Rice. Gravy. Fried Chicken. Doughnuts. Dr. Pepper. Soy Beans. Oatmeal. Vitamin Supplements. Fig Bananas. French Fries Dipped in Dark Chocolate. This is a sampling of food from the diets of former members of Peoples Temple, as I learned when I interviewed them on the subject earlier this year.
My interest in food as it pertains to Peoples Temple relates to my overall interest in both cults and diet. After uncovering some information for an article I wrote for Vice Magazine, I wanted to learn more, specifically about Peoples Temple. I wanted to know and understand the strength of Jim Jones’ influence, not only on his members’ beliefs, but ultimately on what they put in their bodies. After all, it was his final command of consumption in Jonestown that ultimately led to the death of his followers.
Before the Temple moved to Jonestown, former member Michael Cartmell said, “I don’t ever recall food being used as a weapon or a punishment. And there was a lot of punishments and a lot of brutal beatings. I mean, children got brutally beaten.”
Food was used, however, to influence outsiders. While the church was based in Ukiah, Jones started something known as “Cake Diplomacy” that Cartmell described as an “early form of PR.” If someone in the community who was not part of the church did something that Temple members approved of, they would bake and bring them a cake. “You can’t hate somebody who bakes a cake and gives it to you, right? Particularly if it’s a good cake,” said Cartmell.
The practice wasn’t universally appreciated, though. Cartmell remembered a non-member who was commissioned to do a painting job for the Temple. “Man, I’m going to paint the bus,” Cartmell recalled him saying, “but I don’t want one of their god damn cakes, that’s for sure. I don’t want anything to do with that organization.”
“Cake Diplomacy didn’t always work, but it didn’t hurt,” Cartmell added.
Former member Garrett Lambrev said that around 1966, Jim Jones briefly advocated for a vegetarian diet “for both moral, ethical and health reasons.” The food, he said, at this time was at its best but soon ended. “I suspect that the real reason in the end that we didn’t eat that way was that it was too time-consuming, and Jim didn’t want us to waste our time on ourselves,” Lambrev said.
Once the Temple went communal, the diet left Lambrev “partly appalled but largely just depressed… The food was so bad, it was so heavily carbohydrates, it was almost entirely starch… I thought that if Jim wanted to use us optimally, or even well, he needed to feed us better.”
Jones’ inclination to advocate for specific food items was a re-occurrence. It seems as though Jones had ideas, some that made more sense than others, on what his members should eat and the benefit or harmfulness of these certain items.
“[Jones] used to say don’t eat cheese and drink coffee at the same time because it causes cancer,” former member Tim Carter said. “I have no idea if that’s the truth or not. Now as I eat my cheese and drink my coffee together, I’ll go ‘Salute to you, asshole.’”
Another former member, Hue Fortson, remembered Jones telling members to start drinking Dr. Pepper “because of the nutrients that it had and that it would do something good for your body.”
When the Temple was in Redwood Valley, Jordan Vilchez said, “there was a belief that nuclear war was inevitable. So one of the things that he would promote us eating was soybeans, which apparently would help with protecting against radiation.”
Overweight or obese members were subjected to having their mouths wired shut. “In the short run it achieved its goal – getting people to really reduce their weight. In medium-to-long-term I don’t think it served any purpose,” Lambrev said, then added, “Those who survived.”
Lela Howard’s aunt, Mary Pearl Willis, was a member at the church in Los Angeles, and as an outsider, Lela experienced a diverse and positive experience with food whenever she went to visit the Temple. “I remember there was this one dish were someone had chocolate-covered french fries. I kid you not, it was the most interesting thing. And you would think, oh my god, that’s gross. But it was actually delicious.”
She also remembered a dish that looked like long glassy noodles – but were in fact onions – that was “the most delicious meal ever.”
Once Temple members migrated to Jonestown, the food situation changed greatly. Community residents would typically wake up to oatmeal or some sort of wheat cereal. A peanut butter and honey sandwich with a banana for lunch. Some sort of green, rice, and gravy with bits of meat in it for dinner. While animals were consumed, it was never in large quantities.
Beef in Guyana was expensive and only raised in the South, Carter said. For this reason, goat meat became a more popular option. There were also issues in transporting chickens from Georgetown: “We were buying over 1,000 chickens a week and most of them would be dead by the time they got to Jonestown.”
They were working to get their chicken incubator to Jonestown to resolve this issue. “If Jonestown had gone on – and if Jim Jones had died instead of deciding to kill everybody else, including himself – within a month, because of the incubator and because we had gotten things with the hogs together, there would have been meat in every meal for everybody. And there would have been eggs for breakfast… The diet would have changed considerably.”
Fortson recalled another source of protein, “We would go to the fish market and we would buy shark. The Guyanese people figured shark was a scavenger, and they didn’t like it. So we would take it and cut the muscles out of the back and smoke them… oh my god, that was the most delicious meat.”
Cartmell, who did not go to Guyana, said, “When I would get letters from my sister [in Jonestown], you could tell that they had been a) censored and b) there was a very strange focus on food… There was an extreme level of consciousness about food that further told me that they probably weren’t eating very much.”
But Carter never felt like he was being deprived. “I’ve read a lot of bullshit out there that this was, that people were being starved to death intentionally, or being malnourished.”