(Missouri Independent) – Missouri volunteer prison labor tends gardens that yield about 100 tons of fresh produce a year.
For the most part, that food goes to local charities.
The prisoners who grow it complain they get little fresh food. Instead, they get a lot of bologna.
They say they’re served portions they consider too small and unappetizing. In some places, they say they don’t get so much as salt and pepper to season it.
Many skip what the prison dishes up and spend what little money they can earn at prison jobs or cajole from their families on things like honey buns and bags of cooked chicken purchased in a commissary.
Gripes about prison food are as old as prisons. Lawsuits and broken contracts with correctional food service providers around the country cite maggots, unpaid labor, and inappropriate staff relationships.
In January, Gov. Mike Parson signed the state to a five-year, $45.7 million contract with nationwide food and concessions provider Aramark. Its subsidiary Aramark Correctional Services serves 450 correctional facilities nationwide.
Aramark also serves the statewide corrections system in Nevada. After complaints about small portions, a lack of nutrition and expired food, the Nevada Department of Corrections said in a meeting in late August that it is revamping its food program while Aramark conducts a comprehensive review of its operations.
At first, people held in Missouri prisons welcomed the change of the outside contractor. They got better food and more meal choices.
“It was really good. Like, this is awesome,” C.R., a prisoner at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, told The Beacon. He asked to be identified by his initials out of fear of retaliation. “We thought, ‘We’re not gonna do a commissary as much, not gonna have to bother our people (for money) as much.”
But interviews with several prisoners and the relatives of others suggest it was a short-lived dining hall honeymoon. Once visits from corporate executives slowed, those people told The Beacon, the quality of the meals deteriorated.
“I don’t even eat in the kitchen because the food is bad, really,” said Gerald Johnson, who’s held at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. “There (have) been a couple of times where the food was good. But when Aramark (corporate leadership) leaves — I’m talking about a week and four days where every meal was bologna.”
Missouri’s contract with Aramark
Before hiring Aramark, the Department of Corrections was in charge of providing food, dining and staffing services in the state’s prisons.
The Aramark contract calls for three meals a day for about 23,500 people at an average of $1.77 per meal. State employees got the option to transfer their employment to the Philadelphia-based company.
Before beginning the Aramark contract, the state was spending $5.69 per prisoner per day for food and staffing. Under the Aramark contract, taxpayers spend $5.31 per prisoner per day for food and staffing.
“If you also take into consideration the considerable inflation-driven recent rise in the cost of food, the savings are significant,” DOC spokesperson Karen Pojmann said in an emailed statement.
It’s unclear where an average of $1.77 per meal stacks up nationwide, said Leslie Soble, who wrote a report, “Eating Behind Bars: Ending the Hidden Punishment of Food in Prison,” for prison reform group Impact Justice.
“It isn’t specifically about the price per meal,” Soble said, “it’s about what places are doing with that.”
Some prisons in other states may spend less per meal but focus on sourcing local ingredients for a lower rate, while others may be cutting costs in other ways.
“There are places that bake all of their own bread in the kitchen and produce a better quality product for less money than it costs to purchase an ultraprocessed bread product from a big distributor,” Soble said.
Nutrition guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommend that daily menus should reach an average of 2,800 calories and less than 3.5 grams of sodium per person. Aramark is on the hook for three meals a day, seven days a week, including religious or other specialized diets.
The company is also obligated to provide things like salt and pepper with meals, under the terms of its Missouri contract. But C.R., the incarcerated Missourian at the Pacific, Mo., prison, said that in a visit to the facility, one Aramark executive told prisoners the company isn’t contracted to provide those seasonings.
“I understand that you’re a business and have to make money, but they’ve taken salt and pepper away,” C.R. said. “If they put some salt and pepper on it, a lot of the meals would be amazing.”
Aramark is also responsible for supplying cleaning and sanitation supplies. But prisoners who spoke with The Beacon said they are scarce in their facilities. At the Jefferson City prison, the water and ice machine is broken with water running on the ground.
“Where the ice and water comes out, it’s moldy and it smells,” Johnson added. “It’s disgusting.”
Antwann Johnson, another prisoner in Jefferson City, questioned where the money was going after he heard that the kitchen had to get cleaning supplies from another division of the building.
