Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Green popsicle, ice cream sandwich and ice cream cookie sandwich
Photo illustration by PJP

“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.

When Philadelphia-based Aramark won the contract for feeding Florida’s 90,000 or so incarcerated residents, we heard plenty of griping, consternation and outright cursing. Aramark had been here in the mid-2000s before and had done a spectacular job of mucking everything up.

The most common refrain was that the meat they had used for most meals was like rancid puppy chow. That was followed by a torrent of accusations tinged with four-letter words.

As I heard more stories from fellow residents who had been in the system back then, I grew more and more concerned. Yet I still had misplaced hopes that perhaps Aramark had grown up a little.

Anyone who had been around long enough told me I was nuts. I had every bit of evidence in front of me to know my brothers in blue were probably right. Just a quick perusal of Aramark’s Wikipedia entry shows some pretty impressive lawsuits and accusations, particularly from the incarcerated.

But in an effort to participate in restorative justice and show some grace, I was willing to overlook their previous efforts. This was in part because the new contract with Aramark guaranteed residents of Florida’s five incentivized prisons an ice cream treat and a selection of a salad, nacho or baked potato bar weekly.

I just so happen to be a resident at one such incentivized prison, where people who have had no disciplinary actions in the previous five years can live in a marginally more peaceful, cleaner environment with more opportunities to participate in rehabilitative and educational programs.

Ice cream is available at the commissary store, which sells dill pickle-flavored ice pops (I don’t get it either), classic ice cream sandwiches and DeConna Chip Arounds, which consists of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between chocolate chip cookies.

I usually treat myself to ice cream once a month, so I was happy to get free ice cream. But the prospect of a real salad was enough to convince me to give Aramark a chance to clear its name.

Sure enough, Aramark successfully delivered on the (contractual) promise to provide ice cream, garden salads, chicken Caesar salads, cheese-drenched nachos and baked potatoes.

The first bite of the salad was a trip back in time. Aramark's first salad was served on a 6-by-9-inch paper tray and billed as a Caesar salad. With romaine lettuce, fragrant shredded Romano, sliced onions, a chunk of breaded chicken breast, and a packet of Ken's Caesar salad dressing, it was impressive. I would have been pleased with the size and quality in the free world as well.

The ice cream wasn’t bad either. In addition to vanilla ice cream, we received a brownie, a sugar cookie and Oreo cookie crumbles. It was the closest thing I had to a sundae in about eight years.

For a not-as-optimistic-as-he-should-be kind of guy, I was happy with the food — at least once a week. That is, until the special items disappeared. I’m not privy to details, but it was clear that the contract had been renegotiated.

Now, I’ve written before about for-profit Aramark and their seemingly relentless march towards greater profit margins. In its last fiscal year, ended Sept. 30, 2022, its operating income more than tripled to $628.4 million from $191 million as its revenue increased 35% to $16.3 billion, the highest yet in its corporate history.

I’m pretty sure that their goal doesn’t have anything to do with providing quality food for us incarcerated individuals, no matter how much I want it to be.

I don’t know whether to blame them or the Florida Department of Corrections for the loss of salads, potatoes and nachos. Some rumors shouted in the dining hall alleged the FDC canceled those three items because of the added time necessary to prep the food and feed the residents.

Other claims whispered on the recreation yard argued that Aramark was hemorrhaging money due to rising supply costs. Whichever the case, the contract was renegotiated, and we now receive ice cream twice weekly.

I know what you must be thinking right now: Is this guy seriously complaining about receiving ice cream twice per week while incarcerated?

And to answer you frankly: Yes, I am.

A baked potato has some nutritional value — vitamin C, B6, potassium and a few others (I read “The Martian”). A salad contains nutrients, minerals and vitamins we do not receive on a regular basis in our patties, instant mashed potatoes and flaccid, over-boiled cabbage.

I cannot and do not speak for the rest of the incarcerated population in Florida, but I’d rather have a salad than another serving of ice cream.

Two servings of ice cream a week is not the same as salad. Duh.

What really disappoints me most is the lack of communication. Yes, my nutrition is important, but do you know how we heard about the salads, potatoes, nachos and ice cream?

A resident’s family emailed him and he posted the information far and wide.

I’m not only disappointed by the food, but also by Aramark’s complete inability to put out a memo, statement or comment on their decision.

Final Ice Cream Rating: 7 out of 10
Final Nutrition Rating: 3 out of 10
Final Communication Rating: 0 out of 10

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online 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.