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Food fight in the can

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Environmental activist Randall Mark finally has his rice and beans.

Mark, who is serving a two-month sentence for his part in a Buffalo Field Campaign protest last spring, ended a 38-day hunger strike during the first week of December when jailers at the Missoula County Detention Facility agreed to feed him vegan meals.

Mark has spent time in jail for his activism before. In 2000, Mark was convicted of assault after he tossed a salmon pie on former U.S. Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, during a congressional hearing held at the University of Montana.

Friend and fellow activist Stan Wilson credits a phone-in campaign by Mark’s supporters and the threat of a mid-week rally for the jail’s change of diet. At the rally, which was cancelled after Mark was fed, supporters were going to symbolically present jailers with homemade vegan food.

“I think the reason they fed him is because people from the community called a lot,” Wilson says. “As a humanitarian gesture, the community was going to bring food for him. But even before we planned the get-together, people had been calling and I think they just finally bent.”

But not everyone agrees with this interpretation of how Mark ended his hunger strike.

“Yeah, if he really was on one,” says Captain Susan Hintz, who directs the jail. “If he was, it didn’t come to light to me until this weekend.”

Hintz says that’s because Mark had been playing handball during recreation periods recently and because he didn’t seem to be suffering any of the ill effects associated with self-starvation. Since then the jail’s doctor has been notified of the hunger strike and Mark is being offered vegan alternatives, which Hintz says is a major concession to offer a prisoner. The jail is required to accommodate special diets for religious or medical reasons, but that doesn’t include vegan.

“That’s a lifestyle choice,” Hintz says. “It’s not a religion. What would we do if we had to start making 350 different meals?”

Prior to the decision, Mark’s vegan alternatives included swapping fruit and other food items with fellow prisoners as students do in school, Hintz says, or eating nutri-loaf, a bean and flour entree with shredded carrots, spinach, raisins, potato, rice, and until Mark’s small victory, non-vegan shredded cheese and bread.

As with the conclusion of Mark’s hunger strike, there is a difference of opinion between Hintz and Wilson regarding nutri-loaf. “I’ve eaten it and it’s not that bad,” Hintz says. “But it may be boring.”

Boring for a reason perhaps.

“It’s what they refer to as punishment food,” Wilson says.

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