Not your grandma’s meatballs: An inside look at jail food in Teton County
JACKSON — From behind a glass partition in the visiting room at the Teton County Jail, inmate Zach Ladnier describes one of the best meals he’s ever had.
“Once a week we got French toast, and it was the best French toast I have ever eaten in my life,” he said. “It had this thick bread, and it was covered in syrup and bacon.”
Ladnier wasn’t at a five-star restaurant brunching with friends when he had the best French toast he’s ever eaten.
He was a prisoner at the Wyoming Department of Corrections Honor Farm in Riverton.
“I don’t think I have ever eaten that good,” he said. “The food here makes me miss prison.”
But Ladnier conceded he does enjoy the spaghetti.
Keeping inmates fed at the Teton County Jail can be costly due to the low inmate population. And while the corporate contractor that provides the food strives to offer nutritious recipes that appeal to inmates, some, like Ladnier, question the quality and portions. The corporate corrections food company also put the kibosh on weekly food donations from the Jackson Cupboard recently, saying it’s too risky to serve food that’s dropped off at the jail and not vetted.
The county’s jail food contract is being put back out for bid soon, which happens routinely, but Sheriff Matt Carr said his office only ever gets one bidder: Summit Food Service.
For fewer than 21 total inmates, meals cost $10.27 each, though in the newest proposal they’ll go up to $10.63, Lt. Chett Hooper said. For facilities with 45 or more inmates, meals cost $6.04 each. Teton County hardly ever has more than 21 people in custody. Last Monday there were seven inmates.
Jail and prison food is ever-changing and hasn’t always been a corporate industry.
The Teton County Jail used to get its meals delivered by the hospital. Before that it was a local restaurateur preparing and delivering meals. These days, meals are made in house by two or three cooks who are hired by Summit.
The inmates don’t shy away from complaining about the food.
“I haven’t seen a salad since I’ve been in here,” former inmate Casey Hardison said.
While some meals are better than others, Ladnier especially dislikes one dish.
“They have like frozen meatballs, and it’s cooked with gravy,” he said. “It’s the worst thing I’ve eaten. A lot of us compare it to dog food.”
While it sounds harsh, the food preparers take such feedback into consideration.
Food at jails and prisons varies depending on who’s making the menus and who’s cooking the food.
At the Wyoming Department of Corrections, inmate workers prepare a lot of the meals, and they’re made in house. A contract dietitian builds the menus based on federally mandated dietary allowances.
“I’ve been in this business a long time, and in my experience Wyoming makes really good meals,” said Paul Martin, deputy administrator of the Department of Corrections’ transparency division. “A lot of it is commercially purchased, but we do grow some of our own produce.”
Martin was quick to defend the food, despite its poor reception, at the Teton County Jail: “Just because they don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t nutritional,” he said.
Hardison described “hockey puck hamburgers” and meals that are heavy on carbs and lacking in protein, leaving inmates hungry.
“It’s just enough food to piss off an 8-year-old,” he said.
Hardison said it’s common to buy snacks from the canteen between meals to supplement.
He also brought up a concern about food waste.
“You have to eat everything or throw it away,” he said.
Jackson Cupboard volunteer Ben Read used to deliver fruit and other assorted snacks to the inmates, but Summit Food Service stopped allowing the donations.
“We don’t take their donations because we buy from approved vendors,” said Justin Urrizaga, Summit Food Service’s regional district manager. “It was nothing against him. ... but I don’t know what he did to it.”
Urrizaga said he can’t compromise the safety of inmates by accepting outside donations.
“Do expired pretzels go bad? I don’t know,” he said. “But if the expiration date is bad we can’t serve them. We are providing 100 percent of their nutritional needs.”
According to Emily Dale, a registered dietitian with Summit Food Service, nutrition is an important factor when designing correctional facility menus. They get their ingredients the same way restaurants do, delivered from approved vendors. Their most popular meals across all facilities are pizza, cheeseburgers, and spaghetti and meatballs, she said.
“The most important factors in building a menu for a correctional facility are taste, variety and nutrition,” Dale said. “The menus are based off our tested recipes that provide great flavor through spices and a variety of ingredients.”
Those recipes are always changing, Urrizaga said.
“We do adjust menus frequently,” he said. “If nobody likes the spaghetti and everyone is complaining we will make menu changes to replace it. It just has to meet the same nutritional requirements.”
If inmates refuse a meal they don’t get something else brought to them, Ladnier said.
He often hears inmates griping about the food.
“A lot of people will send it back,” he said. “But then you don’t eat.”
Urrizaga, who manages 12 correctional institutions’ kitchens around Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, said they do take feedback seriously.
“If we are serving meals the inmates don’t care for it doesn’t do me any favors continuing to feed it to them,” he said. “When they are upset all the time because they don’t like the food, it doesn’t help anyone.”
Urrizaga doesn’t like the cliche attached to jail food.
“People say it’s ‘inmate food,’ and that drives me crazy,” he said. “It’s the same as restaurants. I order from all the same vendors that restaurants do.”
Urrizaga travels between his dozen facilities, but he has two cooks who work in a kitchen on the main floor inside the Teton County Jail.
There’s only so much room for creativity in the kitchen, because nutritional guidelines are set by the federal government.
“They say how much protein we serve every day and what vitamins and minerals get served in a seven-day period,” Urrizaga said. “We follow the same guidelines the schools do to ensure proper nutrition.”
Some meals are made to order for inmates with food allergies or dietary restrictions tied to religion.
“We live in a country where there is religious freedom,” Urrizaga said, “the way it should be. ... so we can’t tell them we won’t honor it. I don’t want anyone violating my personal religious beliefs.”
Not every jail or prison in the U.S. honors religious diets, but Teton County Jail does upon request, Urrizaga said.
“You might have a Muslim diet that is no pork or a kosher diet,” he said. “We have guidelines there as far as how we prepare their food.”
If someone is vegetarian there are amended meals to make sure the inmate is still getting enough protein, Urrizaga said.
Urrizaga said he eats the meals all the time. His favorite that they make is chili mac, a dish with pasta in the chili.
“I have always viewed it as … if you are incarcerated, whether you’re convicted or not, the food should not be part of the punishment,” he said. “I strive to put out good meals to everybody.”
Overall, Sheriff Carr said he’s pretty happy with Summit’s services. Having the meals prepared in house actually reduces food waste, he said, and is more convenient.
“We used to have to call the hospital every morning and tell them how many inmates we had,” he said. “Then if someone got out of jail there was an extra. And we’d have to pick it up and return trays to the hospital twice a day. It was tough.”
Carr also said that when you measure Summit’s food costs and employee expenses, it’s not the worst deal for Teton County.
“If you think about it, it’s a really good deal,” he said. “There is nowhere else in Jackson you can go eat for $10.”