What Martha Really Ate in Prison

The incarceration diet explained.

Tomorrow Martha Stewart will be released from Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia, where she has lost 20 pounds in five months, according to a number of newspaper reports. Is prison food actually good for you? Or is it just inedible?

Martha didn’t seem to like the food, but she did have healthy options. Along with other federal prisons, Martha’s facility offers a comprehensive food service program that encourages inmates to “establish healthy eating habits that may enhance their quality of life.” The United States Bureau of Prisons stipulates that inmates should be given between 3.90 to 6.31 pounds of food (weighed before preparation) per day, including 0.10 to 0.25 pounds of fat, 0.75 to 1.50 pounds of vegetables, and 1.08 to 1.56 pounds of starches.

Every year federal prison officials submit their menu plans (which are designed to repeat on a 35-day cycle) to the Bureau of Prisons for a nutritional analysis by a registered dietician. These menus must include healthy, diet-friendly alternatives, prepared without additional salt or fat. Federal guidelines suggest offering salads without mayonnaise alongside salads with mayonnaise, for example, and cereal without sugar coating as an alternative to cereal with sugar coating.

The Bureau of Prisons recommends that chefs at federal prisons use a military cooking database known as the Armed Forces Recipe Service. Supervised inmates typically prepare the food, so some ingredients call for heightened security. Alcohol-based flavorings, for example, must be stored in a locked cabinet, along with other “hot items” like cloves, nutmeg, and mace (the latter two come from a plant that contains the narcotic myristicin).

Food standards at state and local facilities vary from place to place. Some require that inmates eat a certain number of calories per day; others mandate low-fat, low-sodium diets. Most places try to keep food costs as low as 70 cents per inmate per meal. Prisons can save money by buying in bulk from producers with surplus goods. The drive to cut costs can lead to unhealthy choices; some offer cheap, high-calorie desserts in place of fresh fruit. To be accredited by the American Correctional Association, though, an institution must have its menu reviewed by a licensed dietician or nutritionist.

Martha’s prison, known informally (and perhaps inappropriately) as “Camp Cupcake,” follows the federal guidelines. Food comes from Somerset Industries, which supplies hundreds of prisons around the country with basic meals that include a protein, a vegetable, a starch, a dessert, and a drink. One of Somerset’s co-owners noted that, in his experience, low-security or women’s prisons are more likely to offer salad bars than high-security or men’s prisons. The relaxed atmosphere at Camp Cupcake, a low-security women’s prison, makes it likely that Martha had multiple dining options in a cafeteria setting. (Inmates who are forced to eat in their cells have far fewer options.)

News reports have identified Martha as a model prisoner—scrubbing floors, raking leaves, even starting a yoga class—but that doesn’t mean she got extra dessert. Federal prison rules say that food may not be offered as a reward for good behavior, or withheld as a form of discipline.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Alan Breslow of Somerset Industries and Lucien Lombardo of Old Dominion University.