Moffat County Jail food supervisor emphasizes quality meals, treatment for inmates
April 23, 2011
When Mary Buchanan was interviewing for her position at the Moffat County Jail, she was asked a hypothetical question.
How would she handle seeing a person in church one day and in jail the next?
"I said, 'I hope no differently than I treat them in church,'" said Buchanan, the jail's food service supervisor for almost five years.
As far as she knows, she's done just that.
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Buchanan, 62, is responsible for planning, cooking and delivering meals to the jail's population and staff. They are tasks she accomplishes with the help of selected inmates.
The inmates she works alongside have bestowed upon Buchanan a nickname that touches on culinary humor.
They call her "The Marynator."
"For the most part, I guess I just treat them as I'd like to be treated," she said of the inmates. "So far, I haven't had anyone really that's been hateful or nasty to me, so I've been fortunate."
Buchanan began working at the jail in June 2006. She got her start as a professional cook twice each week at the Elk's Club in Evergreen in the late 1990s, and later cooked at several private hospitals.
Before going to work at the jail, she was a janitor at St. Michael Catholic Church.
"I was cleaning, which I enjoyed, but I enjoyed cooking more, so I wanted to get into the cooking field," Buchanan said. "This came open, and I happened to have been lucky and gotten it."
Buchanan arrives at the jail at 5 a.m. each weekday. In the early morning hours, she prepares breakfast and works on paperwork and logistical issues.
"I need that time to relax and figure out how I want the day to go," she said.
On Fridays, Buchanan and her crew also pre-cook weekend meals so food can be heated up and served on Saturdays and Sundays.
In addition to cooking meals, it's left to Buchanan to make a weekly food order, either through a vendor or what is on sale at local stores, and make sure the kitchen is up to standards of both the state's health department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which she said is stricter than the health department.
An inspection from ICE takes roughly three days to administer, she said.
But, in her five years, she takes pride in having only one write-up from the health department, which was because of a dented can an inmate put back on a shelf.
Within several hours of arriving each day, she has a crew of three inmates working with her to help prepare lunch and dinner.
The jail's current population is about 40 inmates, but the cook has to be flexible enough to provide meals for staff, new inmates and others that may come in throughout the week.
Buchanan said when she first started work, she worried that her laidback personality would allow inmates to take advantage of her good nature.
"You have to be stern at times and let them know who the boss is and tell them, 'No, this is how we're going to do things' because some of them will want to try to take over and run things," she said. "I have to put my foot down and say, 'No, this is my kitchen and we're doing it my way.'"
While she has her stern side, inmates who work for her are quick to praise her.
Jeromy Vigil, one of the inmates working for Buchanan, called the food service job a privilege.
"Most of the time, we're sitting in the back in our cells, which gets really monotonous and unfulfilling," he said. "Working here is just a privilege. It keeps you busy."
Inmate Wade Chriestenson said kitchen work is the most desirable job in the jail, which he credited to Buchanan's personality.
"She's not a guard, she's a citizen, so she treats us like people," he said. "It's nice to come in and see a smiling face."
The praise doesn't end with a few nice words from inmates, either. In her office, Buchanan has a white binder full of artwork and colorful thank you letters from inmates. It's praise she's proud of.
"To get (positive feedback) from the inmates is pretty hard," she said. "They usually don't compliment you unless they really like what you're doing."
She's also been praised by co-workers and was named the Moffat County Sheriff's Office Civilian Employee of the Year in 2008.
In a letter she received with the honor, she was praised for having a "big heart" and a willingness to go out of her way to please people. The letter also noted her ability to work within a strict budget and accommodate inmates with dietary needs.
Not all inmates get a chance to work in the kitchen.
Any interested inmate has to get the approval of both Buch-
anan and jail administration. Buchanan also speaks with guards and pays attention to inmates when serving meals.
The screening system has led to few problems.
"If it's somebody they feel wouldn't be an asset to me, would give me problems, then no, they're not going to let them come in," she said.
Buchanan plans the menu two weeks at a time and runs it by a dietician to make sure meals are nutritionally sound.
But, falling in line with treating inmates the way she would want to be treated, she tends to have some fun with holidays.
On Easter Sunday, for instance, inmates will be getting ham, sweet potatoes and cake.
"When I go to the store, people that are behind me, if I happen to take inmates with me … they'll say, 'Why are you buying that (quality) stuff for inmates?'" Buchanan said. "That's not for me to say that they shouldn't get that.
"I don't think I should hold nicer meals back from them just because they're … inmates. That's not for me to say or for me to do. I'm just doing my job."