Van Riper, 2017). For example, the character’s navigation of foodways helped emphasize injustice, racism, and sexism in two New Orleans-based television shows (Roberts, 2017). Food, as presented in zombie movies, represents the ability of our social order to collapse into chaos and the potential to regenerate (Matheson, 2017). Food is contextualized within power and culture, both defining and reinforcing audiences’ views of class, gender, sexuality, age, nationality, and race (Anderson, 2005; Davis, 2020; Jeffres et al., 2011; Roberts, 2017; Tirodkar & Jain, 2003). In short, the depiction of food in media spaces shapes the way audiences perceive others. Representations of food send subtle social messages that the audience will intuitively notice, whether from type of food, portion size, table placement, or eating location (Anderson, 2005; Harris et al., 2019). The portrayal of food and accompanying consumption habits signal what body types are desirable, along with how racial identity relates to body types and consumption habits and indications of societal success or failure (Davis, 2020; Figueroa, 2015; Greenberg et al., 2003; Tirodkar & Jain, 2003).

One way the media impacts gender norms is through the portrayal of women’s relationship with food. For example, in Davis’s (2020) work, fewer eating occasions were seen in shows featuring career women between 1966 and 2017, and heavier female characters more often overate or impulsively ate onscreen. Thin women on fictionalized television programs exhibited more control over their food consumption and were less often seen in food-related situations (Figueroa, 2015).

Media has also been shown to influence tropes about race and ethnicity through characters’ relationship to food. Tirodkar and Jain (2003) found more overweight characters in Black prime-time television shows and more advertisements for candy and soda compared to “general” prime-time programs. More recent scholarship has affirmed how unhealthy food products are disproportionately advertised to communities of color (Fleming‐Milici & Harris, 2018; Grier & Kumanyika, 2008; Harris et al., 2015; Henderson & Kelly, 2005; Kunkel et al., 2013).


The current study aimed to document the appearance of food, including food-related dialogue, on OITNB and to explore how these food-related scenes may shape the portrayal of women in prison. Two main questions guided the research: 1) What role does food play on OITNB, and 2) What does this tell us about television’s depiction of women’s incarceration experiences?

The first author assigned five student researchers one or two seasons each and trained them to document and code using a Food-Related Scene Sheet (FRSS) (see Appendix). This is a qualitative study, but some quantified data were also used to better understand patterns.

The analytical strategy followed guidelines established by previous media-related scholarship on food-related scenes in popular television (Roseman et al., 2014). Researchers filled out an FRSS for each scene when food appeared (n=601). First, researchers used codes for the following five quantitative variables: 1) role of characters present (incarcerated woman, staff, or both), 2) majority race/ethnicity present (Black, white, Hispanic/Latina, or combination), 3) scene location (e.g., prison kitchen, prison cells, grounds of prison, etc.), 4) eating reason (e.g., breakfast, lunch, dinner, special occasion, etc.), and 5) food-related activity in scene (food consumption, creation, or discussion). Next, researchers added a few sentences to describe the scene’s context. Lastly, on the FRSS, the researchers verbatim documented the dialogue among the characters in the food-related scene.

The first author audited the FRSS for every third, sixth, and ninth episode of all the OITNB seasons and met with student researchers about any coding issues, necessary clarifications, or discrepancies. Student researchers revised their coding process if needed in consultation with the first author throughout a period of approximately six months. Next, the second and third authors entered the coded data from each FRSS into SPSS to explore basic descriptive statistics, including crosstabs and bivariate correlations. These descriptive data helped contextualize the qualitative findings.

The qualitative portion of the study was based on the section of each FRSS where the verbatim dialogue of every food-related scene had been transcribed. The authors considered Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic analysis the best fit for this project, considering the two research questions and the need to draw out themes that told a story across the data. After reading the collection of dialogue multiple times and making extensive memos, the first author developed a codebook and trained the two co-authors in its use. All three authors then independently hand-coded the verbatim dialogue on each FRSS before coming together to discuss possible thematic interpretations, refining codes and themes until agreeing on three major themes.


Descriptive statistics

OITNB centers on whiteness, so, unsurprisingly, the food and food-related dialogue appears most often in scenes with white characters. Food-related scenes occurred in several settings across the prison grounds, with the cafeteria being the most common context. The food-related activity in OITNB episodes was most often its consumption, but this was followed closely by the discussion about food. Interestingly, food or food dialogue most often appeared outside of official mealtimes. See Table 1 for all descriptive statistics.

