As Santa Barbara finds itself in the throes of an ever-escalating foodie revolution, it’s not surprising that the institutional fare served to inmates at County Jail has become the subject of increasing protest. For the second time in as many months, a sizable minority of detainees are now conducting a food strike. According to Commander Darin Fotheringham, about 20 percent of the inmates are now participating. Last month, he said, about one-third (200-300, he estimated) participated in a strike that lasted one day.
Those who claim to speak for those behind bars say inmates complain that portions are way too small and that way too frequently soy products are substituted for meat products, however processed. Last year, the Sheriff’s Office opted to contract out jail food services with Aramark Correctional Services, a branch of the largest institutional food conglomerate in the world, in hopes of cutting food costs by $150,000 a year. Given the jail’s expanding population, it’s doubtful those savings will be realized, but given Aramark’s vast size, the company has still been able to cut the cost per meal from $1.30 to 90 cents. And given that the jail serves about 1.2 million meals a year, that adds up.
Officials insist such savings are achieved because of the company’s ability to buy cheap and the precision with which it enforces portion control. But critics contend the company’s portion management leaves many inmates hungry, as has the company’s increasing reliance on soy products. Fotheringham acknowledged that soy serves as the protein base for hot dinners three to four evenings a week. But he insisted that the average jail bill-of-fare — 2,511 calories per day — more than meets all federal minimum standards regarding caloric and vitamin intake for moderately active adults. He acknowledged that fruit — which used to be served daily — has been replaced by cut vegetables, explaining that the fruit was used to make a fermented and intoxicating jailhouse beverage known as “pruno.”
Still, at a presentation before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning, Fotheringham acknowledged that the number of inmate complaints about food under Aramark has increased. In the past 12 months, he said, there have been 20 such complaints. In the 12 months before Aramark assumed the contract, there were only four. While statistically that constitutes a 500 percent jump, Fotheringham noted that with 1.2 million meals being served, he’d have expected more dramatic numbers if things were as bad as critics contend.
Supervisor Doreen Farr wasn’t quite buying it. She expressed concern over corners potentially cut by Aramark’s savings of 40 cents a meal. And Supervisor Janet Wolf expressed concern at the public safety implications of a County Jail packed to the gills with hungry inmates. “People up here,” she said referring to the supervisors’ dais, “get a little cranky if they’re hungry.” Several women with loved ones in the County Jail said conditions there were far worse than Fotheringham acknowledged. One woman said her 30-year-old son constantly lobbies her to put more money into his commissary account so he can buy extra food. One man said the food in County Jail looked “like it had been vomited onto a tray.” Suzanne Riordan, an advocate for the mentally ill, said she’d been told that meat served in the County Jail is so processed that it’s impossible to tell what animal it came from. She expressed concern about the reliance on soy products given that soy has been the target of so much genetic modification. Andy Caldwell, spokesperson for COLAB, a conservative watchdog organization, opined to those inside the jail complaining about the food, “If you do not like the food, don’t come back.”
Sheriff Bill Brown and County CEO Chandra Wallar sought to reassure the supervisors by describing their experience eating a tray of “Farmhouse Stew” courtesy of the County Jail. “Perhaps ‘tasty’ is a little strong,” said Wallar. “But it was not distasteful either.” She added the serving proved sufficiently generous she could only finish about half, adding, “For much of it, I’d serve it in my own home.” Sheriff Brown was more restrained, noting that institutional food is invariably the subject of some discontent.
Supervisors Farr and Wolf made it clear they were far from mollified. Farr in particular pushed Fotheringham on keeping a keen eye on opportunities to reopen the county’s seven-year contract with Aramark. And Wolf wanted to know why the company had not sprung for the new — and desperately needed — sewage system under the jail kitchen that she thought the contract called for. (She was assured no health or sanitary liability existed, but that the jails’ sewage needs were bigger, more complicated, and more expensive than previously understood.)
Fotheringham also questioned whether the food strike was really motivated by concerns over portions. He noted that this week’s hunger strike happens to coincide with similar actions now taking place in many state prisons throughout California. And he suggested last month’s food strikers miscalculated when the strike was supposed to start by about one month. By the meeting’s end, Fotheringham would concede one point. “It appears portions may be a little bit smaller,” he said.