One man’s mission to bring better ramen to the incarcerated

Chef Ron Freeman wants his low-sodium ramen to become a commissary staple.

When police discovered just over a gram of crack cocaine in the trash can of Ron Freeman’s hot-dog cart, they gave him a choice. Either tell them who put it there or take the charge and go to prison. His options were limited.

The culprit was a well-known member of the Crips, and ratting him out would mean certain death. “In our culture, snitches get stitches. You don’t tell,” Freeman told me as we stood outside the dilapidated apartment complex where his cart once sat in the Gardena neighborhood southwest of Los Angeles. He pled no contest and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Two decades later, Freeman, better known as “Chef Ron” around the Los Angeles neighborhoods where he grew up, stood on a sidewalk in Watts. A bright-blue food truck operated by his friend was parked nearby, surrounded by a group of tourists awaiting their shrimp quesadillas.

A woman looked at 54-year-old Freeman, the sun reflecting off of the frames of his wide-brim glasses, which sat beneath a tiny tuft of perfectly curled hair. He wore a yellow button-down shirt, embroidered with a pair of shrimp emerging from the words “Mama Pat’s” on the pocket. “What’s Mama Pat’s?” she asked. Minutes later, he returned with a few packets of ramen and handed them to her.

Over the past three years, Freeman has been developing a low-sodium ramen that will soon be sold at correctional institution commissaries across the country. Along with honey buns, ramen noodles — typically the kind that comes in a plastic wrapper, made by the brands Maruchan or Nissin — are the most popular items at prison commissaries, filling the gap left by nutritionally inadequate and, at times, inedible correctional meals.

Chef Ron Freeman in his old neighborhood.

Chef Ron Freeman in his old neighborhood.

But the ramen currently available in commissaries, sold for 40 to 60 cents a pack, contains dangerous amounts of sodium — between 66 and 72 percent of the daily recommended intake. Those who consume the noodles are more susceptible to health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, all chronic illnesses that affect incarcerated people at significantly higher rates than the general population (an estimated 40 percent of jail and prison inmates reported suffering from persistent health problems).

Describing his incarceration as a wake-up call, Freeman’s focus is on improving the lives of the 2.2 million people in the United States’ jails and prisons while also appealing to the pockets of the government, which pays billions of dollars in correctional health care costs each year.

Selling food isn’t much different from selling drugs, according to Freeman, who briefly sold crack in his teens. “You buy something wholesale, you process it, and you find a clientele, the same thing you do with drugs,” he told me as we sat in the kitchen of his home in Victorville, a desert town 85 miles east of Los Angeles. After completing his prison sentence, Freeman had no intention of going back. “My cellmate told me, ‘If you come back I’ll kill you, you got too much out there to do.’”

Before he went to prison in 1996, Freeman had been operating his hot-dog cart outside a strip club in the Gardena neighborhood of Los Angeles. The cart became so popular that he was asked to park it outside an mid-size apartment complex down the street. The residents told him that they couldn’t leave the immediate area because they sold crack that couldn’t be left unattended. But they needed to eat. Freeman would make hot dogs and smothered chicken, ringing a bell to signal to those inside that food was ready.

At the time, he was serving out the final months of a suspended sentence, which he received in 1993 after he accidentally fired a gun while showing it to a friend. Under the sentence’s terms, he would avoid prison as long as he stayed out of trouble. So when police found the crack in the hot-dog cart, Freeman was automatically sent to prison for three years. With good behavior and a drug program, he served less than half of his three year sentence; he was released in 1998.

Upon his reentry to society, something fortuitous happened — Freeman received $3,000 from an anonymous donor. The bills, held together with a rubber band, were handed to him underneath a table at a club. Freeman theorized that the money was an unspoken “thank you” for staying quiet about to whom the crack found in his cart really belonged. (“I knew exactly who it was from,” Freeman said.)

With this influx of capital, Freeman got rid of his hot-dog cart and upgraded to a catering truck, selling tacos and breakfast burgers around Gardena. Business boomed. In 2010, he opened a restaurant, Mama Pat’s Gumbo and Grill, named for his grandmother, Patricia Freeman Darby, who used to cook in the city’s jazz clubs. Freeman’s gumbo, taken from his grandmother’s recipe, became so beloved that he landed a licensing deal to sell it frozen in grocery stores.