Table 1: Descriptive Statistics of all Food-Related Scenes (n=601)




Role of individual in Food Related Scene (FRS) 


Incarcerated individual



Other (e.g., staff or administration)





Race of individual in FRS 













Location of FRS 














Common areas



All other


Identified activity in FRS 











All other


Reason for presence of food in FRS 







Bivariate analysis of the data suggested only one significant relationship (p<.01), which occurred between the food-related activity (e.g., food consumption, discussion, preparation, or other) and the majority race present. With this relationship in mind, crosstabs were performed on these two variables. Crosstabs showed that when the food-related activity was consuming or discussing food, the majority race present in the scene was white. When the food-related activity was preparing food, the race most often present was Latina. This single significant bivariate relationship lends strength to the way the incarcerated women on OITNB are perceived by audiences, relying on persistent tropes in American cinematography where whites are the beneficiaries of food (and other commodities) prepared by people of color. More commentary on this is provided in the third qualitative theme below.

Three qualitative themes

Thematic analysis of the food-related scenes’ transcribed dialogue was undertaken to explore the role of food in OITNB and what it says about media depiction of women’s incarceration experiences. Three main themes were identified: 1) Food as Institutional Control, 2) Food as Non-Food, and 3) Food as Dis/Empowering.

Food as Institutional Control

In OITNB, food was an institutional control mechanism through bribery, coercion, and additional punishment. For example, in Season 5 Episode 6, “Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally,” the women have gained control of the prison after a riot. One of the strategies adopted by the state and the administration to disrupt the coup is to send in boxes of Hot Cheetos, a coveted snack that the governor and administration recognize as being so vital that it has the potential to act as a bribe.

When one of the incarcerated women, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, is interrogated by the authorities to provide inside information about the prison riot in Season 6 Episode 1, “Who Knows Better Than I?” she is given White Castle burgers to encourage her to tell all that she knows.

During Season 2 Episode 11, “Take a Break from your Values,” the guards bring in boxes of pizza to tempt inmate Brook Soso and a few others away from their hunger strike, incited by Soso to bring awareness to the prison’s deplorable conditions and the lack of vegetarian options in the cafeteria. The guards taunt the women, stating, “Sure does smell good. Doesn’t it? It’s the only thing better than getting what you want.”

Whether specialty chips, burgers, or pizza, the institution can weaponize any food to gain control, especially in places where decent food is usually lacking. Food becomes more than something to eat; it is leverage over women’s bodies and takes on a role as a bribe.

Food as institutional control is used in OITNB to coerce women into humiliating behaviors; reinforcing the idea that someone else owns their bodies. In Season 3, correctional officer Coates starts to woo Pennsatucky with donuts in his van, a food that is absent behind bars. With the donuts comes a relaxing of wariness around Coates, but this “relationship” grows quickly abusive in Episode 10, “A-Tittin and A-Hairin,” when Coates rapes Pennsatucky in his van. Food, in this case, is the gateway to controlling Pennsatucky’s body in the most violent way possible. In Season 4 Episode 9, “Turn Table Turn,” a guard holds Maritza at gunpoint and forces her to choose between eating dead flies or a baby mouse. In a gruesome scene, Maritza chooses the mouse. For Maritza, her humiliation is in the act of eating something that is not considered to be edible. In another highly charged scene during Season 2 Episode 11, “Take a Break from your Values,” the administration force-feeds Sister Ingalls in a horrific fashion after she faints due to her participation in the women’s hunger strike. These coercive encounters from the institution remind the women that their bodies are not their own.

Food also operates as a mechanism for controlling women’s bodies in OITNB by layering punishment. Food is low-quality and non-nutritious, and sometimes it is withheld altogether. This institutional ownership of choice affects the women’s sense of self. In Season 1 Episode 5, “The Chickening,” the prison kitchen’s chef, Red, remarks that the chicken served is “processed…looks like a hockey puck and tastes like paper.” Dozens of episodes show food being served that is moldy, bug-infested, or completely tasteless. Piper is in solitary confinement during Thanksgiving in Season 1, Episode 9, “Fucksgiving.” She receives a plate containing a mysterious, moldy piece of meat. Being served food that is not fit for humans renders the recipient as less than human. Through low-quality food, the institution reminds women they are not in control.

