While the days of gruel in a tin cup have long gone by for inmates confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, no one imprisoned in today’s facilities will accuse their captors of providing a five-star dining experience, either.  Most federal prisoners will agree that a key component of happiness behind bars is ensuring that the food they eat is close to the latter category.  Napoleon once said, “An army marches on its stomach.”  A similar adage applies to prison: a well-fed prisoner is a happy prisoner.

Meals Supplied by the Federal Bureau of Prisons: The Chow Hall

Most general population BOP facilities serve three meals a day in a dedicated cafeteria-type area (the “chow hall” in prison lingo).  Most chow halls offer fixed tables, usually with four to six stools bolted thereto.  Inmates are permitted to choose where to sit, subject to local custom, and, of course, the ever-present peer pressure, which can be strict in nature.  At some prison facilities, particularly high-security ones, where one sits is — literally — a matter of life and death.  Fights over seating can be deadly.

Food is obtained via chow lines, much like at a high school cafeteria.  Inmate servers, under the watchful eye of BOP food service staff, dole out servings of food onto plastic trays as inmates march through the line.  Serving sizes are, at least in theory, strictly controlled, but a wink and a nod to a friend serving food can be helpful just the same.

The “mainline” offerings are determined via a national menu that uses a five-week cycle of variety.  The lunch fare is predictable.  Hamburgers and fries have been served on Wednesday afternoons since time immemorial; baked or fried chicken is also a weekly staple.  Unfortunately, so is chili con carne, chicken pot pie, and “fish,” usually in the form of processed discs or rectangles.  At some prison facilities, an actual dessert is served on the line, at others, an apple or small packets of cookies.

Lunch is usually supplemented by a hot bar or cold bar for self-service.  In days gone by, rice and beans, soups, salads, and various vegetables were available daily, but in today’s tight fiscal climate, a tray of lettuce or green beans is more likely.  Soups made from leftovers might also appear.

Dinner, served around 5 or 6 at night, is much like lunch, but with cheaper entrees and fewer side items.  Desserts are no longer served at dinner.

Breakfasts generally consist of a rotation of cereal, “breakfast cake,” and, several days a week, pancakes, waffles, or biscuits and gravy.  Milk is served at breakfast (and no longer at other meals, where water and fruit punch/juice are served).

For those with special dietary needs, i.e., religious restrictions and medical issues, the Federal Bureau of Prisons offers alternative items at most meals.  Those who require Kosher or Halal meals, for example, can sign up for meals meeting those standards.  Low salt and diabetic meals are also offered.

Eating From the Locker: Food Without a Chow Hall

Not surprisingly, many federal prisoners never set foot in a Federal Bureau of Prisons chow hall.  For those who can afford to do so, eschewing government-issue fare is certainly a viable option.

Virtually every federal prison offers a commissary, where a variety of foods and sundry items are sold.  While many prisoners spend their funds on candy bars, potato chips, sodas, and other snacks that the BOP is happy to sell them, it is still possible for inmates to purchase nutritionally sound food products as well.  Most facilities sell single-serving tuna packets, rice and beans, sandwich meats and cheeses, nuts and other relatively healthy foods.  With the aid of a microwave or hot water supply, resourceful prisoners can dine on homemade pizza, cheesecakes, and other surprisingly tasty fares.  The quality of prison cooking can vary, but a quick romp across the Internet reveals numerous cookbooks for prisoners available.

Moreover, there is always a healthy trade in stolen food items, from fresh meats and poultry to fruits and vegetables and baking goods.  With a tradition of liberal supervision over such matters by Federal Bureau of Prisons staff, there are even plenty of inmates who make a living cooking for others.

Today, no one will starve in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but how well one eats is a question with many possibilities.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

2 Comments

  1. Dianne Frazee-Walker on August 6, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Informative article. I think if I was in prison I would make my own meals and cook for others as a job. I wonder if the commissary has my favorite Greek honey yogurt and my favorite food, avocados?



  2. Jake. J. on August 12, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Sounds… uh… yummy. I guess. Once again, it’s a question of priorities. Why not feed prisoners better, healthier meals? Hell, make them a testing ground for modern day diets! Why not? Wouldn’t it make sense to have prisoners, say, be forced to eat salads and then see if it cuts down on atherosclerosis? I don’t understand what these groups are all thinking anymore.



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