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Maine prisons’ food program on track to become national model

Maine’s facilities have grown much of their own food in on-site organic gardens, baked all their own breads and bought discounted produce and grains

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By Tim Cebula
Portland Press Herald

WINDHAM, Maine — At lunchtime on a Monday this month, inmates working the kitchen line at the Maine Correctional Center loaded up trays with big, fluffy house-baked dinner rolls and fresh steamed broccoli that sat astride mounds of pasta Bolognese, its meaty sauce packed with ground beef, ricotta and Parmesan cheese, fresh garlic and bell peppers.

The workers finished the trays with ripe-and-ready bananas and cartons of local milk from Oakhurst Dairy, nourishing ingredients that are a rarity at prisons in this country, where the food typically ranges from unappealing to inedible. That could change, though, with a new initiative just getting underway that aims to turn the Maine Department of Corrections’ food program into a model that other states can replicate.

“Maine is one of the most progressive DOCs in the country, and certainly when it comes to food,” said Leslie Soble, senior manager for Impact Justice’s Food in Prison program. “It’s already at a standard that is higher than pretty much anywhere else in the country.”

In a 2020 survey of former state prison inmates nationwide — undertaken by Impact Justice, a California-based nonprofit prison-reform group — 75 percent of respondents said their meal trays were all too often filled with spoiled food like moldy bread, curdled milk, rotten meat and slimy bagged salad mix.

Some of the inmates surveyed had worked in their prison kitchens, and recalled cooking and serving canned products years past their expiration dates, as well as packages of chicken and beef marked “not for human consumption.” It’s no surprise, then, that incarcerated people are six times more likely than the general public to be sickened by foodborne illness, as the Impact Justice report notes.

“The state of prison food in this country is unacceptable,” Soble said. “The message we’re sending people who are incarcerated is: You’re less than human. You’re not worthy of care.”

But state prisons in the Maine Department of Corrections system stand head and shoulders above most of their counterparts in other states. For several years now, Maine’s five adult state correctional facilities have grown much of their own food in on-site organic gardens, baked all their own breads and bought discounted produce and grains from local vendors. The state’s exemplary efforts make it a model for other correctional systems nationwide, according to Impact Justice’s full 2020 report on prison food in America, which includes the inmate survey results.

Now, the Maine DOC has entered into a new, first-of-its-kind pilot program with Impact Justice and Brigaid — a Connecticut-based company founded in 2016 by a former chef of Copenhagen’s famed Noma restaurant that uses trained chefs as advisors to improve institutional food in settings like school cafeterias, hospitals and senior centers.

Brigaid has provided the Maine DOC with a chef, Colin Freeman from Philadelphia, who starts work in Windham on Tuesday. The innovative program — funded entirely by private foundation grants and individual donations — intends to make Maine’s approach the standard operating procedure at prisons across the country.

“We’ve already had other states come see what we’re doing, and in the spring, we’ll have a bunch more come, I’m certain of it,” said Randall Liberty, commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections. “If we demonstrate success in Maine with this, I know it can be replicated nationally.”

MAKING MAINE THE MODEL

“The folks at Maine DOC are forward-thinking. They already do a good job in these kitchens — the standard is already very high,” said Dan Giusti, founder of Brigaid, who visited Maine correctional facilities multiple times last year to prepare for this initiative.

“I was told they were good, but I was really shocked by the extent of what they’re doing there,” Giusti continued, noting that this is the first correctional system with which Brigaid has partnered. “They make all their own bread — so much is made from scratch.”

In fact, Giusti said the level of competence and quality on display in Maine’s correctional system kitchens caused him to shift Brigaid’s focus in the pilot program. Usually when Brigaid chefs go into an institutional system, such as the New London, Connecticut, schools where they first started, their first task is to remediate the food program and raise the quality of the food being prepared.

“When I saw the food they were serving, it seemed foolish for improving the food to be the initiative,” Giusti said. While the food in Maine’s prisons can still be further improved, he said the chief focus of the pilot program will be to codify the food system.

“What we want to do is package this all up in a way that’s digestible, and put out a model that’s very practical that any prison system can also use,” Giusti said.

Training the kitchen staff is another of Brigaid’s key concerns when partnering with institutions, though in this case the training will be geared even more toward potential work in the future. The state’s corrections system already offers culinary training and line cook apprenticeship programs, along with providing ServSafe and food preservation certifications. Giusti said he hopes also to develop a Brigaid certification process, accepted nationwide, that vouches for the certificate holder’s core competencies in the kitchen.

Krista Okerholm, director of culinary and food sustainability for the Windham facilities, said the Maine DOC has 127 inmates working in facility kitchens, with another 55 enrolled in food certification programs. “So that’s a large number of people that could be going back out into society to work in hospitality,” Okerholm said.

Earlier this month, Greg Royer, food service manager for the Windham facility, was helping inmate and kitchen worker Lee Williams put together a resume in preparation for his imminent release.

“I have a list of skills, and I put some really good food out of here,” said Williams, 37, who has been at Windham since 2019 for domestic violence. Williams makes much of the facility’s soup in its 100-gallon steam kettles, including corn chowder, chicken and rice soup, and fish chowder. “I’m the soup man. Everybody knows I’m the soup man.”