It is important to note that the incarcerated women adopt the institution’s food practices in their treatment of one another throughout OITNB. Food used as bribery, coercion, and an additional layer of punishment reflects power dynamics among those behind bars. This mimicking of the institution’s use of food serves to amplify the reach of institutional control. For example, women fully understand that food can be a potent bribe. In Season 4 Episode 12, “The Animals,” Pennsatucky approaches Big Boo with myriad treats, including sunflower seeds, candy bars, beef jerky, and cheese and crackers, to gain her favor because Big Boo, as an ally, is a valuable resource. Pennsatucky says, “We can eat candy; we can teach each other stuff about stuff.”

The women withhold food from one another and use food as punishment. In Season 1 Episode 1, “I Wasn’t Ready,” Piper insulted the food in front of Red, the prison cook. In return, Piper receives a biscuit with a bloody tampon inside.

Morello [looking at the biscuit] laughs, “Oh, what is that?”

Nicky says, “She [Piper] insulted the food in front of Red.”

Morello responds, “Oh jeez, I don’t think you’ll be eating for a while.”

In fact, the kitchen refuses to serve Piper after this incident, reducing her to a desperate, starving state. Red’s power is such that she has one of her people unplug the vending machine in the visiting room when Piper’s boyfriend visits. Piper is craving something from the vending machine, but it is unresponsive. She tells her boyfriend, “This is her [Red]. She did this. She’s starving me out!” Even in Season 3, when a private corporation takes over Litchfield and allows only pre-bagged meals (i.e., meals prepared off-site, bagged, and requiring only a dunk in hot water before serving), Red still demonstrates her power in the kitchen. For example, she makes a special ratatouille out of garden vegetables for her fellow kitchen workers during Episode 7, “A-Tittin and A-Hairin.”

In Season 7 Episode 1, “The Beginning of the End,” Daya gives Daddy a cup of prison wine that has been laced with fentanyl to punish Daddy for sleeping with someone else. Daddy has a seizure and dies after drinking the wine. Echoing the guards’ treatment of inmates in food-related scenes, food lends itself again as a convenient vehicle for punishment delivered, this time, from one incarcerated woman to another.

Food as Non/Food

Another theme identified was how food in prison was used for practices unrelated to eating or nutrition. In OITNB, food is used as medicine, as a vehicle for drugs or other contraband, and in a few other non-food roles.

Food can be called on to fill the gap in a space where medical attention is rare, low quality, or difficult to access. For example, in Season 1 Episode 2, “Tit Punch,” Piper needs to get back into Red’s good graces so that she can receive meals in the cafeteria again. Having been a soap and lotion entrepreneur before entering prison, Piper concocts a pain ointment recipe that will help with Red’s back pain. The ointment recipe depends on jalapeños, and Piper can only mash the pepper by chewing it (as she sobs from the pain). In Season 3 Episode 3, “Bed Bugs and Beyond,” the prison has been infested with bedbugs. Gloria, the head cook, is making oatmeal to use as an anti-itch medication. Another character says, “If you ask me, this oatmeal should be for breakfast, not voodoo.” Gloria answers, “It’s not abracadabra, it’s natural anti-itch cream, it’s medicine.” In spaces where it is impossible to access the simplest medications from the corner pharmacy, food is transformed into treatment for these women.

Food also plays a significant role as a vehicle for contraband in many instances on OITNB. For example, during Season 6 Episode 5, “Mischief Mischief,” the “cheese pipeline,” which, up until a certain point, had been a reliable method of bringing drugs into the prison, was inadvertently disrupted. A character named Daddy, an incarcerated woman, ruined the cheese enterprise, thinking she was getting even with her enemies from C Block. The following is a conversation between Daddy and Correctional Officer Hellman:

Daddy asks, “How’s your world, Hellman?”

Hellman replies, “What do you want?”

“What do you think I want? Fiends be feenin’.”

Hellman says, “Maybe you should have thought about that before you blew up the pipeline.”

“What?” Daddy asks.

Hellman says, “The cheese. The cheese has left the building. Grace Grocer has pulled out like a sloppy teenager.”

“But what does that have to do with-“

Hellman interrupts her. “Un-fucking-believable. And what’s Daddy short for, huh? Stupid? No cheese jobs. No cheese. And by ‘cheese,’ I mean drugs.”

Daddy says, “How the fuck was I supposed to know you were bringing it in with the cheese?”

“You weren’t,” Hellman answers. “You were supposed to mind your own damn business and not fuck up a good thing.”

Daddy replies, “Well, we’ll have to find a new way in.”

