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A week's menu of meals issued by the Florida Department of Corrections.
Menu image courtesy of Henry Unger

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the meals provided to us by the Florida Department of Corrections may actually be somewhat healthy, at least compared to food purchased at the prison canteen.  

Take, for example, chili mac, a recent meal served inside. Out in the free world, this is a pretty simple dish. Boil some noodles. Brown some ground beef. Toss in a can of kidney beans. Maybe sauté a few onions, peppers and tomatoes. Mix it all together and season to taste. Voila! A real, free-world meal. 

Now, the prison’s version boils the noodles until they resemble paste. There are no onions or peppers, and the ground beef has been replaced with an unidentifiable ground-meat-like-substance. There’s also no seasoning. 

How much healthier can it get? 

Detail of weekly menu (click to enlarge)

And I get it. I totally get it. Cooking industrially for more than 1,800 people three times a day is hard. Fact is, most FDC meals — provided via its food vendor Aramark — are pretty bland. And if they’re not bland, they’re over- or undercooked. Or, worse, they’re unrecognizable as food. 

But the chili mac is not food — even for the incarcerated. I have no expectation for Michelin stars, Zagat ratings or positive Yelp reviews. But every once in a while the meals here are worthy of true scorn.

When that happens, I have a choice: grimace and eat, or eat in the dormitory. 

Eating in the dormitory means purchasing overpriced gas station junk food from the canteen. There you can buy ramen noodle soups, condiments and generic Slim Jims. Pouches of Kraft cheese and cans of sardines and tuna line the shelves. Rounding out the selection is a profusion of off-brand potato chips, cookies, crackers and snacks. There are no vegetables, unless you count potatoes and pickles. 

These items, in various combinations and permutations, form the basis of virtually every meal eaten in the dormitory. 

Here are the ingredients for a typical “bowl” I might eat to replace an awful meal in the dining hall:

  • 1 packet ramen (71 cents, 370 calories, about 500 mg sodium [with 1/4 of the seasoning packet], 14 g fat)
  • 1 pouch mackerel with green chilies ($1.74, 150 calories, 180 mg sodium, 11 g fat)
  • 1 Kraft cheese squeeze (76 cents, 160 calories, 170 mg sodium, 17 g fat)
  • 1/3 package Velveeta spicy refried beans and cheese (64 cents, 145 calories, 410 mg sodium, 3 g fat)
  • 1 package Doritos ($1.29, 260 calories, 360 mg sodium, 13 g fat)

These total 1,085 calories (54% of the daily allowance), 1,620 mg sodium (72%), 58 g fat (74%). 

As a point of comparison, a medium Big Mac value meal has 1,080 calories, 1,325 mg of sodium and 45 g of fat. 

Holy health problems! For a meal costing a little over $5, that’s a heck of a sobering revelation. It might not be flavorless mush, this is why I call dining hall meals healthier. 

Some meals we prepare in the dorm are even cheaper to make. The cheapest might be a “soup sandwich.” 

Here’s that recipe: Open one end of a ramen soup bag and fill it with hot water. Drain in 2 minutes, unfold the two halves, spread on mayonnaise, ketchup or both. Consume. 

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still skinny — well, mostly — and my blood pressure and cholesterol don’t seem to be causing any health problems. But one can only imagine the effect of eating meals of this sort in the dormitory every day. There are many, many residents who do just that. 

The dining hall too aggressively offers up carbohydrates at every meal. One recent tray had rice, pasta salad and two slices of bread. But at least meals in the dining hall are low in fat and sodium. And they at least try to give us vegetables — as overcooked and drowned as they are. 

The FDC meals are “better,” with hard air quotes and as much disdain as possible. 

Final rating: 7 out of 10.

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.

Justin Slavinski is a writer for Endeavor, a publication at Everglades Correctional Institution in Florida.