Kitchen work is a morale booster for Williams, and he seeks to spread the good feelings through his food. “I like to look out of that little window (between the kitchen and the dining hall) and see people smile when they eat our food. They give us the thumbs up, saying, ‘This is good.’ And that feels excellent.”

“With the Brigaid program, the residents will become even more qualified for good work outside,” said Royer, noting that the enhanced training under Freeman will ready the residents not just for work in other institutional kitchens and cafeterias, but also for restaurants.

‘A NUTRITIOUS MEAL IS A RIGHT’

Chef Freeman was chosen for the position from about 30 applicants, including some chefs from Maine. The last stage of the hiring process was a cook-off, in which Freeman and two other candidates each paired up with an inmate worker and whipped up sample meals for a panel of about six staff judges. The meals were expected to meet a list of requirements, including nutritional value, cost-effectiveness and, of course, tastiness.

Freeman’s meal — honey mustard-glazed chicken thighs, kale salad and spaetzle — won big points in all categories, including novelty.

“I remember thinking, wow, spaetzle. I bet almost nobody in this kitchen besides me knows what this is,” Okerholm said of the German egg noodles, a dish that’s already had a seemingly positive effect within the Windham prison. “Once he explained to them what he made and how easy it was to do, one resident in the kitchen said, ‘Oh my God, it’s so easy! I’m going to make it next week for everyone.’ ”

“I chose to make spaetzle because it’s not only a delicious meal, but it’s also a skill I can pass on to the residents,” Freeman said. “The resident I was working with was very excited and talking about how he’s going to make this for his family one day. That interaction is a perfect example of the Brigaid mission.”

Freeman was the clear choice for the job also in part because he built a fast, easy rapport with inmates in the kitchen.

“It was important that whoever we chose had a good vibe with the residents and was really comfortable in this setting,” Okerholm said. "(Freeman) was extremely charismatic. All of the residents just kind of flocked to him and wanted to know all about what he was making.”

Freeman, who has worked in restaurants for the past 11 years, said Brigaid’s reputation was what initially led him to the Maine position. “I had been following the company for quite some time on social media and was very moved by the positive change they were making in the communities they serve,” he said.

“I decided to apply because I truly believe in what this company does, changing lives through food and being able to have a positive impact on people everyday,” Freeman continued. “Access to a nutritious meal is a right that I think all people deserve, regardless of their circumstances.”

BETTER FOOD AT A LOWER COST

People spearheading this pilot program said they realize the promise of better nutrition and improved morale may not be enough to sway decision makers at correctional systems in other states. But the cost-effectiveness of a self-sustaining food program like Maine’s should get their attention.

At the Mountain View facility in Charleston, Food Service Manager Mark McBrine has been overseeing scratch baking and organic gardening farm-to-tray programs for several years. When the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates gave McBrine its Operator of the Year award last year, Maine correctional facilities grew about 25,000 pounds of produce.

With new garden beds being prepared in Windham, that number could jump as high as 65,000 pounds this year, according to Okerholm. Maine DOC donates any surplus produce to area food pantries and soup kitchens. But the bounty allows for admirable variety in the kitchen — McBrine said Mountain View has served as many as 11 kinds of coleslaw alone, featuring veggies like beets, kohlrabi and bok choy.

“That way, food doesn’t become boring. Our approach also allows us to serve better food at a lower cost,” McBrine said. “We’ve always come in under budget, and that isn’t always the case for other facilities.”

He said any extra budgeted funds are used to buy equipment that saves even more money down the road, like a processor that can handle 2,200 pounds of potatoes an hour, cutting them into fries, wedges and even thin slices for scalloped potatoes au gratin.

Soble said other prison systems — she cited Arkansas and Texas in particular — also have inmates working farms, but the crops they harvest are sold to other state agencies or corporations. “So the people who are actually out there in the sun working hard farm labor don’t have access to any of that food. They get lower-level food purchased cheaply,” Soble said. “It’s really shameful.”

Freeman will work in the Maine DOC kitchens for the next year and half, Soble said. After that, Impact Justice will conduct a formal evaluation of the program. Within two years, Soble’s organization expects to have a concrete operational model ready to use in other state correctional systems.

Giusti said that, for Freeman’s first few weeks in Maine, “a lot of what Colin will be doing is spending time in the facilities, acclimating himself to the kitchens and operations and building relationships. We’re there to collaborate,” Giusti said, adding that he’ll also be in Maine for Freeman’s first week on the job.

“It’s really important to me that I have a good understanding myself of all these things,” Giusti said.

Liberty said he expects multiple benefits to come from the Brigaid initiative. “It’s a good way to enhance our residents’ ability to cook and create, to boost our food service managers’ creativity, and elevate the quality of food the residents receive,” he said, noting that the rewards also extend beyond the prison walls.

“Ninety-five percent of these people will be released back in the community,” Liberty said. “And the question is, when they are released, are they better workers, taxpayers, family and community members than when they arrived? The work we’re doing here absolutely gives them an opportunity to be successful.”

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(c)2023 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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