Nova Interview

Nutrition, Behavior, and the Criminal Justice System: What Took So Long? An Interview with Dr. Stephen J. Schoenthaler

The area of nutrition, behavior, and mental health is finally starting to enter mainstream discussions. Recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) announced a 3-part continuing education (CE) module entitled Understanding Nutrition and Mental Health. In an article promoting the CE series in the APA’s lead practice journal, Monitor on Psychology, the profession acknowledged that pioneers in the field of nutrition and mental health had been dismissed by psychologists and medical professionals writ-large.   

Amid the advances in nutritional psychology/psychiatry—ranging from molecular biology and the microbiome to nutritional epidemiology and clinical intervention studies —it is worth unpacking how and why early pioneers were sidelined. History can teach us quite a bit in this context, including heightened awareness of the power dynamics that maintain credo and the structural status quo. With that unpacking in mind, I am delighted to introduce our fourth Nova Interview. Nova Fellow Alan C. Logan sits down with California State University, Stanislaus, sociologist and criminologist, Dr. Stephen J. Schoenthaler. The exchange is nothing short of remarkable.

In the field of nutrition and mental health, especially as it relates to criminal justice, Dr. Schoenthaler is an unquestioned pioneer. Yet, his progressive work has largely escaped notice in the recent historical discussions of nutritional psychology and nutritional psychiatry. As he has done so often before, Alan provides corrective history, tracing the origins of the nutrition and mental health research to its wellspring, the 1970s and 1980s. The back-and-forth between Alan and Dr. Schoenthaler glides between rich history and cutting-edge findings. It also brings the larger questions into focus—including the ways in which poverty and structural issues intersect with the emerging nutritional evidence. All too often nutrition is a topic cordoned off to “lifestyle,” rather than an important part of equity and justice.   

Nova Interviews illuminate the “behind-the-scenes” lived experiences of the subject, including their feelings and emotions as they sometimes bump up against the rigid walls of dogma and firm structural convictions. This is especially true when the subject is attempting to work within the hardened corrections profession where resistance to change is legendary. It is also true, as the Monitor on Psychology has just acknowledged, when the subject is a lone voice in a profession that rigidly denies that nutrition was, and is, a significant factor in behavior and mental health. 

The Nova Interview is an optimistic exchange, highlighting the value of perseverance. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In a just moral universe, food insecurity would not be a widespread problem, and neither would mass incarceration. We would not be using corrections facilities as a funnel for a mental health crisis, and given the research explored in the Nova Interview, we would not choose to feed inmates on two dollars per day, as some states do. The times are changing, though, and it seems that policies and practices are ripe for change.  

You can read the full Nova Interview via the link below — be sure to return here to discuss it!


  1. Thanks Brian and Alan! Loved this statement by Dr. Schoenthaler “We need a greater focus on the ways in which the food environment—everything from food deserts to the marketing of cheap, ultra-processed foods in marginalized communities—intersects with numerous other socioeconomic factors in areas where crime is high. When we talk about food, nutrition, and the criminal justice system, we are really talking about ingrained structures. “

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