Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Food, inglorious food

The last time I ate institutional food on any regular basis – other than salad bars at work – was when I was in college, where the food was beyond awful. That regular dishes on the menu had nicknames like “puck,” “abortion,” and “scum” should tell you all you need to know.  On really bad food nights, we could walk to the store to get sandwich makings, or settle for a pint of ice cream.

But if you’re in prison - where I’m betting the menus run to the likes of “puck,” “abortion,” and “scum” – you can’t just walk around the corner for a pint of mocha almond. (Not to mention that they probably don’t let you keep a metal spoon in your cells, as we were allowed to in ours. I mean our dorm rooms. Just because they were made out of cinderblock, doesn’t mean they were cells.)

Aramark  is one of the major purveyors of food services to correctional institutions, a big player in the prison-industrial complex.

ACS prepares well over 1,000,000 meals a day for state and municipal facilities, partnering with our clients to meet the unique challenges of the corrections environment.

More than a food services provider, ACS endeavors to go beyond for its clients, delivering solutions to critical issues like recidivism, officer morale and retention, safety and security, and inmate behavior and health.

I’m guessing that food plays some factor in recidivism. Who wants to spend 20 to life eating Aramark institutional chow?

Although we do read about imprisoned Mafiosi who are somehow privileged enough to be able to cook up their own veal picatta and linguine marinara, my hunch is that a facility that’s spending as little as 70 cents per “customer’ per meal is not serving up much that’s fresh and interesting.

Anyway, for prisoners who want a bit more choice in their diet, Aramark offers an extension to their prison food line. (Source: WSJ.)

Inmates—or, more often, their relatives—place orders on Aramark's "iCare" Web site. The company tailors its menus to each jail's rules.

Prices generally run $7 to $12 for a hot meal and $20 to $100 for a junk-food box filled with beef jerky, iced cookies, vanilla cappuccino or other goodies not available in the commissary.

The Meal Deal will run you$39.99 for:

Nissin Ramen - Chili 3.0 oz (5)
Nissin Ramen - Beef 3.0 oz (5)
Nissin Ramen - Chicken 3.0 oz (5)
Nissin Ramen - Shrimp 3.0 oz (5)
Trails Best Meat Sticks - 1.12 oz (5)
Instant Chili - 4.0 oz (3)
Chili Rice and Beans - 4.40 oz (3)
Panola Cajun Hot Sauce - .5 fl oz packets (12)
Saltines 16 oz
Double Barrel Spicy Meat & Cheese Sticks - 1.12 oz (5)
Kosher Pickle (3)

$39.99 sounds high for this, but I guess someone has to make sure that no one’s smuggling any contraband, like a doobie or a rasp file, in with the kosher pickles or double barrel spicy meat & cheese sticks.

The Breakfast Getaway – and who came up with that name? – also costs $39.99 for:

Mrs. Freshleys Grand Honey Bun - 6.0 oz (7)
Mrs. Freshleys Texas Cinnamon Roll - 4.0 oz (3)
Powdered Sugar Gem Donuts - 4.0 oz (3)
Maxwell House Coffee - 3.0 (2)
Orange Drink - 21 oz pack
Creamer - 50 pack
Sugar - 10 pack
Oatmeal - Maple and Brown Sugar - 10 pack

Different prisons/jails allow different packages. No Snack Attack  (only $19.99) for prisoners in the Champaign, Illinois lock-up.  But if someone loves you and you’re in the stir in Marion, Oregon, you can snack away:

2-Ruffles 1.5oz
2-Blazen Buffalo 1.75oz
2-Cheetos Crunchy 2 oz
2-Doritos Nacho Cheese 1.75oz
2-White Cheddar Popcorn 1oz
2-Crackers- Cheese/Peanut Butter
2-Crackers- Peanut Butter Toasty
1-Lemonade drink mix 6 oz
1-Crunch N Munch 4oz
2-Salted Potato Chips 6oz

And is this Birthday Bag ($19.99) grim or what?

1-Cookies - Butterfinger 6oz
8-Salsa packets .5oz
1-Tortilla chips 6oz
1-Jolly ranchers 7oz
1-Gummy worms 4.5oz
1-Sour bears 4.5oz
1-Tea mix 6oz
1-Lemonade mix 6oz
1-Lined Paper tablet, 50 sheets
1-Birthday card

Do you use the pencil to sign the birthday card to yourself, or to write your thank you note on the lined paper tablet? And, what, no party hats?

Well, there was only so long I was willing to hang out on that depressing Aramark iCare web site – just long enough to figure out that we’re talking solid junk food here, not Harry and David ‘fruit of the month’ packages.

But back to the WSJ article, which tell us that the business of providing snack food packages for prisoners is not without a bit of controversy.

…critics worry the service will trigger jealousies, promote unhealthy diets and coddle prisoners…[They]fear the deliveries will inspire envy, violence and extortion. "It's like with kids—you don't bring cookies to school unless you've got enough for everyone," said Gordon Crews, a criminal-justice professor at Marshall University

Hard to disagree with those complaining about unhealthy diets, given that what’s on offer is heavy on empty calories, salt, fat, sugar, and grease.

As for “triggering” (hah) jealousies, from what I know about life in prison – taken largely from Jimmy Cagney movies, novels, and occasional articles in The New Yorker – envy, violence and extortion have long been staples of the prison diet.

Sure, someone may be willing to stick a toothbrush shiv into a fellow prisoner’s ribcage for a package of shrimp ramen, but if the shrimp ramen weren’t there, it would probably be over something else that’s equally petty.

And the correctional institutions can restrict who gets what. Forget time off for good behavior, it’s junk food in if you keep your nose clean.

Plus I really hate it when people rant about “coddling” prisoners when they hear that they’re allowed to take courses, have TVs in their cells, or work out in the weight room. Hard to think of a better recipe for recidivism disaster than having a bunch of mostly young men sitting around staring at 4 walls all day, making themselves more anti-social and psychotic than they were when they came in. Just being locked up is pretty damned anti-coddling, in my book.

Imagine not having any control over your life? Not being able to hit the fridge for a midnight snack (healthy and/or junk; last night mine was 4 Girl Scout Thin Mints), and then sit up all night grazing through the pile of ‘buy two, get one free’ books you just picked up at Borders?

I’m with the Bexar County (TX) Deputy Chief who runs their correctional programs, who says that:

…letting an offender's mom buy him a club sandwich now and then "is an act of kindness."

And with Rock Island County’s (IL) jail administrator who says:

"Jails are always run better when your inmates are happy."

The corrections departments who offer iCare make money off of it, by the way. The Indiana state prison system will rake in more than $2M this year from it. Bexar will make half a million bucks.

Revenue from the meals has saved prison programs, such as parenting classes, wardens say. And in some institutions, inmates get job-training credit for preparing the hot meals in the jail kitchen and packaging the junk-food boxes.

Hmmmm. I don’t know how you can get job-training credit for slicing up a meat stick and adding it to your breakfast getaway oatmeal, but whatever.

There’s also some concern that Aramark may let its regular food service go to hell while focusing on what may be the more lucrative snack biz. Stranger things have happened…

Anyway, if I needed yet another reason, the thought of having a loved one send me a Birthday Bag is enough to keep me out of the slammer.

And I do wish there was something a tiny bit healthier and more interesting in those iCare packages.

But I suppose if I were in prison, I’d be happy enough to get the Chocolate Lovers special.

But I suppose I’ll never get to find out.

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