Sitting down at the dinner table for a home-cooked meal or going out to a favorite restaurant is a freedom that county jail inmates cannot enjoy.
But they still need to eat.
On any given day at the Okaloosa or Walton county jails, where inmates are incarcerated for a year or less, thousands of meals are served to hungry inmates three times a day.
Both jails have a 28-day rotating menu, use inmate labor to prepare and serve meals, and have special menu items for those with medical issues or religious dietary needs.
For inmates at both of the detention facilities, having access to nutritious meals is both a necessity and a priority.
“Food service in a jail is critically important,” said Stefan Vaughn, chief correctional officer and director of the Okaloosa County Jail. “First and foremost, it’s important for us to provide proper nutrition ... but food is always an issue with incarcerated populations. Riots will start over that. We want to prevent that.”
At both county jails, meals are prepared with inmate labor. The inmates prepare, cook and serve the food while being overseen by civilian inmate supervisors.
“The supervisors direct the traffic, but the inmates do most of the cooking,” said John Lyons, food service manager for the Walton County Jail. “It’s mostly about team building. You get new inmates in, you show them how you want it and you build a team base.”
Officials from the Santa Rosa County Jail did not give the Daily News access to their jail food services, menu options or other information as requested for this story.
The Walton County Jail regularly feeds over 500 inmates on a daily basis. At a cost of $1.54 per inmate per day, Lyons buys some of the food in bulk from a food supply company, but takes pride in growing several items on the prison farm.
“We get most of our veggies from our farm,” Lyons said. “We’ve really stepped it up and are producing a lot of quality stuff now.”
Jail inmates plant and harvest potatoes, rutabagas, beans and a variety of greens on their farm plot that sits adjacent to the jail. Their 28-day menu includes breakfast items such as eggs, grits and fruit; lunch items such as grilled cheese sandwiches, turkey salad and bologna; and dinner items such as stir fry, chicken stew and sloppy Joes.
Ariel Marlowe, an inmate at the jail, said she enjoys the food.
“It’s great,” she said. “There are lots of spices in it and it’s never bland.”
Lyons, who has been the jail’s food service manager for six years, said quality food is important for preventing riots at the jail, but also for keeping the inmates’ morale high.
“It comes down to caring about what you do and trying to feed people like they are people,” he said. “The heart of the jail is the kitchen. If we can make their meal right three times a day, it might just make their day a little bit better.”
The Okaloosa County Jail feeds an average of 750 inmates at a cost of $2.46 per inmate per day. Vaughn, the jail’s director, said the jail upgraded to a contracted vendor after listening to inmates’ complaints about the previous jail food.
“They were complaining about the taste and the quality of the food,” he said. “Although it met dietary requirements, it just outwardly appeared that it could be better.”
Vaughn said that he decided to look at food service “through another lens” with a focus on quantity and quality, and ultimately decided to hire Trinity Services Group to provide the jail’s food. Since then, he said inmates have been increasingly satisfied with their meals.
“We started looking more holistically at food,” Vaughn said. “Not just about food, but about what food can do.”
The Okaloosa County Jail inmates who serve and prepare the food also participate in a program that allows them to acquire a food service certification while in jail, making them more employable when they are released and hopefully reducing recidivism.
The jail's menu consists of breakfast items including cottage fried potatoes, sausage and oatmeal; lunch items including chili, meatloaf and mashed potatoes; and dinner items including macaroni and cheese casserole, rice pilaf and chicken patties with country gravy. A dietitian constructs the menu each month.
Vaughn said he hopes inmates’ jail food selections will reduce what he calls myths surrounding what it’s like to be in jail.
“The perception is that (jail) is a dirty, nasty place with people who mistreat you,” Vaughn said. “Those folks are either misinformed or the message is ill-conceived.”