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A cartoon tray of food: concept of prison food
Illustration adapted by Teresa Tauchi (Source: Depositphotos)

In December 2022, I met with the Virginia Department of Corrections’ director of food service and other staff along with our prison’s kitchen supervisors as part of a focus group to discuss how to improve the quality of food. 

Currently the budget for each inmate is $2.20 per day, but a work group’s recommendation would increase that to $4 a day, according to a state report issued last year. 

There are three types of trays that are served here: standard, common fare and sealed. The common fare tray and the sealed tray are similar in that they both take religious dietary restrictions into consideration. 

The common fare tray typically includes soy-based meat substitutes though they alternate in fish, mackerel cakes and egg salad weekly. The side items might include potato wedges, pasta salad and other cooked vegetable items. The sealed tray typically includes a soy-based meal with noodles or a tuna hash and a side dish of raw vegetables at lunch and dinner. 

I receive the sealed tray — even though it is for religious purposes, some of us choose it as a healthier option. I used to receive the common fare tray, which had been considered the healthy alternative until it went downhill. 

In our focus group, inmates representing voices for all three trays expressed concerns about the quality and quantity of food items. We were told new changes would be made to all trays starting Feb. 6. 

On that Monday, new items were rolled out for the standard trays, but not for the common fare and sealed trays. The representatives from the corrections department were present all week to get feedback. 

Those of us who received sealed trays were highly disappointed to get yakisoba noodles with soy meat and radishes. Soy meat tastes horrible. I didn’t hear what common fare trays contained, but I know it wasn’t anything new either. Meanwhile, standard tray recipients received a chicken leg quarter, fried cabbage, sweet potatoes, a roll with butter and an apple.

Staff asked those of us who don’t receive standard trays if we wanted to pay $3.25 for a standard tray. They also asked us if we wanted to get off of sealed trays. The food director said the sealed meals were expensive. 

According to the rules, people on a religious diet who are observed eating another kind of meal are required to pay for the cost of the religious meal. 

On Thursday, the meal was yakisoba again, so many of us picked up a standard tray. We were told that we would be charged, and they marked our names down. 

The sealed meals have no expiration or manufacture date on them. We are constantly being given the same meal, and the vegetable seems to mostly consist of radishes. 

Kitchen workers have told many of us that they have been instructed to freeze, reheat and serve any sealed meal not handed out. Doing this creates bacteria and makes us very sick.

For example, I complained to the kitchen supervisor in January about a sealed hot dog and bean meal I received. The hot dog was very dark and the beans had what appeared to be bugs on it. Closer inspection revealed a ton of unhatched maggots.

Many women in my wing ate this meal and were very sick.

The supervisor responded that they pull two trays for each meal to check for safe internal temperatures. “I have never encountered a bad tray,” the supervisor said. 

The week before that, women in another building complained that the vegan chicken they were served tasted sour. To receive a standard tray, they were told they had to pay $3.25. 

In late April, I received a notice from the assistant warden that responded to the various complaints I had made about the sealed meals. “There are four weekly menus currently utilized for sealed religious diet. There is nothing stating you are to receive three packages of tuna a week. Tuna hash or tuna fish is served two times a week by the meal. New religious diet trays coming out are dry trays in which you just add hot water,” it read. The note reiterated that people who are signed up for sealed meals would get charged if they take a regular tray, and there would be no refunds for the charges. 

The new trays the assistant warden spoke of are the same every day for both lunch and dinner. The flavors are different — barbecue or Texas hash yakisoba, for example — but they are all made of soy meat.

Until the prison provides better sealed trays, we should not be charged $3.25 to eat a meal. We should not go into debt over food that they are supposed to provide.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Donna Hockman is a mother of two grown children as well as a grandmother. She is incarcerated in Virginia.