Monday, June 18, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 15

Santa Maria Sun / Canary

The following article was posted on July 16th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 20 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 20

The Canary dishes on Santa Barbara County Jail food complaints

There’s this old saying about variety being the spice of life, but I think maybe salt is. Sure, some people may argue that it’s cumin or saffron, but to me, salt has universal appeal. It makes everything better—in moderation, of course. Salt makes food more foody.

There’s also this old saying about how if you go looking for variety in jail, you’re not going to find it.

Well, if that’s not an old saying, it should be. In fact, it has to be for the rest of my column to work, because I’m working off of those aphorisms to talk about food behind bars.

Or what some inmates would call “food” behind bars. I can just hear the air quotes.

I’ve been reading reports of incarceration-based hunger strikes up and down the state, though the bulk of what I’ve seen has to do with prisons and solitary confinement. Since prisons fall under the federal umbrella, I was a bit confused when I tried to reconcile the strikes happening there with one that happened, sort of, in our own Santa Barbara County.

I say sort of, because Cmdr. Darin Fotheringham, who oversees the county jail’s operations, told the county supervisors on July 9 that a recent hunger strike wasn’t a true hunger strike. Apparently these movements have rules and orders, and the early July strike in Santa Barbara County didn’t include food inmates could buy from the commissary.

The local strike had less to do with solitary confinement—actually, nothing to do with it—and was more about food quality and quantity.

The Santa Barbara County Jail has been under scrutiny lately for how it feeds its population, with focus coming after members of the public complained to the Board of Supervisors about meals on the inside.

Fotheringham did a study and noted that there was a large jump in complaints in the past year compared to the previous year (from four to 20!), but given that 1.2 million meals move across inmates’ plates in a year’s time, there’s not much worry in fewer than two dozen vocal detractors.

A nifty slide show, complete with photos of meals all laid out on compartmentalized trays, showed the supes that the food was moving a regulation-satisfying number of calories into inmates’ bodies and that there was more than flavorless crackers. I spied a packet of mayonnaise and another of mustard in one shot—neither of which are salt, I know, but they do provide some kick. The mustard does, anyway.

County CEO Chandra Wallar and Sheriff Bill Brown even dropped by the jail for dinner, tucking into a stew that Chandra said was too much for her in terms of portion size. She didn’t finish, though she did eat all of her vegetables and her brownie. She hemmed and hawed a bit when it came to describing the food, discounting “tasty” as too strong and “distasteful” as too far the other way. She ultimately settled on “very acceptable.”

Then, she added: “Much of it I would serve in my own home.”

Sheriff Bill sort of trampled on that a bit with his following comments, noting that there are complaints about jail food from time to time, “as there are complaints about any kind of institutional food.”

“It’s made in large quantities, he explained, “for many, many people.”

Then, “It’s not home cooking, as it were.”

I honestly don’t know who’s going to jail expecting grandma’s recipes to come steaming out of the kitchen. This is the sort of place where fruit is sometimes clandestinely rotted and fermented into questionable alcohol-like fluids, so Zagat ratings aren’t exactly a selling point. In fact, I don’t know any selling points for jail.

I did, however, find that there are people who are ready to rate their time behind bars. While researching for this column, I came across a Yelp review for Santa Barbara County Jail, and though the reviewer gave the institution only two stars out of a possible five, he describes his stay as “a lovely” six days.

Cons included meals (“PBJ’s or bologna sams for lunch on crap bread”), though the author admitted he didn’t expect good food; a reading selection that consisted of mostly Bibles; and public pooping, in that there are privacy options when it comes time to relieve yourself.

No, it’s not a top-rated hotel, but guests also probably didn’t go through to land a stay at the facility.

I believe that we, as a society, need to treat our criminals with humanity. But even “the worst cafeteria food you can imagine” is still food. In fact, it’s still cafeteria-level food. And there are a lot of people in this world—in this country, state, and county even—who desperately wish they could eat so well. m


Canary adds just a pinch of Himalayan pink salt to her millet. Contact her at

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