Posted August 12, 2020
The Corrections Sector in New England faces unique challenges and opportunities to increase the amount of local food it purchases and serves to its incarcerated population. Like many other institutions, food operations in prisons and jails have been profoundly disrupted by the COVID-19 virus as facilities struggle to adapt to new protocols around viral containment. Food remains a critical part of life for incarcerated people impacting their health and morale. Since food is a basic right, Farm to Institution New England (FINE) hosted a forum on June 11, 2020, to learn more about how facilities are responding to the pandemic.
More than 50 people from the corrections sector registered for the forum to listen and share about topics related to racial equity, serving real food, keeping incarcerated populations safe, educational food programs, and food supply chain disruptions that have created unique local purchasing challenges and opportunities. Although not all of the essential voices were at the table, we learned that COVID-19 has been affecting many incarcerated people's health, wellness, and lives as seen in a state by state break down of coronavirus in prisons. Leslie Soble, a research fellow with Impact Justice, reminded us that across the country many facilities have reduced food standards by serving only cold food, no fruits or vegetables, limited service to only two meals a day, and repeatedly serving the same meals such as bologna sandwiches with chips, as summarized in a journal article by The Marshall Project. She noted that many facilities have overcrowded dining areas, and are lacking personal protective gear, hand sanitizer or a hand washing station. Further, many departments of corrections lack the capacity and resources to make meaningful improvements at this time.
A Positive Example - Mountain View Correctional Facility, Charleston, Maine
Some in the carceral food system, however, have adapted to provide safe, healthy, and local food. Mark McBrine, Food Service Manager at the Mountain View Correctional Facility, shared how the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) has adapted their protocols to protect against the virus, while also serving high-quality food. In his experience, good food can boost morale and support mental health for those incarcerated, while being more cost-effective than highly processed, poor quality, unappealing, food alternatives high in sugar, salts, and fats.
Mark noted that “Comfort food, especially in stressful and intense situations is extremely helpful.” Recognizing that the Thanksgiving meal is a favorite among the incarcerated people he feeds, he decided to serve an off-season feast in the middle of the pandemic. He took advantage of COVID-19 supply chain disruptions and was able to purchase whole, free-range, local Maine turkeys at the significantly discounted price of $0.59 per pound. The meal was a huge success. Mark felt it gave the incarcerated population something to look forward to, and galvanized the food service workers, many of whom are part of the prison population, to come together to produce a special event.
With schools and restaurants closed, food that was destined for those markets became available at a discounted rate. Mark and his staff had been calling Sysco, their food distributor, daily to find out about new deals. That proactiveness paid off when Sysco offered the facility whole boneless prime ribs that were sold for cheaper than ground beef prices. Other opportunity purchases made recently include a variety of Maine-grown vegetables such as brussel sprouts, beets, and tri-colored carrots. Most of the vegetables were used in salads or roasted and served as a side dish. But, when a large case of beets came in, Mark saw an educational opportunity on food preservation. After a quick lesson, the incarcerated kitchen staff transformed the case of beets into a dozen, five-gallon buckets of pickled beets.
This isn’t the first time the kitchen was turned into a classroom. Mountain View also prioritizes education with its Bakery Program, where a select group of incarcerated individuals learn the skills to produce bread, muffins, hotdog / hamburger rolls, sub sandwich bread, english muffins, cinnamon buns, brownies, pita bread, and more. During COVID-19, the Bakery Program made morning glory muffins which were filled with bananas, carrots, and raisins, for a breakfast special.
When COVID-19 hit, Mark knew the Maine Department of Corrections would have to change some food service standards, including switching to isolated eating in individual cells, pods, units, or dorms. However, Mountain View was able to create a meal system where half the population was fed in the dining hall every other day. Rotating the population through the main dining halls at a six foot distance with personal protective gear allowed for some social time and boosted morale.
For the first two days, the Mountain View Correctional Facility used all disposable paper products to serve meals but quickly realized this was too costly and wasteful to be sustainable. One incarcerated person came up with the ingenious idea of using portable coolers for delivering individual meals to the incarcerated population, saving the facility hundreds of dollars per day.
Due to COVID-19 all work release programs were cancelled, leaving the portable coolers available for meal delivery to incarcerated folks in their cells which reduced the use of costly, disposable paper products.
Although very few facilities operate like Mountain View Correctional Facility, the example demonstrates what is possible, and the benefits in financial savings and quality of food. “It’s really not rocket science,” comments Mark McBrine, “it’s just trying to care and do the right thing...We have had very little incidents...and I really believe the food and atmosphere has really helped the situation.”
Thank you to all who participated in this important ongoing dialogue. Please stay tuned for more information coming soon about FINE’s strategy and plans for the corrections sector. We are interested in engaging a more diverse set of people, including currently incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and people of color in these discussions to provide an authentic portrayal of challenges and opportunities in the carceral system. If you have feedback, resources, or connections to share, contact Brittany Florio, [email protected].
All photos courtesy of Mark McBrine at Mountain View Correctional Facility, Charleston, ME.
Forum recorded June 11, 2020 As part of FINE's series on how institutional food systems are being impacted by COVID-19, this online forum provided those who work at the intersection of the food and carceral systems an opportunity for peer-to-peer exchange.
Photos courtesy of Mark McBrine at Mountain View Correctional Facility.