Watching the archival photos of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers of Gee's Bend during the 1930s it is obvious how thin they were. And when Mandela was released, he too was terribly thin, and stayed so. What did they all eat?
There are many images available of this typed-up sheet of the specifications for 'Coloured/Asiatic' and 'Bantu' food allowances posted in the museum that is now the Robben Island Gaol. Clearly everyone takes a photo of it in shock. None of these racialised words exist anymore, but the intent is clear.
I calculate that Mandela existed on 700 calories a day and Ahmed Kathrada on perhaps 750 calories a day for 27 years. These are generous calculations, not taking into account the quality of the food. Neville Alexander was released in 1974 after ten years on Robben Island and wrote a dossier on conditions there, Robben Island Prison Dossier 1964-1974 published in 1994. The food conditions are in Addendum Seven, p137. How did they survive on a diet so nutritionally bereft of value? Evidently the metabolism slows, organs shrink, many die.
For Alabama, I quote Harvey Levenstein writing about Depression conditions in Paradox of Plenty, part 12, 2003: 'In Alabama sharecroppers scrape by on their historic diet of the three M's: meat (fat salt pork), corn meal, and molasses. Shrivelled gardens stop producing green vegetables and fruit is but a memory. When rations run out before Saturday payday, people simply go without eating.'
Those shrivelled gardens had been root crops and greens: the slave tradition had been leftover plant material – turnip and beet tops, dandelions and collards, discarded cuts of meat, plus, if allowed, foraged food, none of which was available to the South African prisoners.
The monotony of the food on Robben Island must have been appalling, as were the three M's. Would this mean one never cared much about food again, or would it mean that with prosperity one ate all that one could? It could go both ways.