Feeding 5,600 inmates daily takes planning, flexibility
By Dana Simas, Public Information Officer
Many people are used to preparing daily meals for their families and the associated problems – from shopping to cooking to getting everyone to sit down at the same time.
But apply that chore to feeding 5,621 people daily and you have the job of Donald Perkins, Correctional Food Manager at Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison-Corcoran (SATF).
When Perkins arrives to work in the morning, and all has hopefully gone without a hitch, a hot breakfast has been served and a sack lunch has been handed out to more than 5,000 inmates.
SATF’s kitchen operations include 49 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) employees, 500 inmate workers, and anywhere from eight to 14 CDCR custody staff monitoring the inmates.
Preparation for breakfast and sack lunches begins at 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m. meal. Preparation for dinner begins at 2 p.m. and is served at 4 p.m.
Based on a state-mandated food menu that is issued twice a year, Perkins orders food daily. He also oversees the daily food deliveries, which can be a not-so-simple process.
“You’re dealing with at least one or two problems with those orders on a daily basis,” Perkins said. “The biggest problem with food service is that at least 75 percent of the variables we deal with we don’t have initial control over.”
Issues such as delivery trucks breaking down mean Perkins must then take a look at his warehouse and kitchen inventory and adjust the inmate meals.
“If you’re missing one food item, you have to substitute and that can mess up the order down the line,” Perkins said. “It might constitute an emergency food change in the middle of the week.”
Perkins also has to alter the menu based on readiness. Items such as produce items that perish quickly require more frequent deliveries and the orders vary based on what’s in season.
Perkins tries to conduct product-ordering with local businesses. SATF has received awards for the amount of volume they’ve purchased from small/local businesses.
Perkins also conducts a bi-weekly “menu meeting” to prepare the institution menu for the next two weeks. During this meeting, staff discuss what is in the inventory, what needs to be ordered, and if the institution has the right tools to prepare the food.
Items such as chicken, beef, and beans are staple products on the menu. But four times a year the Food Manager is allowed to make a special menu for inmates. On Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day inmates are given meals, like turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy.
To prepare the meals, SATF has a central kitchen that does bulk processing of casseroles, tamale pie, and beef stew. These items are then delivered to the institution’s five satellite kitchens that finish preparation and serve the meals.
SATF uses a blast-chill system that freezes the food for delivery. The food must be served within 120 hours. Some items are not blast-chilled such as eggs and hamburger patties.
The food menu preparation seems like a daunting task even if only one institution menu was prepared for the more than 5,000 inmates, but Perkins must also prepare menus for those who are on special medical diets and those who require special products for religious reasons such as Kosher or Halal meals.
Perkins and his team must estimate how many special inmate meals must be produced and with what specific items.
“You may have 200 inmates transferred out during the week and then receive 180 different inmates who may have different needs,” Perkins said. “You may have six or seven additional Kosher meals you need to prepare and you may not have the necessary product on hand. Now you’re trying to procure the product you need.”
Before and after the thousands of meals are prepared, CDCR custody staff conducts a tool check to ensure none of the sharp and dangerous tools are introduced to other areas of the institution.
Feedback is also provided at the end of every meal via the “meal sample report” which is reviewed and maintained for at least three years. One staff member and one inmate are chosen randomly to fill out the meal sample report.
Maintaining inventory and ordering product, overseeing the production of more than 5,000 meals, and making sure the institution is kept safe by working with CDCR custody staff on tool control seems like it would be enough for anyone, but that’s not all Food Managers like Perkins must do.
It’s one thing to prepare more than 5,000 meals for inmates who are stationed in one specific housing unit and receive every meal there, but that’s not the case. SATF is alive with inmate movement, and then sometimes, not so much.
“You can get through breakfast and then a yard locks down at 10 or 11 (a.m.) and then you have to prepare for cell-feeding with proper trays and carts,” Perkins said. “Normally you just have the inmate walking past and grabbing a tray, now you have a different tray, a cart to carry that tray, and someone to deliver that food to the inmate’s cell.”
When the yard is not on lockdown you have constant inmate movement. There are inmates who receive medical treatment on one yard during one meal, but are housed on a different yard during another meal.
The institution also has inmates moving from yard to yard or even general population to Administrative Segregation where now the inmate’s meal must be delivered to his cell. Perkins says his team is “ecstatic” when the tracking system that he and his team created is accurate for three meals.
The constant inmate movement makes preparing the proper number of meals for each yard one extremely difficult task.
“One inmate can be in three different locations within one week,” Perkins said. “You have to track that and make sure his food is delivered to him. You’re never really caught up.”
Feeding an entire institution is no small task and often receives little recognition for the critical work that is done by those working in CDCR’s prison kitchens.
It’s not something that can be skipped, delayed, or corners cut. It has to be done until the last inmate receives his/her meal, and then process starts over a few hours later.
Here is a photo gallery of food services at California State Prison-Sacramento by CDCR staff photographer Eric Owens