For college students, ramen is an easy meal that helps save money.
For prisoners, it is money.
The Japanese noodle dish has become one of the most beloved meals behind bars — not just for its ease and taste, but because it works as an alternative to money for bartering. And one ex-con, Ron Freeman, wants to make the high-sodium snack healthier for the inmates who crave it.
Freeman is the creator of Mama Pat’s Foods, a company that plans to ship low-sodium and salt-free ramen meals to prisoners this year.
The noodles are used as currency within prisons on a state and federal level, Mama Pat’s sales leader David Taylor told Oxygen.com.
“It’s how you get haircuts and tattoos and anything else amongst inmates," Taylor said.
Ramen can take a toll on the health of prisoners with high blood pressure, hypertension and diabetes. Taylor noted that while prisoners get plenty of exercise, there aren't many food alternatives to help complete a healthy lifestyle in the clink.
Taylor told Oxygen.com the product will launch by early summer and that three commissaries licensed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and privatized jails across the country have committed to buying the ramen. Oxygen.com spoke to Mama Pat's manufacturer which confirmed that the orders are in the work.
The idea came after Freeman saw firsthand how hard it is to eat right while serving time. Growing up in south central Los Angeles, he said his parents tried to keep him away from bad influences, but he "got sucked into the situation in the late '80s when the drugs flooded Los Angeles."
"I was arrested and sentenced to go to prison," he told Oxygen.com. "I wasn’t a high-level prisoner. I was just there for selling a small amount of drugs."
He served three years in Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego for possession of a controlled substance. He worked as a prison cook and saw how inmates would scarf down three or four packs of ramen a day. Then they'd throw in potato chips, dried meat and beef jerky for taste and protein.
Freeman said his sentence forced him to think about what he could contribute when he was out.
"When I walked in that yard and I saw so many people locked up, and it was as big as a college campus, I knew that this was not the place for me. I used that time to start learning about myself: What can I do to make myself better?" he said.
After his release in 1998, he said he couldn't get a job anywhere. "I was turned down over and over again," he said.
So he started cooking up a plan.
In 2010, he opened a restaurant called Mama Pat's Gumbo & Grill in Inglewood, California, which has since closed.
While working to get his frozen gumbo sold in grocery stores, a buyer suggested he start selling ramen. Freeman thought about the needs of prisoners, particularly those whose health is harmed by their diet.
"How can I get this to benefit people who are ill and also encourage young people who want to do the same thing I am doing?" Freeman recalled thinking. "Let me lower the sodium and design one that is sodium free."
He said he uses concentrated yeast extracts with his own secret spice blend. Freeman said he invested his life savings into Mama Pat’s Food and the development of four flavors: chicken fajita, chicken taco, seafood gumbo and lamb stew.
He named the company after his grandmother from Arkansas whom he called Mama Pat. She had a knack for cooking from the heart, he said.
Freeman and Mama Pat’s Foods plan to offer mentorships to other people who have left jail and want to whip up their own dishes.
"I want to help these guys coming out of prison with some culinary skills but nobody to help them out," he said.
[Photo: Provided by Regina Shields-Hailey]