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Report: Summit Food Services Provides Inadequate Nutrition at Missouri Jail

by Kevin Bliss

Attorney and retired judge Gary Oxenhandler conducted a study in 2017 on the prisoner population at the Boone County Jail (BCJ) in Columbia, Missouri. He reported that prisoners were complaining about the quality and quantity of meals at the facility – specifically, that they were not receiving any fresh fruits, vegetables or dairy products.

Oxenhandler, along with Rusty Antel, chairman of the Boone Judicial Law Enforcement Task Force, and attorney Sarah Aplin, wrote to the Boone County Commission with concerns that prisoners’ daily nutritional needs were not being met. They requested that the county’s grand jury conduct an independent investigation.

Summit Food Services, LLC contracted with BCJ in 2016 to be the jail’s food service provider. The minutes of a commission meeting at the time showed that Sheriff Dwayne Carey called Summit’s meals healthy and a positive change, and that he was “impressed” with the company.

After an investigation on February 15, 2019, the grand jury issued a report that mirrored Oxenhandler’s concerns. They felt that daily nutritional values were not being met, meals at the jail needed more fruit and vegetables, and the fortified beverages currently being served should be replaced with dairy products.

Summit Foods CEO Marlin Sejnoha disagreed with the grand jury’s findings and said the company always meets nutritional recommendations.

Oxenhandler noted that the dietitian who approves Summit menus, although state certified, is an employee of the company. He asked an independent registered dietitian, Melinda Hemmelgarn, to give an objective opinion. Hemmelgarn reported that the jail’s menu did not meet U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“In summary,” her report stated, “the food is too high in sodium, too high in processed, refined carbohydrates and sugars and too low in fiber.” She said such diets contribute to “high blood pressure, constipation, poor blood sugar control and cardiovascular disease.”

The Boone County Commission appointed an evaluation committee and received a recommendation on June 13, 2019 to award BCJ’s food service contract to Trinity Correctional Services – another for-profit company that has a poor track record. [See, e.g.: PLN, June 2018, p.52; Jan. 2018, p.46].

“It would probably be true that none are perfect, but out of those willing to make proposals, this seemed to be the best set of circumstances,” said Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill. “But we’ll try it. We will enter into an agreement and hold them to the promises they make and hope they will be an appropriate food service for the people who eat the food.”

At a subsequent commission meeting, Sheriff Carey noted that an RFP for another food service provider was already in the works when Oxenhandler first began raising concerns. He also said, according to the meeting minutes, that “There is a big emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables when it is not fiscally responsible to spend money on fresh fruits and vegetable that will only be good for so long.” Carey noted that the “number one thing that detainees order [from the commissary] is Ramen Noodles,” followed by cookies and candy.

Of course, if the jail provided better and more nutritious meals, prisoners might be less inclined to supplement the food with commissary purchases. The Boone County Commission approved the BCJ’s food service contract with Trinity on June 20, 2019.  

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Sources: columbiatribune.com, showmeboone.com