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The Homegrown Meals In This Prison Stand Out Against Most Unpalatable Jail Food

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Food served in prisons and jails is notoriously dreadful. Picture mystery meat drenched with dull gravy with a heavy reliance on overly processed starch. One advocacy group has identified an exception to this trend, though - Maine's Mountain View Correctional Center. From Maine Public Radio, Susan Sharon has more.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Studies show that prison diets are often lacking in nutrition, low in fruits and vegetables, and high in salt, sugar and saturated fat. According to the advocacy group Impact Justice, many meals are downright unpalatable - overcooked, undercooked or just plain rotten. Russell Rollins says the worst meals he's had during his incarceration were in county jail.

RUSSELL ROLLINS: Usually the lettuce that they give you and stuff over there, it's all brown. And it's slimy. And it definitely does a number on the guts (laughter).

SHARON: When Julio Orsini served time in county jail, he says he worked in the kitchen, where he noticed boxes of food labeled not for human consumption.

JULIO ORSINI: So, like, the oatmeal, the ham, you know, and just questioning to ourselves, it's like, you know, what are they feeding us?

SHARON: Leslie Soble of the Prison Food Project at Impact Justice says stories like these are not unusual.

LESLIE SOBLE: It's really hard to provide a good quality and nourishing meal for about $3 per person per day, which is about the average in this country. It's much less in some facilities.

SHARON: And, says Soble, there's a general lack of accountability and oversight around food preparation in correctional settings.

SOBLE: You know, there's this sentiment that individuals who have caused harm are not deserving of quality food. They're not deserving of wellness and of care. You know, they're not disposable, but that's the message that we're sending to them through food.

SHARON: With just under 400 residents, the Mountain View Correctional Center in Charleston, Maine, is taking a different approach. Unlike other places he's been incarcerated, head cook Tim Rooney says here, the emphasis is on making meals from scratch.

TIM ROONEY: Tonight we're doing a spinach and kale salad and doing a chicken cacciatore over rice.

SHARON: Rooney says he's been able to create a healthier menu using locally sourced products and fresh organic vegetables which are grown and harvested by Mountain View residents on a 5-acre plot across the road.

ROONEY: We have probably 20 different kinds of head lettuce. We've got spinach, chard, beets, Asian greens.

SHARON: Mark McBrine is the food service manager in charge of the prison's agriculture program. An organic farmer by trade, he's passionate about the farm-to-table movement, even if that table happens to be in an institution surrounded by razor wire. In its first year, the program produced 100,000 pounds of vegetables and came in under budget.

MARK MCBRINE: Not only did we save money, but what we were able to produce for meals was a better quality than what we had been doing.

SHARON: Julio Orsini says, before he came to Mountain View, it had been a year and a half since he'd had fresh produce. And the food in jail was so horrible, he was regularly skipping meals. Now he's getting paid a little bit of money to raise vegetables that show up on his lunch and dinner tray for a good part of the year.

ORSINI: I love it, actually. I mean, I love just watching all this stuff grow, all the hard work that you put into the field and all the harvest you get.

SHARON: Maine corrections officials think they can replicate the program in other facilities. There's just one thing they still need - a way to process vegetables and extend their life beyond the growing season.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.