While Freeman was in prison, he ate up to two packets of ramen each day; he still ate it from time to time on the outside. One day, he squirted gumbo roux onto his noodles and was struck by an idea — why not make a gumbo-flavored ramen? His distributor loved the idea. Excited by the assessment, Freeman asked himself, “What would be a really good strong purpose? What can I do to tie this into my bad past life?”

The world ate roughly 608.7 billion units of ramen between 2012 and 2016. Of those, 21.3 billion were consumed in the U.S., according to the World Instant Noodles Association, which tracks demand for the product.

A number of those packets are consumed in correctional facilities. Ramen has become such a staple for the incarcerated that it has usurped tobacco as a de facto currency.

Often left feeling unsatisfied after eating at the cafeteria, or subjected to unnatural eating schedules (dinner can be served at 3 p.m.), inmates turn to ramen — or “soups” — to quash hunger. In order to make the noodles more filling and flavorful, they put their own twist on them, adding Doritos or Flaming Hot Cheetos, or bologna or salami from lunch.

In prisons, ramen has has usurped tobacco as a de facto currency.

On a good day, someone might have a can of tuna, which sells for $3 to $4 in the commissary, and on a really good day, there might be a $6 can of oysters. Inmates might add mayonnaise or cheese to finish off the dish before laying it all out on a plastic garbage bag that serves as a giant bowl.

Inmates’ wealth can be determined by how many packets of ramen they have. Michael Gibson-Light, a Ph.D student at the University of Arizona, conducted a study on the prominence of ramen in correctional facilities, spending 18 months inside an unnamed state prison during which he interviewed dozens of inmates and employees. “Soup is everything,” one inmate told him.

“You can tell how good a man’s doing [financially] by how many soups he’s got in his locker. 20 soups? Oh, that guy’s doing good!” he continued.

Chef Ron kisses a photo of his late mother, Pat.

Chef Ron kisses a photo of his late mother, Pat.

On the correctional black market there, a 59-cent packet of ramen is the gold standard. According to Gibson-Light’s research, an inmate can buy an $11.30 set of thermals with six packs of ramen, which are valued at $3.54 on the street. A $10.81 sweatshirt can be exchanged for just two packs of ramen.

While ramen’s market value is high, its nutritional value is not. A block of Nissin’s chicken flavored Top Ramen has 1,820 milligrams of sodium; the Maruchan brand of chicken-flavored noodles contains 1,660 milligrams of sodium, both more than half the 2,400 milligrams of sodium that the Food and Drug Administration recommends that people limit themselves to each day. Along with their exorbitant sodium levels, both ramen brands are high in calories and saturated fat and low in fiber.

Incarcerated people commonly suffer from ailments to which high sodium intake can contribute. According to a 2016 report from the Bureau of Justice, 44 percent of prisoners reported having a chronic condition such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, compared to just 31 percent of the general population; 45 percent of jail inmates reported the same, compared to 27 percent of the general population (the study surveyed different general populations for prisons and jails).

That same report found that high blood pressure was the most common chronic condition plaguing inmates. These illnesses translate to additional costs for taxpayers — prisons spent $8.1 billion on health care in 2015, a Pew Charitable Trust report found.

“I’ve always said if I could wipe out ramen from the commissaries of America, blood pressures would plummet and life expectancies would skyrocket,” said Gabriel Eber, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in inadequate medical care in correctional facilities.

Prisons spent $8.1 billion on health care in 2015.

Inmate wellness is not a priority at prisons and jails. Of the 37 state correctional departments that responded to a survey from The Outline about their food service, all claimed that their offerings were aimed at improving inmate health. But reports from inmates and staffers indicated that this was rarely the case. In states like Alabama, where the corrections department spends just 50 cents per meal, incarcerated people typically do not have access to fresh fruits or vegetables unless they’re on a special wellness diet, according to its dietician.

