Complaints about the grub served by Aramark Correctional Services aren’t unique to what’s being cooked up in the Santa Barbara County Jail. They are comparable to comments made about the company’s brand of jail food in other areas of the country, too.
In a basic Internet search, California, New Jersey, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Kentucky popped up as states in which issues with Aramark Correctional Services have made the news. Those issues resulted in the audits of state contracts with Aramark in Ohio, Florida, and Kentucky; reports of a hunger strike at Bayside State Prison in New Jersey; and, of course, the hunger strike that took place last year in the Santa Barbara County Jail.
A recently released Santa Barbara County grand jury report proclaims that the jail food meets standards for portion size and daily caloric intake, but community members such as Patricia McNally aren’t convinced.
“Having grand jury members sample one inmate dinner meal doesn’t mean that the million-plus meals Aramark served to inmates this year can be considered representative of that meal or vice versa,” McNally wrote in an email to the Sun. “If you want to make predictions about mass production, you need to have something related to mass production.”
The grand jury’s report does state that one random meal at the jail was sampled as part of the investigation.
Complaints about the county’s jail food resulted in about 20 percent of the inmate population going on a hunger strike in July 2013. Inmates at the Bayside State Prison reportedly went on a partial hunger strike in October 2013.
New Jersey Department of Corrections spokesperson Deirdre Fedkenheur told The Press of Atlantic City that inmates reported being unhappy with their meals.
McNally said she thinks more needs to be done to ensure Aramark is meeting the requirements of its contract with the county, and she uses what’s happened in other states as reasons to believe that something rotten is going on in the county jail’s cafeteria.
Aramark didn’t respond to the Sun’s inquiries for comment.
An audit of the Florida Department of Corrections’ contract with Aramark came to the conclusion that the company failed to hold up its end of the contract. The audit report, released in January 2007, said fewer inmates were eating meals than before the contract’s inception in 2001. The substitution of “less costly and less palatable food products” was partially responsible for fewer inmates eating cafeteria meals, the report said.
“Feed rates have declined sharply since 2001, creating a windfall for the vendor and reducing the value of the service provided to the department,” the Flordia report said. “The value of this lost service in [fiscal year] 2005-06 totaled more than $5.6 million.”
Needless to say, the Florida Department of Corrections did not renew its contract with Aramark.
A 2009 prison riot prompted the Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts to investigate the Kentucky Department of Corrections’ contract with Aramark. Inmates set the Northpoint Training Center on fire that year, and much of the prison had to be rebuilt.
Testimony given before the state’s House Judiciary Committee about the riot alleged that food was one of the culprits behind the riot.
“Reports and testimony suggested problems related to poor sanitation and pest control in the institutions’ kitchens, dining halls and/or food storage areas, poor food quality, inadequate food quantity, and reports of large scale food-related illness outbreaks,” the October 2010 audit report said of the testimony.
The report also stated that the company had food production issues—shortages, menu changes at the last minute—and that numerous billing errors had occurred “more often than not,” benefiting Aramark over the Department of Corrections.
Santa Barbara County privatized the jail’s cafeteria and commissary—kind of like a jail convenience store—services on July 10, 2012, when the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a seven-year contract with Aramark for jail food services. The move is supposed to save the county $180,000 over the long run, and the company agreed to put $600,000 toward fixing the jail’s sewer system.
At the time, 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf was the only one who publicly doubted the move.
“Philosophically, I question something, especially like this, when there’s a big changeover—in this case, privatizing jail services,” Wolf recently told the Sun.
During a small presentation given by the Sheriff’s Department in 2012, Wolf said she had seen a recent article that talked about issues the company was having. She asked if the department had thoroughly vetted the company. Sheriff’s Department representatives said yes, the department had checked all the references Aramark gave them, and all the responses were positive.
Pre-Aramark contract, there weren’t complaints about the food, Wolf said. And she’s not 100 percent convinced that the county is saving money on the deal, either. Wolf was the lone dissenting voice in a September 2013 vote that increased the contract payout by 2.3 percent.
Wolf told the Sun that supervisors weren’t informed of the past issues the company had in other states. Sherriff’s Cmdr. Darin Fotheringham hadn’t returned the Sun’s inquiry before the press deadline.
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam said he hadn’t heard of past issues Aramark had in other states either.
“No empirical data has been brought to my attention,” he said.
He added that jail food is institutional food, and cost per meal makes a difference when serving three meals a day to approximately 900 inmates, so saving money is important. The taste of the meals is not so important.
“If the guys don’t like the food, please don’t come back,” Adam said. “We don’t have the space anyway, and we’d rather not have them there in the first place.”
Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at [email protected].