The DOC currently spends between $2.26 to $2.55 per prisoner per day on meals, or about $.75 to $.85 apiece. The global pandemic and the nationwide drop in oil prices has caused the state a $1.4 billion loss in revenue. To compensate, lawmakers slashed the DOC budget by $24.4 million in 2020. Now the DOC must find ways through the daily management of its facilities to reduce costs and cut corners. Food service is just one of the means by which the DOC saves money.
DOC spokesman Justin Wolf said the agency was recently able to save on a bulk order of hamburger patties, the Tahlequah Daily Press reported in October 2020. Restaurant suppliers were selling it at a discount because they were rejected as too thin. “We’re able to purchase it cheaper, and then provide our inmates a better variety of food,” Wolf said. “Our staff try and identify and source food at a good price, so that way we can continue to provide good food, and not screw up the budget.”
Sample menus contain meals like chicken spaghetti or turkey ham. One dinner on the cycle listed 8 ounces of turkey rice casserole, a half-cup of mixed vegetables, one dinner roll, one slice of unfrosted cake, and one cup of fruit drink or tea. Prisoners say, instead, they receive starches — breads, oats, beans, rice and other “fillers.” And, not very much of that.
Wolf said meals provided adequate nutrition and were approved by a dietician. Yet menus do not list caloric intake or nutritional values to compare to the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs). Agency rules state that menus are subject to change as long as they adhere to basic nutritional requirements.
Prisoners and their families complain that the meals must be supplemented with canteen purchases or the prisoner goes to bed hungry. Those prisoners who have nothing ask for food from the more well-off. They “borrow” or work for food, doing laundry or making beds. Canteens are stocked with plenty of junk food items like cakes, cookies, and chips, but only a couple of different healthy, nutritional choices. The only two vegetable selections sold are a 13-ounce package of mixed vegetables for $1.15 or a 7-ounce can of corn for $.97.
Prisoners say they are subject mainly to starchy foods. They are served potatoes, rice, breads, cakes and biscuits at every single meal. “Those meals, when you eat them a couple hours later, you’re starving.” said Zachary Starnes, a prisoner serving four years for a drug-related crime. “A few hours later, those carbs are going to turn into sugar and you’re not going to be full anymore.”
Food has gotten much worse since the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoners say they cannot go to their job assignments because they are on quarantine. Wolf said the DOC has compensated by sending additional staff to prisons with outbreaks. Prisoners assert that the change has resulted in meal portions getting smaller, served late and often cold. Chelsea Norton, a prisoner at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a women’s prison, said she was served lunch at 6 p.m. one day and dinner at 9 p.m.
Wolf contends that although delays have occurred, the DOC has still been able to comply with state standards of three meals within a 24-hour period and no two meals over 14 hours apart.
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