Hellman starts bringing in drugs by concealing small amounts of them inside his morning breakfast burritos. Other scenes show drugs being hidden in or transported through food deliveries. Red, the cook in Season 1 Episode 9, “Fucksgiving,” finds drugs in a box of produce transported into the prison kitchen.

Food is also a method of concealing other types of contraband. In Season 7, Episode 1, “The Beginning of the End,” an illegal cell phone is hidden inside a box of crackers. In Season 1, Episode 4, “Imaginary Enemies,” Piper accidentally carries a screwdriver from her workplace. Her cellmate, Claudette, hides the screwdriver inside a pot of Rice-A-Roni that she is cooking.

For those in positions of responsibility over food, there are additional places to hide contraband or other advantageous items. In Season 2, Red has lost her job as the prison cook but still has access to a greenhouse for growing herbs and vegetables. In this space, she can easily dig holes to hide contraband or dig holes to escape.

Throughout OITNB, food plays several other roles unrelated to nutrition or sustenance. It is a transactional medium, such as in Season 5 Episode 3, “Pissters!” when Pennsatucky trades a bag of candy bars for a cell phone. During the arts and crafts show in Season 5 Episode 7, “Full Bush, Half Snickers,” the price for goods is described in food terms. For example, at one point in this episode, Big Boo is interested in buying a crocheted necklace for her love interest.

Big Boo approaches the table and says, “Five orange Starbursts for the necklace.”

The necklace seller counters, “Make ‘em pink ones; we can start to talk.”

“What fuckin’ planet are you on?” Big Boo says. “I just got a Playtex Gentle Glide 360 Ultra for one yellow. One.” She pauses. “All right, six orange, or I walk. Final offer.”

When Piper starts selling used underwear on a black-market site in Season 3, she gets the other women to wear them for a few days by paying them in ramen noodle seasoning packets. In these scenes, food has transcended its purpose of nourishment and becomes a bargaining chip in a place where money is absent. Food as a transactional medium is of critical importance in a setting that warehouses disproportional rates of people in poverty and BIPOC individuals. Without a steady influx of cash from the outside, like Piper has (and in fact, she soon transitions to transferring real money to the women rather than the seasoning), the women of OITNB must be skillful in getting food or ingredients. They may steal ingredients, for instance, when Suzanne steals pudding from older inmates in Season 7 Episode 3. They may offer a skill like jewelry making, hair cutting, or making medicinal tea in exchange for food.

In OITNB, food is even used for sexual pleasure, as demonstrated in Season 1 Episode 3, “Lesbian Request Denied.” While Red, the prison kitchen cook, is chopping zucchini, she says:

I'm missing half my zucchini. These girls don't realize I'm here to provide food, not dildos. I'm all out of cucumbers, carrots, beets -- God knows what they're doing with those. I can't hold on to anything cock-shaped.

Food is referred to in sexual terms in Season 6 Episode 7, “Changing Winds.” Blanca is complaining about her lack of sexual activity to Nicky. Blanca and Nicky’s sexual food-centered dialogue follows.

Blanca says, “I’m jonesing for some semen going up my toto.”

Nicky answers, “Oh, wait a minute. You comin’ on to me?”

Blanca scoffs, “Strictly hot dogs over seafood, thank you very much.”

“Okay,” Nicky says, “so why don’t you grab a cucumber and bang one out?” 

“There’s no fresh produce over here,” Blanca answers.

During Valentine’s Day in Season 2, the women bake, frost, and eat penis-shaped cookies. Food is not “just” food in these exchanges but a resource to express sexual preference, a medium to comment upon the loss of men as sexual partners, and as a physical object to provide sexual pleasure.

Food as Dis/Empowering

The third theme concerns the role of food in OITNB as simultaneously empowering women and disempowering women, specifically in the prison kitchen. As a space, the kitchen is an empowering site of control for the women, as demonstrated throughout each season of OITNB.

Those who work in the prison kitchen are empowered. They experience enhanced agency and control; they wield power within a context purposefully created to enact a sense of powerlessness. For example, in Season 2 Episode 5, “Low Self-Esteem City,” the Latinas have control of the kitchen. They heavily salt the Black women’s lunches as retribution for an incident where the Black women tied the Latinas’ shoes together under the table. The prison cook, Gloria, says to Vee, head of the Black women’s clique, “If any of your girls touches mine, there’s gonna be more than salt in your food next time.” The kitchen is a site of power, and the women working there can punish or reward as they see fit.

