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Florida's Private Food Service Demonstrates that Profit Overrides Sanitary Practice

by David M. Reutter

In July 2001, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) entered into a five-year contract with Philadelphia's cost-conscious Aramark Corporation to feed prisoners at 126 of the 133 prisons in Florida. The contract is projected to reduce FDOC's cost of feeding its prisoners from $80.2 million in 2000-2001 to $72.2 million in the fiscal year that ended July 1.

Aramark provides meals at a daily cost of $2.32 per prisoner, and it will earn an estimated $58 million in its first year of the contract. This profit earning is facilitated, in part, by Aramark's use of prisoner slave labor. Prior to the contract with Aramark, FDOC had required its food service contractors to pay prisoners. The biggest profit earner, however, comes upon the altar by sacrifice of sanitary practices and shorting menu ingredients.

When Aramark first entered Florida's prisons it initially served well-proportioned tasty trays. Then the weaning began. As time went on, Aramark began to cut corners in the amount of ingredients it used, and the amount it served prisoners. Aramark regularly fails to cook enough food; often they run out with 200 to 300 prisoners waiting to be fed. This results in delays of 10 to 60 minutes, causing the prisons' count and work schedules to be disrupted on an almost daily basis. Guards, however, fear a greater foe.

The delays and scrambling to cook more food regularly results in different food items being served to the last prisoners than the first, causing petty jealousies that may explode into fights. So far, there have been no incidents. But, one can only wonder how long that can continue with the cuisine Aramark serves. In February 2002, at Madison Correctional Institution, Capt. Hugh Poppel noticed a particularly soupy batch of Sloppy Joe's. When he investigated, he observed Aramark employees diluting the entree even more with ketchup and tomato paste to stretch it among the 700-plus prisoners yet to be fed. The Warden then investigated the matter and discovered Aramark had shorted the recipe by 70 pounds of ground beef and turkey. He also noted: "The other ingredients such as onions, celery, and green peppers in the entree were not observed." In February, 2002, Hardee prisoners staged a one day food strike.

The greater concern is with Aramark's unsanitary practices in kitchen maintenance and food handling so it can cut costs. In Marion County, an Aramark Supervisor ordered prisoner workers to soak spoiled chicken in vinegar and water to rid it of the smell before cooking. Guards learned of this and ordered 500 pieces of chicken thrown out. Inspectors at Brevard County in March and May found maggots on serving trays and kitchen floors.

Reports from other prisons described Aramark kitchens as "filthy" and in one case, "horrendous." In Hernando County, guards discovered Aramark preparing "a spaghetti dinner using chili con carne from the previous week and creamed chipped beef from the day before. The cream sauce was washed off and the beef reused." Aramark is so determined to cut costs it teaches its prisoner workers how to scoop food from pans in a way it won't jam too much into the ladle.

Despite these problems, state officials are hell bent to continue the contract, even though it has assessed $110,000 in fines against Aramark for its practices. According to Elizabeth Hirst, a spokeswoman for Governor Jeb Bush, the contract is designed to work out glitches. "With a savings of $8 million in the first year, " she added, "this is operating in the manner that the governor and the corrections secretary (Michael W. Moore) had hoped. We are off to a good start with the program."

One can only wonder if the real motivation is savings to the state or political pay back. Aramark and its top executives gave thousands to Republican campaign accounts for the 2000 election, including Bush for President. With Governor Bush running for re-election last year, Aramark was certain to contribute to his coffers.

Aramark has a history of problems in Ohio prisons, and Florida officials were aware of this before signing with Aramark. An Ohio inspection team in 1999 found "inexcusable" sanitation problems and "observed a near riot during breakfast as a results of (Aramark's) strict compliance with portion size(s)." The team suggested Aramark "should be liable for damages as a result of the lack of training, cleaning, and maintenance." Aramark's contract in Ohio was not renewed. [PLN, Dec. 02.]

The prison industrial complex's growth and interest in political payback is alive and growing in Florida for the foreseeable future, it's clear that Florida's 72,000 prisoners will be subject to Aramark's concerns for profit over sanitary practices in running its prison kitchens.

Source: St. Petersburg Times

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