Last week I shared with you my perspective on soy.  A few days later, I ran across a very interesting news story about a law suit filed on behalf of Illinois prisoners in 2009, who were experiencing illnesses due to a soy based diet.  As a part of that research, I also discovered in Illinois,  a pilot program to increase soy food content as a “healthy alternative” in school lunch programs.

The dishes served during a week at Danville Correctional Center  included soy-enhanced chili mac, turkey patties with soy, soy-studded country gravy, soy-blend hot dogs, soy-spiked sloppy joes, Polish sausages packed with soy, soy chicken patties. They’re also the basis of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

When Rod Blagojevich was elected governor of Illinois in 2002, he immediately altered the prison diets. Beginning in January 2003, inmates began receiving a diet largely based on processed soy protein, with very little meat. In most meals, small amounts of meat or meat by-products are mixed with 60-70 percent soy protein; fake soy cheese has replaced real cheese; and soy flour or soy protein is now added to most of the baked goods.

The governor’s justification for replacing nutritious meat and cheese with toxic soy protein was financial-to lower the enormous costs of running the Illinois Department of Corrections. However, according to the Weston Price Foundation (financial supporters of the case),  the likely reason is payback for campaign contributions from Archer Daniels Midland, the main supplier of soy products to the Illinois prisons.

Early in 2007, the Weston A. Price Foundation was contacted by inmates who were suffering from myriad serious health problems due to the large amounts of soy in the diet. These prisoners had found us through the Soy Alert! section of the foundation’s website.

Complaints include chronic and painful constipation alternating with debilitating diarrhea, vomiting after eating, sharp pains in the digestive tract, especially after consuming soy, passing out, heart palpitations, rashes, acne, insomnia, panic attacks, depression and symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as low body temperature (feeling cold all the time), brain fog, fatigue, weight gain, frequent infections and enlarged thyroid gland. Since soy contains anti-fertility compounds, many young prisoners may be unable to father children after their release.

The suffering of these men is intense and medical care is palliative at best. Many have had sections of their digestive tract removed, but all requests for a soy-free diet are denied. The men are told, “If you don’t like the food, don’t eat it.” That means that unless they can afford to purchase commissary food, they must eat the soy food or starve.

Nine plaintiffs allege that the Illinois Department of Corrections is endangering inmates health, in particular, those suffering from allergies, sensitivities and existing gastrointestinal and thyroid problems — by feeding them too much soy. The soy dishes are also the basis of the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in August, 2009. The case, “Harris et al. v. Brown, et al.,” is pending in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois.

The complaint alleges that tests show all nine plaintiffs have hormone, lipid and enzyme levels consistent with thyroid damage caused by soy.

Thomas Salonis, a former inmate who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he nearly passed out in 2008 from gastrointestinal pain at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg.

He was diagnosed by a prison doctor as being allergic to soy – one of the eight most common food allergies in the U.S., according to the FDA.

The doctor even wrote out a note, obtained by the Chicago Tribune, saying Salonis was allergic to soy. But the prison made no changes, according to Salonis. Finally, after a hunger strike, he was offered work that allowed him to buy instant soup from the commissary for his meals, he said.

The plaintiffs are “suffering irreparable, actual harm by being forced to continue to eat food that has too much soy in it,” according to an amended complaint filed in June, 2010
The foundation has received nearly 200 letters about soy from prisoners in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida.

The Illinois Department of The Weston A. Price Foundation has hired an attorney to represent several inmates incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections system. The Foundation’s attorney has entered his appearance on behalf of three inmates, has had contacts with several other inmates, has served several subpoenas upon the wardens of several facilities for documents and other information, and has informed the Court that additional inmates will soon be named in an amended complaint.

The lead case is captioned Harris et al. v. Brown, et al., Case No. 3:07-cv-03225, and is currently pending before the Honorable Harold Baker in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. The Foundation has until May 30th to file its amended complaint and the Defendants have 30 days after the complaint is filed to file their respective answers. The suit seeks an injunction putting a halt to the use of a soy-laden diet in the prison system.

