Backup menus, grab-and-go options and snacks are among the tricks correctional foodservice directors have used to keep inmates fed during coronavirus outbreaks and facility lockdowns over the past several months. These were among solutions shared during a July 28 Zoom panel discussion hosted by The Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates (ACFSA).
Sharon Joles, food service administrator at the Chippewa Valley (Wis.) Correctional Center; Teresa Leary, a correctional food service manager for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety—Prisons; Mark Lewis, foodservice director with the Haynesville (Va.) Correctional Center; and Dale Turner, senior food service manager for the LA County Sheriff’s Department shared their experiences managing staff, meals and supplies during the pandemic.
The panelists have had varied experiences with outbreaks, from none (Joles) to hundreds of inmates and 20 staff members (Lewis).
Joles says her biggest challenge has been staffing, since her kitchen relies on inmate staff to help prepare and serve meals. With no new transfers, the Chippewa Valley facility has seen its population drop, and along with that the kitchen help. With a leaner team, her focus has been on awareness. “My job is to make sure everyone stays on alert, because it’s still out there,” she said. “We are re-teaching handwashing and sanitation every single day. I don’t want anyone to fall into a false sense of security.”
Photo: “There are a lot of unknowns, so you really don’t have the answer—and people are looking for answers,” said Mark Lewis, left, Haynesville, Va., Correctional Center.
The panelists also said they had planned for various scenarios when the COVID outbreak started shutting down the economy and affecting group settings like nursing homes and prisons. Besides intensified sanitation efforts, labor was a concern. Lewis said a committee worked out a plan for total lockdown that involved a 14-day emergency menu that comprised dishes that required minimal prep and little training to produce and deliver. The state also stocked up on paper supplies and frozen food—about a 40-day supply, he said.
Ultimately, non-foodservice employees ended up pitching in to get through a spike in COVID cases at Haynesville. “It was a trying time,” Lewis said, “But I think they got a true understanding of what our staff goes through.”
Staffing was also an issue for LA County, Turner said. Many inmates were released, reducing the number to feed but also the pool of foodservice labor. In addition, many regular staff have taken advantage of a generous paid time off policy during the pandemic. The solution was an expanded cook-and-chill program that produced easily reheated meals, such as burritos and chicken patties. The county also outsourced breakfast and lunch preparation for several weeks, Turner added. And a team of substitutes was assembled to fill in at facilities as needed.
Disease outbreaks in the past have prepared Joles for understaffing.
“The plan always starts with the menu,” she said. “Our menu is set up so if we have a plumber and a teacher running the kitchen, they can handle it.” The simple menu is posted with instructions on where to access ingredients, and non-foodservice staff are trained. “And we have lots of peanut butter, cold sandwich meats, individual pudding cups, individual cookies, individual chips and individual cereals,” she added.
For Leary, takeout cold plates and snacks have helped relieve some of the pressure of having to ensure social distancing in dining rooms. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, cold plate or sandwich trays are offered and inmates are permitted to return to the dorms with their meals. Snacks—peanut butter cracker, cheese crackers, brownies and sugar cookies—are also offered on those days as a morale booster, Leary said.
“The unit staff love it—it gives them a break—and the offenders are enjoying it as well,” Leary said. She said a number of inmates have requested that the grab-and-go option continue after the pandemic period.
The panelists agreed that staying in close touch and having a good working relationship with suppliers during the pandemic have been key. They also agreed that suppliers have raised prices substantially during the crisis, so internal discussions about budget are essential to avoid surprises later on.
Flexibility has been invaluable for Turner. “Everything you do is not going to work out the way you expect,” he said.
Recruiting non-foodservice employees to pitch in has been a useful strategy to weather the most demanding phases for several of these operators. In LA County, for example, deputies helped package meals, and a captain at one facility lent a hand in meal prep. Leary also relied on custody officers to keep meal service running.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Leary said. “If custody hadn’t stepped in to help us, I don’t know what we would have done. You can’t do it by yourself.”