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Santa Maria Sun / Canary

The following article was posted on January 28th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 47 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 47

It's a matter of taste

Back in July, folks in Santa Barbara County were talking about food. But this wasn’t the typical debate over which ingredients, exactly, constitute Santa Maria-style barbecue. The discussion wasn’t about the best steakhouse in the area and the merits of red oak over other combustibles. And it wasn’t about how the area’s growing prominence as a wine region is impacting the local cuisine scene.

No, people were talking about jail food. More specifically, people were complaining about jail food.

At the time, members of the public had taken their grievances regarding Santa Barbara County Jail dining options to the Board of Supervisors, and I wrote a column about the whole deal. County CEO Chandra Wallar sampled some of the facility’s stew and dubbed it “very acceptable,” much of it she’d be fine with serving in her own home. I don’t know if I’d have gone that far with my faint praise, but she made a point: It’s food. It isn’t bad food. It gets the job done, and that job is to put calories into bodies. In the jail’s case, it’s to put calories into a lot of bodies.

I recently learned that the county’s grand jury also got an earful at the time. That group got an official complaint from inmates unhappy with their diet, in terms of both quantity and quality, and the jury spent half a year investigating. A report came out on Jan. 27 of this year—just a few days ago—and, in short, found everything to be fine. In fact, the report’s author specifically put a spotlight on locally sourced fresh produce and said that the prepared meals constitute a “heart healthy, low-sodium, low-fat diet.” The inmates often get fresh-baked cornbread.

Heck, a lot of people I know should be eating so well. It sounds like it beats the cheese- and bacon- and special-sauce-lathered mega-burgers served alongside reams of fries and a bucket of sugar water that folks I know tend to scarf down somewhere between their morning cup of hyper-sweetened caffeine and afternoon oversized candy-bar snack.

If you haven’t noticed, people don’t eat well. As a whole. Left to their own devices, the average so-and-sos I see drop some change at the drive-thru and gobble down that particular international franchise’s take on hormone-pumped, chemically preserved, artificially colored, and synthetic-flavor-enhanced meat’n’bun. A Big Mac, large fries, and large Coke pack 1,330 calories into a single, devoured-while-driving meal. That’s more than half of an entire day’s average calorie intake at the jail, which sits at 2,500 calories. The Food and Drug Administration bases a lot of its guide information—breaking down carbohydrates and fiber and the like—on a 2,000-calorie diet, so the jail’s not that far off. And that makes the fast-food figures look even worse.

Look, mass-produced food from genetically altered animals and plants have allowed a lot of people to eat cheaply, but we do pay other costs: declining health and increasing obesity, environmental degradation, unforeseen consequences.

And I’m not saying that everything on the jail menu is top of the line. I saw turkey hot dogs and turkey salami and turkey bologna listed among the offerings—a lot of turkey, it seems—none of which sounds like something you’d be prepping as a part of an all-natural lunch. Still, the report shows that the bulk of what’s offered is, well, good for what it is. And fresh produce, right? Fresh cornbread!

I will reiterate, too, that this is jail. If you don’t want to eat jail food—which, let’s face it, may be acceptable but probably isn’t cooked with the sort of passion or love you’ll find in a restaurant kitchen or your own home—then don’t do something that would send you to jail. If you want to eat sprouts and get on a juice cleanse, or even if you want to keep stuffing Whoppers or Western Big Stars or Santa Fe gorditas down, don’t break the law—at least to such a degree that you’ll be convicted and jailed.

Freedom comes with perks, including deciding when and what you want to eat—assuming you can afford it, but that’s a subject for another column.


The Canary is hungry for a double-double, but she’s going to peck at a few sunflower seeds instead. Send comments to

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