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Chow Hall is a semi-regular column by Justin Slavinski, a writer incarcerated in Florida who provides anecdotes and insights about food and meals served in prison.

In my last column, I explored the awful taste of Florida prison meat patties. The Florida Department of Corrections and its for-profit food services provider, Aramark, claim we have nine meat patties on our FDC menus.

But as I’ve learned through taste tests, the patties are indistinguishable from each other in how they taste, feel or look. They are all the same kind of nasty.

These patties are “meatloaf,” “country,” “charbroiled,” “fish,” “Buffalo chicken,” “chicken sausage,” “pepper chicken,” “crispy chicken” and “zesty chicken.”

On paper, the food sounds enticing. But when it’s plopped on my tray, it’s bland and gray. Why do recipes that sound tasty turn into disappointments?  

Aramark, which is based in Pennsylvania, provides “food service, facilities and uniform services to hospitals, universities, school districts and stadiums” around the country, according to their website. In Florida, it’s responsible for feeding some 90,000 residents of state prisons.

This means that if Aramark saves one penny per resident per day in the FDC, they save $328,500 in a year. That may not sound like much to a company that made $33 million in profit in 2022, according to Forbes. But when you think about the three meals a day we are supposed to be served, that $328,500 in savings rises closer to $1 million saved per year. 

And let’s be real: I imagine the cost difference between (identifiable) ground or sliced turkey and an (unidentifiable) patty is more than a single copper penny. What if those savings are 5 cents or 10 cents per patty? The profit accumulates quickly for Aramark.

This is where we reach another problem with the Florida prison system. Residents who work in the dining hall, serving these cheap meals, go unpaid for their labor. Aramark places two or three employees in branded shirts at each institution. But the 100-or-so residents who clean tables, stir with a canoe paddle the big pots of pasta or rice, or flip patties on the grill are wholly unpaid. They make no money.

Between the cost savings from serving unidentifiable “meat” patties and having virtually no labor costs, Aramark must be whistling a jaunty tune before diving into a pool full of money — Scrooge McDuck style. 

Unlike the meat we are served, there is no great mystery to Aramark’s motives. They are not responsible for providing the best possible, most nutritious, most appealing food to Florida prisons, because it is a for-profit company. The company, above all, is beholden to its shareholders, who only expect a profit. 

Should I blame Aramark for seeking to turn a profit? Should I blame the FDC for outsourcing a basic service, as they have with my medical care (to another for-profit company called Centurion)? Should I blame myself for committing a crime and ending up in prison in the first place? 

The answer is “yes” to all three questions.

Aramark has come under fire before. In 2015, the Michigan Department of Corrections ended its $145 million contract with Aramark because of employee misconduct and food contamination, according to CBS Detroit (WWJ-TV). One person in an Indiana prison said he lost 10 pounds while eating Aramark’s food because it was so far below the needed daily calorie count. Another person in an Indiana prison was granted an injunction against Aramark because they kept trying to serve him meals he was allergic to. 

Concerns about Aramark have even surfaced in a college in my state: Florida State University. There, students held a three-day boycott of the company because it was underpaying workers and not providing adequate sick leave or personal protective equipment in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In Aramark’s defense, they provide us with ice cream, and they offer an alternate entrée option to the awful patties for every lunch and dinner in which meat is offered. The alternative, most of the time, is a cup of unseasoned beans.

Maybe there’s another cost-saving ulterior motive at play here? Offer unidentifiable patties to us incarcerated folk in hopes that we’ll be so grossed out, we have to choose the cheaper option that makes Aramark even more money: beans.   

Either way we go, we’re left disappointed, while Aramark counts its cash.

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.