Meals for facilities are drawn up by registered dietitians, who must adhere to a budget and restrictions on certain foods. Barbara Wakeen, the owner of Correctional Nutrition Consultants, which provides nutritional advice and creates menus for jails and prisons across the country, said some administrators forbid her from using fresh fruit, claiming that inmates use it for “pruno,” a prison wine, or shove it down the toilets to clog them.

A May 2018 Prison Policy Initiative report found that inmates spend an average of $947 per year on commissary, with the bulk of it going towards food items. Wendy Sawyer, an analyst for Prison Policy Initiative, said this is what it takes for many to get full.

“Folks who are incarcerated end up turning to commissary to kind of fill in the gaps, right, to get the calories they're not getting, they're not eating that food that's nasty or maybe they're not even getting served enough food, “ she said. “So they turn to a commissary where again, you don't have a very wide range of options in terms of nutritional value.”

Several inmates at the Jackson Correctional Institution in Wisconsin wrote to Freeman earlier this year chronicling their issues with commissary ramen after they saw on social media that his product would be on the market soon. “Their noodles are high in sodium which cause the high blood pressure and cholesterol, which I have since I been eating these high-sodium ramen noodles,” one man wrote. They wanted to try Chef Ron’s ramen.

By using vegetable salt, a salt substitute made with herbs, his ramen contains an average of 365 milligrams of sodium. Freeman said the trick to ensuring the packets don’t taste bland is to use a combination of spices. The ramen comes in four flavors: seafood gumbo, chicken taco, chicken fajita, and lamb stew, which Freeman said he developed for Muslims. “It’s just not only black inmates, you got Mexicans, white guys in there and they might not know what gumbo tastes like, so I developed something that everybody would eat,” he said.

The final product was the result of years of tinkering. Freeman visited correctional food shows and ingredient shows and met with four different manufacturers to share his vision. He mixed spices together over and over again in his kitchen before finally arriving at the right combination for his seafood gumbo ramen. “It was like when Frankenstein woke up and he went, ‘It’s alive,’ that’s just how I felt,” he said.

The chef at work.

The chef at work.

In his Victorville kitchen, Freeman prepared a bowl of his ramen for me to try. After boiling the noodles, he sprinkled the spices and a packet of vegetables — dehydrated onion slices, green bell pepper, and celery — over them. The resulting dish was fully flavored without being overwhelmingly salty. The vegetables were the best part, their chewiness adding another dimension to the dish.

Commissary providers have ordered 310,000 packets and cups of Chef Ron’s ramen; the noodles are produced through a manufacturer in China and currently on a ship in the Pacific Ocean on their way to Los Angeles. From there, they will be picked up by vendors and shipped to correctional institutions across the country, where they will retail for 49 to 79 cents a packet.

Freeman and his business partner, Dave Taylor, hope that Mama Pat’s will take over the correctional market and eventually replace Maruchan and Nissin ramen.

Taylor started his own company, the Connecticut-based Live Healthy Snacks, after serving a stint in prison for tax crimes; he was dismayed by the dearth of nutritional items available in the commissary. (He is largely responsible for the business side of Mama Pat’s, brokering deals with the big companies that make up the $1.6-billion commissary industry.) So far, the ramen has received positive feedback from correctional administrators and the commissary providers, who were excited about the prospect of finding a way to cut back on sodium, he said.

Freeman has received comments on his social media criticizing him for taking advantage of mass incarceration to make profits, but he argued that he sees his ramen as a solution and not part of the problem. Maruchan and Nissin should be to blame for manufacturing products that add to incarcerated people’s health problems, he said.

Less than a mile from the apartment complex where Freeman was arrested is a Nissin Foods factory, a mammoth concrete complex that spans an entire block. One day, Freeman wants to open his own factory in the area. He said he would prioritize hiring ex-felons, many of whom struggle to find jobs after being incarcerated.

Freeman himself has experience with the issue, losing a previous factory job after he was caught lying on an application about his criminal record. “I'm going to hire people like me that [are] just hungry, wants to do something with their lives, I wanna give them a shot,” he said.

Lauren Gill is a freelance journalist in New York.