One of the less talked about miseries of prison life – at least outside of prisons – is the food. The nutritional quality is generally poor, relying on processed items high in starch, sugar and salt, with a dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables. Or sometimes it’s even worse, with spoiled or rotten food served to incarcerated men and women.
But for the past six years at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in central Maine, which includes both minimum and medium security facilities, the men not only are served better food, they grow and cook it themselves. The prison food service at Mountain View not only improves the nutritional value of meals, but also serves as a job training and economic development program.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mark McBrine, who for 20 years was a local organic farmer when he took over as head of food service at the prison. Here, he explains how he approached feeding hundreds of men the same way he feeds his family. And although some critics complain that the men who work on growing and preparing the prison’s food are being exploited because they earn just a few dollars an hour, McBrine says they are happy to learn the skills enabling them to work for better wages in work release programs and when they go home.
MARK MCBRINE: When I became the food service manager, I looked to try to do some things that would help us have better food products, but also be able to save money, and I knew just the way we had operated our home and our children, we used whole foods and used scratch cooking. A lot of people have children and go to McDonald’s or Burger King. It may be fast and easy, but it’s a misnomer for people to think it’s inexpensive, and a lot of times, if you buy good food and practice home-style scratch cooking, you can end up giving out a lot better product and still save money. That’s the approach we took. We got rid of things like frozen liquid egg product and got real eggs from a Maine farm. We ended up getting all our potatoes from a Maine farmer year-round to the point that we make all our own home fries, all our own French fries. Every potato product like potato salad, comes from a whole potato. I’ve reached out to a dairy that makes cheese here in Maine and we’ve been able to purchase that at a price that’s cheaper than what we would buy American processed cheese food that really isn’t cheese.
MELINDA TUHUS: So, your approach has contributed to economic development in your region. Now can you tell me about how the incarcerated men participate in this program?
MARK MCBRINE: We have residents at our facility who are allowed to apply for different positions, and we have paid positions with agriculture and in the kitchen. They apply, we talk to them, and they’re hired and they can work their way up. They’re trained in these skills and they do everything, from planting to caring to harvesting. Also started a bakery program when I got in as the service manager, so now we produce all of our own bread, all of our own rolls, hotdog buns, hamburger buns, English muffins, bagels. We make all of our own dessert, 100 percent. The residents do all of this. They actually teach and mentor their replacements for the position. We’ve had at least 25 of our kitchen staff are out working pre-release at a local commercial bakery. Right now with Covid and the situation that’s going on, some of the work release has been shut down, but that’s kind of the way it is in a lot of places throughout the country. But up until this and after this is over, this will continue. It’s been pretty neat to see.
MELINDA TUHUS: You said some people feel the incarcerated residents don’t get paid enough, but you’ve said the young people who spend their summers learning about organic farming just in exchange for room and board earn even less. Can you say more about that?
MARK MCBRINE: If they find out that an incarcerated resident here was getting $2 or $3 an hour and a place to stay and medical and training, they would sometimes feel that was inadequate, but I can tell you the residents are very appreciative and very thankful they can get this training and still save some money for when they get out. This is just a stepping stool, once they’re trained they have the opportunity to go out in work release and some of those people are making more money in their jobs outside of the facility than even some of our officers.
MELINDA TUHUS: When Covid has been tamed, do you have any future plans for things you’d like to do?
MARK MCBRINE: Well, we’re going to just continue trying to increase what we’re going and do even more education. I have a vocational-technical instructor that’s been assigned to agriculture, and we’re going to work on classes that would be even more intensively educational at the Maine State Prison. They work with Cooperative Extension and have training that goes on there. There’s beekeeping, there’s a lot of things going on in different places. I guess there’s a passion I’ve had to try to be able to get to the point where we could have some type of a processing facility where we could take some of these B- grade items – we do a lot of donations to food pantries, food cupboards, these type of places – we work with an organization called Harvest Now that donates money for seed, and we end up giving a portion of what we raise to these food pantries and food cupboards. That has been a great thing; the residents always like to be able to pay back and give to these type of organizations, along with the fact that we can use these fresh vegetables – the difference that it makes in the diet for these incarcerated folks to have this type of fresh food. It does a lot for morale and behavior and that’s very important.
MELINDA TUHUS: Can you say more about that?
MARK MCBRINE: It hasn’t really been tracked, but we have captains who have worked for over 20 years at the facility, who would be the first and have mentioned it many times, that when these foods are being given on a regular basis that everyone goes back to their unit, to their dorm, much happier and just a lot less likely to have any issues. Food is a big part of incarceration. It’s something they look forward to or they don’t look forward to, and in our case we want to make sure that they look forward to it.