San Quentin’s newest food manager says in a predominately-male prison, it takes a woman’s touch to balance out the population, especially when it comes to food.
“I worked with men and around men my entire career,” said Martha Garcia, Correctional Food Manager II.https://www.calhr.ca.gov/state-hr-professionals/Pages/5480.aspx (CFM). “So it’s no big deal to be a woman in charge of a situation like this. This is not my first rodeo,” she adds with a big smile.
Known as the “Big Boss” by her nine staff members, Garcia and her crew are responsible for feeding nearly 5,000 men at San Quentin Prison three times a day, 365 days a year.
Garcia says her love of cooking began at home but evolved into a passion to cook for the public. Her first gig was teaching young adults how to cook in a state funded program. She has worked in restaurants and participated in cooking clubs. She also has experience in catering. Her first job in a prison was at Salinas Valley State Prison,https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/facility-locator/svsp/ Level IV.
She rose through the ranks over the years as a cook in several other prisons, Tehachapi State Prison, Old Folsom Prison and California State Prison,(CSP) Sacramento just to name a few. It was at CSP that she wanted to make a difference in the diet for the older incarcerated men.
“I always loved food,” Garcia said compassionately, “I always want to put the best food forward. I saw a lot of older men getting sicker, and I wanted to change the medical condition.”
Garcia came to San Quentin over a year ago because she liked its historic relevancy. When she arrived, she estimates the kitchen was under staffed by at least 50 %. Since she became Food Manager, the food and services have improved.
“When she came here the breakfast eggs changed for the better,” said part time incarcerated kitchen worker Maurice Reed. “Yeah the eggs are cooked better now. In fact, breakfast, lunch and dinner got better. Lunches got them granola bars in them and fresh veggies and the food is good at least 3 times a week now. I miss the real catfish for dinner; I cannot wait to have that again. The only thing I can say that I wish would happen is that it be more consistent.”
Reed has been at San Quentin for almost 8 years now and he said he definitely has seen the food change for the better.
Garcia added new meals and a variety of foods, such as fresh yogurts, puddings, tangerines and chocolate milk.
The lunches are bagged with treats such as granola bars and BBQ potato chips. Dinner meals on Fridays are not the usual processed breaded fish. The men in blue now dine on real fried catfish and potato wedges, (fish and chips). One recent Friday meal was chicken covered pizza.
Although Garcia loves cooking for the men-in-blue, her other main concern is the staff. At the sound of an alarm, she is quick to make sure her staff is okay.
She oversees day-to-day operations from her office. However, that is not where you’d find her most of the time. She is usually helping her, “overly strained and over worked,” staffers with their duties.
“She is doing an exceptional job,” said five-year veteran Supervisor Correctional Cook, (SCC) I. Sapao.
Sapao is usually the morning supervisor but is working the night shift due to a staff shortage.
“I never seen a manager who helps out, but she helps,” she said.
From unloading the trucks on the dock, to the preparation of the food, Garcia is involved in it all.
“I remember my humble beginnings,” Garcia said, “To deal with people you have to be a people person. You have to have a sense of humor and be a little quirky. Just because you’re here (in prison) don’t mean that you have to be down.”
She added, “I learned that it’s important to respect people and incarcerated men have always showed me respect.”
Garcia gets along with people she works with—free staff and men in blue alike.
“I never had a problem with her, and she is always easy to communicate with,” said two-year incarcerated worker Jose Ledesma. “She never gives us problems, and she is just a good food manager. She’s the same every day.”
The men in blue receive fresh whole veggies and fruit daily. Garcia credits the previous food manager for that. However, she smiles while she takes the credit for adding all of the “crazy ones,” like red bell peppers and squash.
Not everyone likes all of Garcia’s changes.
“Only complaint I received so far is that I put too much spice in the food or too many onions or something of that nature,” Garcia smiles modestly.
The gratitude form the San Quentin residents have not gone unnoticed.
“I really appreciate the addition of the yogurt,” said San Quentin resident Stu Ross.
San Quentin gets about $5.4 million annually according to Garcia, which is spent quarterly to provide food for the prison. Prison officials in Sacramento create diet meals and issue the budget that Garcia has to follow. She stays within budget by searching the internet for the bargains.
“I’m a foodie,” said Garcia, “I don’t believe that you need all that expensive stuff to have a good meal. I work toward the goal of having a palatable meal. Plus, I look for deals that will provide opportunity to save money plus provide a good meal.”