Skip navigation
This example an eggroll fried rice and salad is a typical meal at the Utah State Prison
<p>This example, an eggroll, fried rice and salad, is a typical meal at the Utah State Prison.</p>

Jailhouse Talk: The Food Behind Bars

Captain Mike Oviatt takes us inside his job and what&rsquo;s being served to inmates at the Utah State Prison.

If you think you’ve got it tough satisfying your customers for two or three bucks a plate, talk to Captain Mike Oviatt. He heads support services, including foodservice, for the main hub of the Utah State Prison in Draper and has been serving meals that cost a miniscule $1.31 a plate. Now he’s being asked to lower that to 80 cents. And if his customers aren’t happy with the food, they don’t write bad reviews. They riot.

Oviatt is new to the foodservice side of his business, but says he’s gotten ideas, inspiration and education from reading about his colleagues in other onsite segments. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at one of the most challenging segments of foodservice and Oviatt was happy to share his story.

Tell me about your operations?

We serve about 14,000 meals a day and have close to 4,500 inmates. I oversee four lieutenants and a number of officers who work in my kitchens and we employ 150 inmates to do the cooking. We’ve got two kitchens on site. One does about 1,500 trays per meal and the other about 3,300. We have everything from maximum security to general population and we oversee five halfway houses out in the community. That is the food end of my job.

Are you required to meet any nutritional requirements?

We try to provide a balanced meal and follow federal guidelines for nutritional content. We don’t have to—we get more latitude than federal prisons, but we use their guidelines to avoid lawsuits. We don’t get any federal money, but are governed by RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act), which makes sure we meet different dietary needs, like kosher, halal, vegan and different variations of that for pagan religions.

Captain Mike Oviatt says food is a leading trigger for bad behavior in prisons.

Give me some examples of meals you serve…

We rotate meals and start the cycle over every four weeks. Like on a Monday for breakfast, we might serve pineapple tidbits, boiled eggs, hash brown patties with ketchup, bread and milk and another day that week we’d do tropical fruit, oatmeal, cheese slice, scrambled eggs, English muffin and milk. A lunch might be Mandarin oranges, sliced turkey, cheese, pudding, bread and sugar-free juice. Another day it could be shredded lettuce, bean and cheese burrito, Spanish rice, cookie and a juice packet. A dinner would be green salad with French or Italian dressing, cheese pizza, green beans, pasta with marinara sauce and milk, or a hamburger patty with gravy, peas, whipped potatoes, cookie, bread and milk.

How much do you spend per meal and how is your budget determined?

That comes through the state and as of 2013, our costs were about $1.31 a meal, but our legislators want to reduce that down to 80 cents. We’re starting to look at second markets and doing opportunity buys and are hoping to see some savings. We’re also making some changes to the menu and have more cold lunches with cold cuts, tuna fish, etc.

You have your own bakery?

We do and bake just bread, but we’re currently looking at adding other things. At another facility in Utah, they do their pizza dough and a lot of different pastries and hamburger buns. Right now we can go through probably 800 to 900 loaves of bread in a day. Being able to do even more would help reduce plate costs.

Challenges of prison foodservice

(Continued from page 1)

Is dealing with RLUIPA the biggest challenge?

It’s a huge challenge, because we have to meet the religious requirements for all offenders. We just talked to a leader of the Wiccan religion, and he told us inmates could have a revelation and decide to go strictly vegan. As offenders put in those requests, it makes it difficult to know if they’re truly in that religion and then what we have to serve them. We’re not sure when someone is going to say this is my religion and this is what I need, and then we have to verify and match what’s needed. And you can talk to three different religious leaders and get three different responses. If I’m doing 4,500 meals a day and it’s 4,500 different meals, that’s going to bust my budget completely. We need things as standardized as possible.

What types of challenges does having inmates working in the kitchen present?

We do have a hiring process to try to give them a real life experience with interviews to prepare them to return to the community, but it also screens out people with gang and disciplinary problems. We have tool control, but they do have access to knives that must be returned. The more dangerous equipment is chained to the table. General population works in the kitchen, not maximum security.

How important is it to provide good, healthy meals for inmates?

If you look at history, a lot of riots are centered around food. Food plays an important role and if we’re not feeding and keeping inmates happy, they get more disgruntled and will create problems up to and including riots. So it’s a huge focus for us to ensure food color and presentation are pleasing and not just a gray mass sitting on a plate. We also put a lot of emphasis on flavor to ensure a good quality meal. In my career, I’ve seen some severe assaults over meals and other times inmates just wanting to act up more or less throwing food trays.

Do you feel the food quality has improved since you’ve taken over a year ago?

We’re going away from standardized cheese pizza and are exploring options with various vendors that are cost effective and at the same time, can add variety to the plates. Instead of standard fruits like apples, we’re doing kiwis, strawberries and grapes. Grapes had some inmates in tears, because it had been years since they’d eaten them. We want to make inmates happy because a happy belly means a happy inmate and an easier-to-manage inmate.

In other segments, directors look to guest and patient satisfaction to improve, but beyond those security issues caused by food, do you have any method or desire to gauge how well your food is being received?

I’ll get out and talk to inmates to get feedback. Another way we track things, if inmates don’t like what’s going on, they can file a grievance and it’s got to be researched and resolved. The number of grievances over food has dropped. When I first started, we were getting at least 10 complaints or letters a week—all related to food. I haven’t received a letter and my staff gets maybe two a week.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.