However, the empowering aspect of women in the kitchen exists in tension with a disempowering aspect that is troubling. Because the kitchen is featured in so many food-related scenes, and it is this domination over food that provides power, it is problematic that this empowerment is achieved within gendered and racialized tropes. Latinas are most often portrayed preparing food within the context of OITNB’s food-related scenes. In the U.S.’s cultural and culinary history, women of color most often provided cooking services for white families. This is a controlling image that fits within comfortable media tropes and cultural tropes. As mentioned at the beginning of the Findings section, the bivariate and crosstab analyses demonstrated that Latinas were most often present within food-related scenes when food was being prepared. At the same time, whites were most often present in scenes featuring food consumption. The empowerment women of color experience in the kitchen is relative when considering how these portrayals may be disempowering.

In a related vein, women have historically used their control over the kitchen to punish and reward others. This centers domesticity as the locus of control for women. The kitchen’s empowerment is relative to other, more public forms of empowerment (i.e., political power, economic power).


OITNB offers space to explore several criminological topics. This study began by asking what role food plays on OITNB and what this tells us about television’s depiction of women’s incarceration experiences.

It is essential to recognize how prison food, as portrayed in OITNB, facilitated hunger strikes, manipulation, bribery, thievery, harm, and other power-related struggles. Red’s determination to starve Piper in Season 1 is an example of how prison food is structured to foster conflict through its poor quality and meager allotment. In the real world, carceral food practices, including rationing, poor-quality food items, arbitrary mealtimes, and scant portion sizes, have been identified as sources of exploitative and harmful practices (Chamberlan, 2018). For example, people behind bars reported feeling coerced to either give or buy food for others, held deep fears about the possibility of physical altercations with cellmates over food, and described riots that had taken place due to food-related frustrations (Chamberlen, 2018; Earle & Phillips, 2012; Montford, 2023; Reiter, 2014; Shah, 2022; Vanhouche, 2022). On OITNB, Litchfield Penitentiary commonly used food to exert additional control and punishment upon the women, such as when the administration force-feeds Sister Ingalls in Season 2 and gives Piper a moldy, unrecognizable piece of meat in Season 1. The women in OITNB are painfully aware that food is part and parcel of the punishment experience. This aligns with the literature, where reports of the facility confiscating a contraband pat of butter, withholding meals for a week as punishment, and mandating solitary confinement because of an eating disorder are all examples of additional layers of punishment (Montford, 2023).

In OITNB, carceral food is also problematic due to matters of unequal access, with higher-status individuals able to eat more and relatively better than those with little resources. Piper comes from a white, upper-middle-class background. Though it is never explicitly stated, her boyfriend and parents are financially able to put money into her account or buy treats for her in the visiting room. Even more importantly, Piper can look forward to a return to this socio-economic class through her familial relationships. In nearly all of the flashbacks for other characters on the show, we see scenes of poverty play out, whether it be Daya’s mother’s tiny apartment crowded with people or Pennsatucky’s trading sex for a soda. On OITNB, social inequalities are exacerbated through and by food in prison, which is echoed in previous scholarly work. As an individual in Montford’s (2023) study stated, “If you have no money, you don’t get nothing [food-related]” (p. 247). Other studies have documented the advantage and power of those with access to more economic resources regarding food (Cate, 2008; Gibson-Light, 2018; Godderis, 2006; Musevenzi, 2018; Vanhouche, 2022). However, socio-economic background is not the only status available to those on the show. The head cook, Red, and later, Gloria, occupy positions of distinction concerning food production that garner favors from others, such as back rubs and treats. This is reflected in the literature as well. Chamberlen’s (2018) investigation into women’s prison experiences revealed that those working in the kitchen were in privileged positions, able to allot special food or larger portion sizes to their friends. Kitchen duty allows relative food security (Collins, 2015; Cuisine, 2006; Montford, 2023; Vanhouche, 2022). However, there is a relatively recent trend in prison food that could potentially disrupt the power of those who work in the kitchen. Private food corporations now supply heat-and-eat meals to approximately 1000 correctional facilities across the U.S. (Jou, 2022). Meals are made off-site and delivered to prisons in ready-to-eat plastic bags that only need to be submerged in hot water to warm before serving. In OITNB, a private corporation takes over Litchfield in Season 3, introducing pre-made food in plastic bags. Red controls the kitchen, and though she is demoralized by the type of food and how it is served, she still has power. She makes ratatouille for her friends and holds a drawing for a coveted dinner party she is planning. It would be interesting to see how the heat-and-eat method of meal delivery in the real world affects the power and status of individuals assigned to kitchen duty, as OITNB suggests there is still some measure of power and status to be wielded. It is also worth noting that the chow hall, where many power struggles play out in the show, is a site being eliminated in several correctional facilities due to its strategic, central, and communal location that can serve as a setting for riots and other disruptions (Soble et al., 2020). The relative social position of kitchen workers may diminish if off-site, pre-packaged food delivered to the prison or jail is served in individual cells or small dorms.

