Two rows of men in orange sweat suits faced one another as a long line of food-laden trays rolled off an assembly line between them. The 20 San Francisco County Jail inmates were preparing a taco dinner for about 520 fellow inmates.
As each tray was filled with beans, cheese sauce, taco shells and soy-based taco meat, the inmates passed them to the end of the line, where they were stacked for transport to one of the jail’s pods.
At one point, the line moved too fast, and a tray fell to the floor.
“Tortilla down!” hollered an inmate. Minutes later came another call. “Tray down!” as another inmate appeared with a rag to help clean the mess.
This scene is repeated three times a day in the San Bruno facility, known as County Jail No. 5, as well as in The City’s second kitchen in jail at the Hall of Justice. Every day in these kitchens, unpaid inmates pump out meals for roughly 1,250 inmates in The City’s five active jails as well as meals for deputies on duty.
SEE RELATED: Taco night at SF County Jail No. 5
Breakfast is served at 3 a.m. — inmates have to be transported and ready for court at 9 a.m. — and lunch at 9 a.m. The last meal of the day is served just after 3 p.m.
On a recent Friday, inmates received hash browns, a muffin, jelly and milk for breakfast. Lunch was turkey, mashed potatoes, bread and oranges with milk; dinner was the soy-based tacos.
“If I can serve it to you, I can eat it,” said Vincent Mitchell, the jail food manager, during an interview in the kitchen. “I want it to taste good.”
Aside from what inmates buy on their own through commissary, these meals are the main sustenance received in The City’s jails. The food has improved over the years — in the mid-1990s, an inmate called every media outlet in the Bay Area to hold a news conference about how bad the jail food was — but it still doesn’t compare to the tastes that many San Franciscans have come to expect.
“It’s always been somewhat bland,” Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said.
With that in mind, Hennessy is hoping to bring some of the farm-to-table ideas that have become popular in culinary circles into her jails.
“It would be locally sourced food, the kind I like to eat,” Hennessy said.
The $3 million contract the department has with Aramark, which has worked to improve the health of its food in recent years by reducing salt and sugar, is set to end this year. Going forward, Hennessy hopes at least a pilot program can be started by modeling the jail after San Francisco Unified School District efforts that use local food to feed students through the the Good Food Purchasing Program.
The program, run by the Center for Good Food Purchasing, assesses existing institutional food purchasing and then reports back on how well that system falls within a list of criteria. That includes locally produced and sustainable food that is nutritious. It also includes making sure the workers who produce the food are treated fairly and the animals that are part of the food chain are treated humanely.
With that in mind, Hennessy’s department has started to explore the possibility of such a change to the kind of food served to inmates. The plan is in the early stages, so there are no details about how it would work.
It’s also unclear if the jail’s current food provider, Aramark, would remain in place under any new plans. Still, the company has had some issues of its own apart from the food it serves.
According to a PBS Newshour report in January, the company “provides meals for more than 500 correctional facilities across the country and has been the subject of complaints about maggots and rocks, sexual harassment, drug trafficking and other employee misconduct.”
The company denies these allegations, as noted by PBS, but it has lost contacts for such issues. In 2015, Michigan canceled a $145 million prison contract with the company.
JAIL KITCHEN AND FOOD QUALITY
A cavernous kitchen facility where food is made in San Bruno is filled with dry and cold storage, giant pots, dishwashers and sinks in a massive room on the bottom floor of the jail. Here, two sets of inmates labor for hours each day, making food based on an Aramark menu that must simultaneously try to please the different palates of hundreds of inmates.
“We want to make sure they are gonna eat it,” said Mitchell, who runs Aramark’s program with the department at the San Bruno facility. “I go around and I look in the garbage cans. Sometimes, they don’t want to eat the vegetables. Sometimes, they don’t want to eat the stew.”
Mitchell said his desire to please inmates is linked to security as much much as a desire to make people happy. Bad food can cause more than unhappy diners, he added.
“When you get a group of men, and they don’t like the food and they rebel against the food, that’s a problem,” he said. “We have to make sure that’s one less thing the deputies … have to worry about.”
To make sure more inmates are happy with the meals, Aramark changes the menu so no meals are repeated within six weeks, Mitchell said. The menu includes everything from adobo chicken to strogonoff to American goulash and Spanish rice.
The meals also vary in other ways. Chicken is served once a week, and fish once a month.
No matter what is served, the state requires each inmate receive a 2,500 calorie daily diet, which is augmented by a professional dietitian who helps plan the meals. In that vein, since 2014, the desired caloric intake has been reduced from 2,800 a day, and salt and sugar content has also been reduced. Much of the meat has also been taken off the menu and replaced with soy.
“I really thought, ‘Oh God, soy,’” said Mitchell, who has worked in the jail for 14 years. But he noted that in reality it’s hard to taste the difference. “If you close your eyes, you wouldn’t really know the difference.”
Despite his assertions, at least one of the inmates working in the kitchen on a recent Friday said his fellow inmates can tell the difference.
“A lot of people don’t like the soy,” he said.
Still, the inmate, who declined to give his name, had a favorite jail food. “My favorite meal is chicken adobo.”
By 3:30 p.m. that Friday, more than 20 carts stacked with meals were in a giant elevator going up the the jail’s main floor. Once on the main floor, four inmates, led by one deputy, rolled the meals to the four pods.
Inside the first pod, two inmates came for the meals and waited for the deputy on duty to let inmates out of their cells for dinner.
As the pair of inmates waited for the others to be let out of their cells, one commented on the food.
“I guarantee you 25 percent of the main course is going in the garbage,” he said. “Look at that. Soy, beans, uncooked taco shells.”
The first inmate to be served picked up his tray, looked at the food and then tossed it in a nearby garbage can as predicted.
“I’m gonna throw this out. I’m good,” he said.
His example was followed by the next three people in line. It turned out the whole pod had already eaten for a graduation ceremony related to the jail’s high school.
Pizza had been on the menu.
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