“Where is the funding going?” Antwann Johnson said. “Sometimes we don’t even get adequate chemicals to clean these places and sanitize things properly.”
Complaints about privatized prison food services come up across the country. Michigan signed a three-year $145 million contract with Aramark meant to expire in September 2016. But that state ended the deal a year early after problems including maggots in food and inappropriate relationships between Aramark kitchen staffers and prisoners. Understaffing and staff turnover were also issues. The two parties said that the decision to terminate the contract was mutual.
Once Michigan switched back to a state-run food program, problems with staff diminished, the Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson told the Detroit Free Press.
In a comment provided to The Beacon, an Aramark spokesperson said the company follows federal and state requirements when it comes to food.
“Our team of registered dietitians worked with the Missouri DOC to develop a menu to meet nutritional guidelines and dietary needs. Our food safety processes and procedures are industry-leading; if issues are raised, we work to fix them quickly,” a spokesperson said in an email.
The realities of prison food in Missouri
Some meals have improved and people incarcerated seem to have more variety in the typical rotating menu, according to accounts shared with The Beacon.
But the same people report that some things have declined under Aramark. When the state was running food services, C.R. said, prisoners had access to powdered milk at mealtimes that they could use to help fill up when they had small portion sizes or a meal they didn’t want to eat. Now people are served milk cartons that are spoiled often enough that people have noticed a trend.
“It’s something to fill you up if the meal is kind of shorted,” C.R. said. “We used to get three or four cups of milk, like the small little cups. Now, they give us one eight-ounce carton of milk. Sometimes they’re fully spoiled. Once you take it from the window, they’re not gonna take it back.”
Compared to the general population, people in prison have poorer mental and physical health, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Studies have shown that people who spend time in prison are more likely to have high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, arthritis and infectious diseases.
Despite some facilities operating the gardens, they don’t produce enough to rely on that food to feed the state’s incarcerated population, the DOC said.
“Not every facility has a garden. It’s impossible to predict how much food will be produced in any given growing season, and clear divisions are in place between food service and restorative justice,” Pojmann said, adding that some produce is available for purchase at a commissary.
Breakfast is generally the best meal of the day inside Missouri prisons. Residents are often served eggs, pancakes or oatmeal. Lunch and dinner draw the most complaints, said Christina Shannon, the fiancee of someone in diagnostic intake at Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph.
“He is not a picky eater,” Shannon said. “The portions are so small and at lunch and dinner they have bologna, almost every day they have it for lunch or dinner. At least five days out of the week he does not eat lunch or dinner, he’ll just eat the cake or cookies.”
Shannon’s fiance has access to the commissary every two weeks and access to things like Slim Jim-style meat sticks, but he’s limited in how many he can purchase.
Many prisoners use the commissary to make their own meals. Antwann Johnson said he hasn’t eaten from the kitchen for seven years. His family sends him money so he can shop the commissary to make his own meals. But he’s seen prices go up. For example, a small bag of precooked chicken breasts costs him nearly $7, Johnson said.
He spends on things like chicken, pasta, oatmeal and powdered milk.
“I have a strict diet,” Johnson said. “But not everyone has these resources.”
Prison meals are required to be nutritionally balanced, but that doesn’t always mean they’re appetizing. Prisoners who lean more heavily on the commissary run the risk of having too much sodium in their diets, or not enough of other nutrients.
One study of county jail and commissary diets found levels of vitamin D, magnesium and omega-3s that fall short of dietary guidelines. The commissary sells multivitamins.
One answer is offering healthier commissary items, which the National Commission on Correctional Health Care included in its 2023 position statement on nutritional wellness in prisons. The group accredits facilities across the country, but it doesn’t share the credentials publicly. Barbara Wakeen, a registered dietitian nutritionist at NCCHC, said she most often gets complaints about healthier commissary items because they don’t sell.
Ricky Camplain, an epidemiologist at Indiana University, said commissary food is one of the few places that give a prisoner autonomy, even if the choices aren’t the healthiest. Most times, a registered dietitian designs a menu in prisons to ensure that it is nutritionally balanced, but the same thing doesn’t happen in commissary, she said.
“Almost all food is designed for high shelf life, because they’re selling it kind of like a convenience store,” Camplain said. “If you just eat commissary and avoid the kitchen for 10 years, your sodium levels are going to be extremely high.”