The Illinois Department of Corrections says it accommodates medical diets, but did not provide details as to how.

Soy poisoning?

Tens of thousands of inmates in Illinois prisons are being fed “up to 100 grams” of soy protein a day, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, which is funding the lawsuit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming about 25 grams of soy protein per day.

The Price Foundation became involved in the lawsuit after receiving correspondence from  inmates in 2008 detailing health problems after soy replaced meats and cheeses and was added to bakery mixes.

Sally Fallon is the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on nutrition education, which is involved in the lawsuit. “Never before have we had a large population like this being served such a high level of soy with almost no other choice,” she said.

Ms. Fallon said the foundation got involved after inmates from various Illinois facilities contacted her.  Last month, the foundation hosted a local panel on the soy issue before its annual national conference in Schaumburg.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would stop the Department of Corrections from serving soy in Illinois prisons as well as damages from the prisons’ contracted health care provider.

The department says it started serving soy-enhanced foods in March 2004 as a cost-cutting measure. But it declined to comment on most aspects of the pending litigation and is awaiting a ruling on its motion to dismiss the suit.

Inmates once raised their own food

According to Ms. Fallon, who urges a return to older food-service models.

“Ten years ago many prisoners grew their own food,” she said. “They raised their beef, their chicken, their vegetables and there was enough left over to sell it on the open market. … We need to go back to that at prisons all over the country, teach them skills, get them outdoors in the sunlight with animals, eating real nutritious foods so they can truly be rehabilitated back into society.”

When Fallon hears from families of soy-sensitive inmates, she urges them to send their incarcerated relatives money so they can purchase foods from the commissary.

“We recommend sardines, summer sausage and, of all things, SPAM,” said Fallon, who usually advocates eating chemical-free meat from pastured animals. “They supply good protein, stable fats, vitamins A and D, and good minerals. They are in general very nutritious foods and provide just what they are missing in their prison diet.”

Soy contains health damaging toxins

Fallon states research has shown soy products contain toxins that interfere with digestion, as well as plant-based estrogens that are dangerous in large amounts. She says those two facts explain prisoner health issues.

“They cause pain and vomiting, thyroid problems, low metabolism, weight gain; several inmates have had parts of their colons removed in an attempt to ease the pain.”

Based in Washington, D.C., the foundation promotes the consumption of whole, traditional and largely unprocessed foods. Foundation president Sally Fallon called the soy diet served in Illinois prisons “the Tuskegee of the 21st century,” referring to the syphilis experiments performed on African-Americans from the 1930s to ‘70s.

Prison menus indicate inmates are served as many as seven soy-enhanced “meat” entrees a week. But the foundation contends the inmates consume more soy through cooking oils and soy cheeses as well as baked products enhanced with soy protein concentrates.

Health Food or Health Danger?

Soy was once the darling of the health-food community.  Now  non-fermented and genetically modified soy – have fallen out of favor in many health circles. Last year the American Heart Association urged the FDA to stop recommending soy as a way to reduce heart disease risk, saying “direct cardiovascular benefits of soy protein or isoflavones are minimal at best.”

Scientific studies have had varying results as to whether high soy consumption reduces or increases cancer risk, inhibits mineral absorption and affects sperm concentrations.

But most agree that soy, especially unfermented varieties, can cause problems with the thyroid function and digestion. And there’s a lot of research that supports this finding.

The effects have ranged from acute allergic reactions and heart problems to gastrointestinal distress and thyroid dysfunction, it says.

Soy based pilot programs for school lunch programs

Fallon also believes that if soy-based diets continue in the prison system, people can expect more soy-heavy foods to be served up for other institutional meals, in such places as hospitals and schools.  She says soy overload could be headed to schools next; a pilot program for more soy in school lunches is already underway. The Illinois Department of Education is already piloting the use of more soy in school lunches.

“This means that these children will be getting this food that’s extremely difficult to digest, and full of estrogen-like substances that can actually cause infertility later on.”

For more information visit soy in school lunches.

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