Food-service worker Domingo Reyes heaves freshly cooled jail spaghetti at the San Diego Sheriff's Central Production Center. Photo by Will Parson.
De'Andre Daniels is having a good day, simply because he has a sharpened pencil. Whether the day stays good depends on what the San Diego County Sheriff's Department serves him for dinner.
“It's the small things that matter greatly to us in jail,” Daniels writes. “For us who are locked down most of the time with nothing to do but sleep or work out, imagine waking up to a nasty meal. Let me tell you, it brings your spirit down.”
Using the sheriff's email-an-inmate system, CityBeat sent letters to two-dozen random inmates asking their opinion on jail cuisine. Only Daniels, a 20-year-old being held at San Diego Central Jail on an assault-with-a-firearm charge, responded.
“I thought no one would ever ask,” he writes. “The food they serve here is horrible! Straight up dog food. Actually I take that back, because some dog foods look better than the nasty, disgusting alien food that they put together and serve us here.”
Lawrence Mendez, manager of the sheriff's food-services division, acknowledges that the county's “guests” aren't his biggest fans. But state regulations are quite strict when it comes to nutrition, he says.
“That's one of the biggest challenges,” Mendez says. “Do you eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day? Do you eat three cups of beans per week? Do you drink three glasses of milk a day? These are the requirements, and it's challenging to fit them on the menu where a population will accept them. We're trying to be somewhat creative.”
Whatever beefs the inmates may have, Mendez says they can't complain that the portions are unfair. Since 1991, the Sheriff's Department has operated the Central Production Center, which is pretty much a TV-dinner factory in South County. The facility produces 35,000 meals a day, each identically packaged and sealed in plastic serving trays and shipped to the county's jail and probation facilities. Currently, each meal costs $1.05 to make.
In the 1980s, San Diego County commissioned two independent studies to find solutions to handling what was then known as the “most overcrowded system in the country.” Feeding those mouths, according to an essay published by then-Chief of Food Services Louise Mathews in the National Institute of Corrections' 1990 “Large Jail Network Bulletin,” required a drastic reconfiguration of the food system.
San Diego County invested in a 38,000-square-foot facility to prepare food using the cook / chill system—cook it hot, chill it quickly, seal it tight to prevent bacteria degradation—which Mendez says is still a model for jails around the country.
“The concept of cook / chill is you're able to prepare the meal ahead of time and send them to the facilities where all you have to do is reheat,” Mendez says. “That allows us to reduce our manpower and reduce the amount of equipment we have to have in each facility…. I don't have to worry about wasted food in our facilities, because all the waste we would have here, we basically grind it up and use it in other items. So, it saves cost, as well.”
In the facility's bakery, massive blocks of shortening rest on tables next to Willy Wonka-esque dough-rising equipment. In the vegetable-prep area, an industrial food processor, marked with a graphic warning not to slice one's fingers off, chops potatoes by the bucketful. In the main production pit, oatmeal and spaghetti bubble in great metal vats, stirred by an attachment that looks like a chainsaw made of ax-heads.
The substances in these vats are pumped into plastic sacks, which are then tossed into giant tumblers of cold water—hence, cook / chill. County employees do all the preparation, but a team of inmates will later pack the food into trays on an assembly line.
During the last few years, the facility has consistently received accolades from the San Diego County Grand Jury, which tours the jail system annually, for producing quality food cheaply. (Sometimes, the jail is able to purchase excess food from the more gourmet distributors, including the same Columbus-brand sliced meat sold at Trader Joe's.)
“For some people, it's probably better food than they would eat in their [outside] life,” L.B. Martin, who served as foreman for the grand jury in 2009, says. “For other people, it may not be quite what they prefer, but I think it's satisfactory for everybody. Would you want to eat it every day? I think it's a matter of perspective.”
County jail employees eat the same food as inmates, and the food is sometimes eaten outside the jail. During the wildfires of 2007, the central production facility mass-produced meals for evacuees. More recently, it fed the field teams who were looking for missing Poway teen Chelsea King.
Until recent program cuts at San Diego State University, students at the school's Food and Nutrition program toured the facility to learn about large-scale food production. Kelly Lane, the lecturer who led the courses, describes it as an “incredible” and “pristine” operation.
“It's a pretty healthy diet for anyone to consume every day,” Lane says, adding that the facility offers a variety of ethnic foods. “I myself have eaten there several times, and the food was wonderful.”
The facility currently has a 93-percent food-inspection score from the county's Department of Environmental Health. In January 2009, inspectors spotted a baby cockroach in the bakery and rat droppings underneath food pallets in the facility's warehouse—the latter problem was not fixed when the department followed up a month later. In January 2010, the department received a complaint that there were rat dropping in bags of rice and beans in the storage room. The investigators were unable to substantiate the claim, but they did note in their recent report that the fly-zapper was too close to the food-preparation area.
The facility does have a quality-control system in the event that a detainee complains about the food being tainted or, as inmate Daniels puts it, “nasty.”
“We keep a tray of everything,” Mendez says. “If there's a complaint about the food, we can actually send it to the lab to be tested…. And we will reheat them and sit down and eat them if there are any complaints. I will tell you that we don't have a whole lot of seasoning in our food because of the requirements that we are mandated by, but without the seasoning, I mean, I would eat it. I've eaten it quite a bit.”
How to make spaghetti with meat sauce for 4,500 peopleIngredients: 60 lb ground beef 70 lb ground lean turkey120 lb chopped onions20 gal water37 lb soy, ground beef style2 lb garlic powder10 lb granulated, extra fine sugar10 lb granulated, iodized salt 1.5 cup ground black pepper1 qt crushed oregano 1 qt ground thyme 1 qt ground basil 10 lb low-sodium beef soup base340 lbs canned, crushed tomatoes210 lbs canned tomato paste103 gal water200 lb 1.6mm spaghetti pasta Directions:• Cook ground beef and turkey with onions, while agitating, breaking apart. Drain off excess fat• Add water, soy and garlic. Simmer 20 minutes to reconstitute soy• Add sugar, salt, pepper, oregano, thyme basil and beef base while agitating• Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and water• Simmer for 20 minutes• Bring to boil• Add raw noodles, while agitating• Cook sauce and noodles for 12 minutesRecipe courtesy of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, Food Services Division
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