The extent to which food and/or the practice of eating is weaponized in OITNB is also notable and distressing. For example, Maritza eating a baby mouse at gunpoint, Sister Ingalls’ force-feeding, and the rape of Pennsatucky after donut-related seduction. More attention should be paid to the way that carceral food can inflict violence upon individuals, not only by serving scarce, sub-quality nutrition but by wielding food as an actual, physical weapon and by defining the parameters of what will be eaten (e.g., a mouse, rotten meat). Because OITNB is a fictional show, future research should ascertain if food is commonly used in these ways in actual correctional facilities. This particular finding extends the knowledge base about food presentation in the media.

Food plays a role in OITNB as a highly transformable medium. It can be a vehicle for contraband, used as medicine or other treatments, serve as a form of currency, or help express sexual desires (although, with the advance of heat-and-eat meals, fresh vegetables such as zucchini may disappear in some settings). This non-consumable role of food behind prison walls is a significant and novel finding, as there is a dearth of research in this area. Recent scholarship has investigated the use of food as currency (Gibson-Light, 2018; Ifeonu et al., 2022), but overall, the multiplicity of forms that food takes inside prisons and jails is relatively underexplored. Again, because OITNB is fictional, additional research should investigate how this plays out in actual prisons.

The second central question guiding this research asked how women’s incarceration experiences are depicted through the lens of prison food on OITNB. This study suggests that while food can empower women behind bars, this empowerment is mainly realized through disempowering tropes and stereotypes. This is problematic because specific racial and gender identities are tied to food labor versus food consumption. Popular media plays a significant role in shaping and reifying these stereotypes, especially when portraying women in prison (Belcher, 2016; Enck & Morrissey, 2015; Jeffres et al., 2011).


This study focuses on a fictionalized institutional setting to understand how women are portrayed through the media. Television and movie depictions of incarcerated women are not based on attempts to portray reality but on attempts to entertain (Bratten, 2018; Wilson & O'Sullivan, 2004). Due to this, future research should interview women in these incarcerated spaces to see if the findings from this study are relevant in the real world.


The media is a powerful constructor of reality, shaping audiences’ beliefs about concepts such as gender, race, sexuality, class, ability, and other identities. Historically, women and people of color have been portrayed in stereotypical ways rather than showcasing their wide range of complexity. Media depictions of women in prison have also been portrayed through the use of stereotypes, including exaggerations of violence and rampant sexuality behind bars (Cecil, 2007; Ross, 2012; Van den Bulck & Vandebosch, 2003). These reductionist and sensationalized portrayals have been shown to influence audience’s beliefs about what the lives of incarcerated women are actually like (Cecil, 2007; Foss, 2018; Kern, 2018; Shoemaker, 2017; Van den Bulck & Vandebosch, 2003).


Some implications can be drawn from this study. First, findings from this study could inform audiences’ perceptions about women in prison. Because race and gender can be reified through media narratives, audiences need to view television and other media through a critical lens, sensitive to tropes and stereotypes. OITNB has been celebrated for its diverse cast and complex characters, yet this study suggests underlying assumptions still exist that are problematic. As we move toward more progressive policies and humane treatment of individuals behind bars, it is important to address the way the incarcerated population is presented in television and movies.

Second, this study suggests that qualitatively exploring food within fictional prison settings is an appropriate and robust extension of the prison foodways field. There are no similar studies, implying that other shows could be the object of study to broaden our understanding of prison food’s role in people’s lives in the real world. Within the context of prison television and movies, food can convey powerful stories that may not yet be fully understood.


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A.E. Stearns is an assistant professor of criminology at Coastal Carolina University. She publishes and presents on prison foodways, prison cookbooks, and hopefulness among jailed women. Her book, Prison Recipes and Prison Cookbooks, is forthcoming from Routledge.

Morgan Wilson is a graduate of the University of Louisiana of Lafayette.

McKenzie Richard graduated from the University of Louisiana of Lafayette. She currently works in HR for a major corporation.


Special thanks to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Undergraduate Research Award for helping fund this study.

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