Diet, budget, timing go into meals for inmates

The daily fare at Richmond County jails isn't fine dining, but the folks who prepare it are proud of what's served.


Sheriff's Maj. Gene Johnson, who oversees operations at the two jails, knew they had a winning formula when former inmates asked to be let in on Tuesdays -- when chicken was on the menu.

"They line up real good on chicken Tuesdays," Johnson said.

There are a lot of hungry stomachs to feed on a daily basis at the jails on Walton Way and Phinizy Road. On any given day in 2010, there were about 900 inmates at the Augusta-Richmond County Law Enforcement Center on Walton Way; the Phinizy Road inmate population on Thursday was 600.

Providing three meals a day for each inmate requires not just organization but also strict adherence to state dietary regulations and a budget.

Each inmate is required to be served 2,400 calories a day. Johnson said that the jail has considered feeding inmates two meals a day, as some jails do, but that it's easier to spread out those calories over three meals.

Each inmate costs $47 a day to house, and $3.87 of that goes toward food. Sheriff Ronnie Strength has said that jails is one area where he plans to cut $750,000 out of his budget.

Johnson said he has found ways to cut his budget without sacrificing the taste or service; for instance, substituting chicken quarters for chicken breasts in some meals.

Fresh food is bought according to what's on sale, but costs are brought down significantly by buying most items in bulk, Johnson said.

Creating a menu that fits all those requirements is done by a private consultant, who works twice a year with kitchen staffers to decide what to serve.

The three menus are rotated to add some variety in the cafeteria.

Sgt. John Whitaker, at the Charlie Webster Detention Center on Phinizy Road, said sometimes changes are made based on what seems to be commonly left on trays.

When he first started supervising the kitchen four years ago, for instance, there were beets on the menu.

"I don't know anybody alive that eats beets," Whitaker said, so he put in a request that a comparable vegetable be substituted for the beets.

Some unpopular foods such as mustard greens and turnip greens stay on the menu.

Getting the food ready is an all-day affair. Breakfast preparation begins at 3 a.m. in anticipation of serving the first meal at 5:30 a.m. Lunch follows at 11 a.m., and the final meal starts serving around 3:30 p.m.

A lot of the food, especially meat, is ordered frozen or precooked to cut down on preparation time. Other meals, however, such as beef and noodles, are prepared fresh for the day, Whitaker said.

Inmates who enter the system with special medical or religious dietary needs are given separate meals.

For the most part, though, the enormous task of feeding inmates is just a matter of sticking to the day's menu, Whitaker said.

Johnson said all inmates who work in the kitchen are given a medical examination to make sure they don't have any communicable diseases.

"That's more than you can say about some restaurants," Johnson said.

The jails in Richmond County are among the last in the state not to have commissaries, but that's soon about to change.

Maj. Gene Johnson said in an interview this week that he's in talks with vendors to supply inmates with items such as soap and snacks.

Currently, inmates are given a weekly allowance to use in the vending machines, but their families have to bring the money to the jail.

One system under review would allow families to put money on an inmate's account online or through a debit card at the jail. Inmates would use wrist bands or another digital system to pay for their goods, eliminating the need for cash, which can be stolen or gambled away, Johnson said.

The county would not pay anything for the contractor's equipment or services, said Johnson, who said a system is expected to be in place within four to six months.

-- Staff reports