Correctional Foodservice Boosts Food Quality while Cutting Costs

To serve large inmate populations on limited budgets, correctional foodservice operators leverage high-volume equipment packages.

Case Study: Washington State Department of Corrections, Tumwater, Wash.

WA-DOC-1The Washington State DOC has implemented two high-volume food factories to help its program cut costs.When the Washington State Department of Corrections began transitioning management of its foodservice program in 2014, the goal was to not only align food manufacturing with meal demands but also to control costs and consistency while expanding opportunities for prisoners planning to work in this field.

The department's 12 prisons, including 7 that house men, a women's prison and 4 minimum security facilities, serve approximately 16,500 inmates. Washington State Correctional Industries (CI), a division within the DOC, now oversees four of the DOC's foodservice programs and runs additional work training programs for prisoners. Sales of products and services to state agencies, county and local governments and not-for-profit organizations support CI's efforts.

CI operates two cook-chill foodservice facilities that are referred to as "factories," and it's easy to see why. The Airway Heights Corrections Center location totals 40,000 square feet, while the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center site measures 20,000 square feet. A 10,000-square-foot distribution warehouse stores frozen food, and CI uses a fleet of 20 trailers and 10 tractor trucks to transport food products to the prison sites.

Staff prepare food in 200-gallon batches and then pump it into 2-gallon bags for freezing prior to shipment to each prison. These food factories also handle a significant amount of baking.

"Many refer to us as a 'food and goods manufacturer,' and that's basically what our program does," says Jim Parker, CI's assistant director. "Cost and waste control are the biggest challenges in corrections foodservice, so we're very focused on the amount of food waste that's generated."

To better keep a handle on production and portion control statewide, the DOC started measuring the amount of leftovers as well as uneaten food remaining on inmates' trays. It also keeps track of nonfood items disposed in the waste stream, such as packaging, in addition to recyclables.

Recently, in an expanded effort to control costs, Washington's DOC invested a significant amount of money in a bar code system to better track the number of people coming through dining rooms at one time. "The bar code system has allowed the department to have a more predictable feel for attendance at each meal," says Parker. "For example, we can see the percentage of offenders who attended spaghetti night the month before to get more insight into the popularity of the meal and help gauge how many people we can expect in the future."

The use of a centralized menu remains consistent at all 12 facilities and operates on a 4-week cycle. "In the last year, we've changed things up in four CI-managed facilities, moving from hot to cold breakfasts," says Brad Simpson, CI's food service administrator. "This was mainly to gain efficiencies."

"The two food factories produce about 75 percent of the food for our prisons, with each lockup finishing kitchen rethermalizing products," says Simpson. "Everything comes in virtually prepared and is then heated and served or thawed and served."

With the exception of one, all prison kitchens were originally built to cook food from scratch and maintain traditional institutional layouts. "In food factories, there has been a transition with equipment over time," says Parker. "The spiral cooler was a huge improvement in terms of upgrading the quality of baked products, and our blast freezers are indispensable."

There have been ongoing changes with the kitchens' equipment as well. Several years ago, all deep fryers were removed and more recently grills were replaced. Steam kettles, tilt skillets and ovens now account for the primary equipment in the on-site kitchens. "With our current menu plan, there's not much call for a steamer," says Parker.

The biggest benefit since the changeover has been portion control. In the past, it was difficult to monitor and control serving amounts. As a result, the department was contending with gallons of leftovers and waste. "When kitchens cook from scratch, quantities prepared can be all over the board. With products that get reheated and come in a 2-gallon bag, we know exactly how much food is being prepared," says Parker. "With portioning, we can work toward progressive cooking, which allows us to get closer to true serving needs, rather than guessing."

Centralized food production has also allowed the Washington DOC to better control sodium and include more whole grains.

Menu items for breakfast include sandwiches, burritos, scrambled eggs and sausage. Lunch typically includes a selection of cold sandwiches, such as turkey, salami, tuna or chicken salad, in addition to hamburgers. Weekday dinner consists mainly of comfort foods, such as meat loaf, casseroles, spaghetti, beef stew, Salisbury steak and turkey à la king. Ingredients are frequently repurposed, with spaghetti sauce used in the lasagna casserole, for example.

"With the data gained from bar code scanning, foodservice operations prepare 80 percent of the historical demand and use progressive cooking to the end of the meal," says Simpson. "Predictable servings for each product line have significantly helped reduce overproduction, thereby reducing food waste."

Ovens will continue to play an important part in the DOC's foodservice operations. "We'll continue moving forward with equipment that allows us to be more efficient on the manufacturing side," says Parker.

 Correctional Foodservice

  • The correctional foodservice segment reported 2014 retail sales equivalent of $4.2 billion, and operator purchases at $2.1 billion, according to Chicago-based market research firm Technomic. Segment sales grew by 1.3 percent last year.
  • The trend in corrections is to offer simplified diet plans that may combine more than one dietary restriction, such as "cardiovascular" (low in fat, cholesterol and sodium), "cardiac/diabetic" or a "heart healthy" main population menu with or without consistent carbohydrates, which reduces medical diet needs even further, according to the winter 2015 issue of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates' (ACFSA) Insider magazine.
  • During the fiscal year 2011 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), the Bureau of Prisons estimates serving over 199 million meals, which is nearly 546,000 meals per day and over 3.8 million meals per week. Despite cost containment measures, the annual costs have risen due to the growing inmate population and inflationary factors.
  • According to a June 11, 2015, report from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), there were 208,388 federal inmates, with 11 percent in privately managed facilities.
  • The majority of inmates in federal prisons are between the ages of 31 and 46, according to the BOP report.

*Source: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014 report

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