The cost of privatized food in public institutions

| February 25, 2016
Photo: flickr/ kentkb

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Earlier this year, inmates at the Regina Correctional Centre started and ended a second hunger strike over the quality of prison food. In December 2015, the first hunger strike was sparked in part when inmates were served raw eggs. Issues with equipment, quality and the status of a cooking job skills program were resolved.

Premier Brad Wall remarked in early January that if prisoners did not want to eat prison food, they had best avoid prison. Unsurprisingly, reports of the strike garnered little sympathy.

But this is not the only recent episode of complaints about food quality in Canadian prisons.

Last March, more serious complaints from inmates in B.C. involving diarrhea, vomiting and malnutrition prompted an investigative report by the CBC.

Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, noted that his office was examining the roll-out of the "cook-chill" system in response to concerns that the complaints could represent a more systemic issue or violate the Charter rights. The program saves money by preparing food en mass, chilling it and re-heating it upon serving.

John Nilson, the Saskatchewan NDP's corrections and policing critic, told rabble.ca in a phone interview that there are a number of concerns with the food that is being served at the Regina facility.

"One of them is, obviously, the health of the inmates because it's more difficult for the staff and the guards to deal with patients if they're not well. Also, it's a factor in the overall morale of the institutions," he said.

Profiting off of incarceration leads to further scandal

Saskatchewan privatized its prison food services and handed them over to the British multinational Compass Group in November 2015. The Saskatchewan Government Employees' Union (SGEU) issued excoriating criticism.

"Just six weeks into its contract, the provider of Saskatchewan's privatized correctional food services has caused a hunger strike," SEGU said in a Facebook post in December.

"Compass shipped thousands of potentially Listeria-contaminated meals to Ontario jails. It got kicked off the University of Winnipeg campus because students couldn't stomach its food. It left its cleaning crews too understaffed and undertrained to cope with a fatal disease outbreak in a B.C. hospital. Meanwhile, Compass is making a killing. It had revenues of $35 billion last year, and paid its CEO $12 million," the statement continued.

"Our primary concern is that the food we serve is prepared to the very highest standards using quality products and ingredients," a representative of Compass Group Canada wrote in an email to rabble.

"We continue to conduct regular meetings with our Operations teams across all the correctional centres to reinforce proper cooking and food handling protocols and are in contact with our client on an ongoing basis to investigate and address any comments regarding our operations at the Regina Correctional Centre."

The company has also come under fire before for allegations of bribery meant to secure contracts with the UN; paying wages to kitchen workers at the U.S. Senate cafeteria so low that they were homeless or on food stamps; and its role in the European horsemeat scandal of 2013.

Asked whether the government considered these factors in its awarding of the contract to Compass Group, Nilson said, "I don't know what the government considered but we know that these issues were raised by various people, especially some of the unions. ...I would assume that it was part of the discussion."

He went on to lament what he perceived as a pattern by the provincial government of sending control of jobs outside of Saskatchewan, referring to French company's VINCI role in the controversial Regina bypass.

Negatives effects of privatized food spread to schools

Chartwells, Compass Group's subsidiary for food services in education, serves 900 Canadian high schools, The Globe and Mail reported in October 2010. It has been criticized by, among others, the food services director of the Washington, D.C. public school board, whose lawsuit against them detailed fraud and poor food quality; students, unionists and workers at Trent University; students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and University of Ottawa; and school children in Florida and Massachusetts.

In the latter state, fifth graders complained of macaroni and cheese that sickened eight out of 22 students. Nevertheless, Chartwells' and competitor Aramark's cafeterias "often outshine school-run food services in the Eat Smart! awards given by the Ontario Public Health Association," The Globe and Mail said.

Aramark has also had similar serious food problems as well as displaced unionized workers. "The food was not great [before privatization], but the officers ate it along with the prisoners. Once Aramark came in, that changed," said New Jersey corrections officer Crystal Jordan to author Chris Hedges in Truthdig.

"The officers demanded the right to bring in their own food or order out, which the jail authorities granted. But the prisoners had no choice. Diarrhea and vomiting is common among the prisoners," Jordan said.

In Canada, Aramark has been criticized for not adhering to obligations outlined in its original contract with Ryerson University, as well as issues with with food service at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Memorable photos of a mouldy lemon, raw porkchop, and housefly-containing taco helped spur action, though students were further irritated by what they saw as an unprofessional, passive aggressive subtweet. In email correspondence obtained by The Telegram through access to information requests, the university administration pressed Aramark to apologize and be more sympathetic in its public relations.

Aramark was also the respondent to a human rights complaint in Nova Scotia on the basis of race/colour. In a settlement agreement, it admitted no wrongdoing but apologized to and paid a former cafeteria worker $7,500 after it did not respond to her harassment concerns.

Aramark Canada was named one of Canada's Green Employers for 2015.

Further impacts and solutions

The potential problem with food quality in prisons falls under Sapers' office's priority area of conditions of confinement.

Legal and moral reasons aside, however, institutions may also have incentives to maintain a certain minimum standard of quality and control over food in order to prevent violence, save money and improve outcomes.

Prisoners in New South Wales, for example, have been able to participate in a vocational program that allows them to grow their own food. The program saves money and may reduce the risk of re-offending.

NPR's Eliza Barclay has reported on prison garden programs in California, Minnesota and Connecticut that supply inmates with food and emphasized it as strong means of rehabilitation.

Marion Nestle, a food policy professor at NYU known for her public health advoacy, told rabble.ca that the "theory behind [prison food] is to keep the guys from ever going hungry -- hungry men tend to riot."

"Quantity is the issue; quality is not", she wrote. "This is especially the case for for-profit prisons."

An-Sofie Vanhouche, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels who studies prison food, told rabble that the Dutch government is examining the relationship between nutrition and violence.

"Currently, [they] are conducting research on the use of food supplements in prison in order to reduce violence -- food supplements that effect behavior and reduce violence, that is, [stemming from] the research of Ap Zaalberg."

Food has been identified as the primary or contributing cause of prison riots and other violence in Northumberland, Kentucky, Michigan, Arizona, Mississippi, Bolivia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

Vanhouche explained that inmates' meals can be meaningful for them in unusual ways and therefore object of intense emotion.

"Criminologists and sociologists have found that food can play many different roles within a prison context. Food possesses a symbolic power and is a means of communication in a closely controlled environment. ...Research has shown that the importance of food in prison must not be underestimated."

 

Cory Collins is a writer and visual artist living in St. John's. He can be contacted via Twitter @coryGcollins or corycollins.ca.

Photo: flickr/ kentkb

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