In an environment where just keeping the violence and negativity at bay would be an accomplishment, Major Robert James “Jim” Beach offers guidance and a chance for self-reliance to the inmates in his kitchen.
A combination of character traits — toughness, fairness, tenacity — have served Beach well in his career as Director of Food Services at the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office. His tell-it-like-it-is demeanor and sense of humor don't hurt, either.
He started working in law enforcement years ago, when Beach's future father-in-law told him, “If you're going to date my daughter, you need a real job.” At the time, 1983, in Slidell, LA, Beach was perfectly content working as a tennis instructor, but took a job as a deputy if it meant he could keep seeing his now-wife, Angie.
This step, along with a background in food (his father, a young widower, used to take Beach and his siblings to work with him at the A & P, where he was a manager), would change Beach's life — and the lives of many others — forever.
“One day, I was just getting off work, and the sheriff said, ‘You know something about food, don't you?’” Beach recalls. Eventually, he was in charge of foodservice for 7,000 inmates in 9 jails making up the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Department.
His first priority in the kitchen, “after making sure the inmates didn't kill each other,” he says, was cleanliness.
What’s on Beach’s Plate?
Annual Budget: $9,000,000
Annual Budget: $9,000,000
Meals Served Per Day: 22,000 (also
Inmates: 2,500 (7,000 before Katrina;
currently adding more)
Sites: 5 jails (12 jails before Katrina;
Staff: 800 (1,500 before Katrina)
“It was about one step away from being closed by the health department,” Beach says, describing a kitchen that wasn't cleaned properly, to the point where it was overrun with roaches and vermin. He looked at the daunting surroundings and just started where he was.
Flash forward almost 30 years to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and all of its devastation — coupled with a harrowing evacuation of prisoners and staff. Beach took the same approach of “just starting, just getting to work” in the overwhelming mess:
“When we came back, the 52,000 square-foot building was under a foot and half of debris and trash,” Beach says. “In the kitchen, it was overwhelming. Someone looked at me and said, ‘Where do we start?’ I pointed to my feet and said, ‘We start right here.’”
Back when he began at the department, “starting right here” in terms of the kitchen meant putting into place a back-to-basics training system. Along the way he fostered an atmosphere of respect and pride.
“I work firm but fair. I show what I expect and then demand that they do it. Most of these guys yearn for leadership. They never had a father figure,” Beach says (Beach has two sons of his own, Max and Sam). “They've never had anybody say, ‘Son, it's time to get up and go to work.’ They need this.”
Beach starts with the basics for training in the kitchen: how to wash your hands; how to keep yourself presentable; how to keep your uniform clean. Then, inmates learn such skills as hot and cold food safety, how to calibrate a thermometer and how to store food properly in a freezer.
“I give them a booklet, and if they can't read it, then I will read it to them or another inmate will,” Beach says. “Then, they take a test. When they get the diploma, they can say that they actually did something. They send that diploma home sometimes.”
Beach teaches the inmates how to get a job in foodservice when they get out. “I teach them how to sit at an interview, how to look someone in the eye. The food industry is huge in New Orleans,” he says.
Over the years, working with Dietitian Mary Goodwin, MPH, RD, LDN, CPPB, Beach has also worked toward improving the quality of food to the point where the vast majority of complaints are that the inmates want more food. Goodwin and Beach have also worked to cut sodium and have created a heart-healthy menu.
When Beach first took over, institutional-grade meats — the true worst of the worst — were being bought and served. “A lot of people think inmates are just supposed to have bread and water,” Beach says. The gristly meat was bad, but Beach wasn't aiming to go to premium meats, either. He just wanted something better.
Beach worked with Goodwin to change the bid specifications, eventually getting better meats and very good fruits and vegetables, working in his “start right here” style — by starting on the first page of the bids and getting to work.
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“I have two kids. If you have kids, picture the way they fight when they don’t get a piece of pie exactly the same size. Now multiply that times a hundred million.
“Most of these guys have never held a job, they’ve just been running drugs, out hustling on the street, so they don’t have the work ethic that you or me have. You can’t just tell them to get to work. You have to get down there and work with them; show them how.
“Most inmates didn’t graduate from high school. They have never felt like they’re a ‘big deal.’
“We keep the knives strapped onto the tables. In a restaurant or another setting, if you lose a knife, say it accidentally gets thrown away, it’s not that big a deal. But here, if a knife is missing, nobody leaves until we find it.
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“We used to have recipes on blue index cards in a box. Mary Goodwin and I developed our own recipes and we took out a lot of salt, ending up with a heart healthy menu. A lot of our clientele is African-American, and they are predisposed to hypertension. We want to teach good eating habits that maybe they’ll keep when they get out, maybe not.
Major Beach On Katrina:
“Being sheriff’s deputies, we don’t evacuate. I called Mary to make sure we had enough supplies and sent my family to a relative’s house in Mississippi. The water was rising in the streets, but it still wasn’t a big deal. We never panicked throughout the entire thing. We went to generator power and started slicing every piece of meat for sandwiches. We had plenty of bread.
“Then the power went out completely. Water was coming up to the edge of the loading dock. Then the roof started peeling off like a can of sardines. We put the food higher and higher up on the shelves (not realizing that it would ultimately all be lost).
“The water in the kitchen came up to right above my knees and I’m 6’1”. By then, probably 1,200 people had waded in from the street to take refuge. We slept out on the veranda.
“The inmates were very upset. They rioted in five of the jails. I lost 30 lbs. in five days. I call it ‘the Katrina Diet.’ It was very stressful times. I’m very proud of the kitchen staff and what they did in the days after the storm. They were heroic.
“The Department of Corrections came down en masse with buses and boats and bulldozers, and we had to move 7,000 inmates, ten or 12 at a time, to the Broad Street Overpass to be evacuated.
“We came back a week later and my home was destroyed. We went from the Jetsons to the Flintstones overnight. There was no way of contacting anybody and we stayed in a shelter for three weeks. We got tired of that, so we went home and my two sons, Sam and Max, started gutting the house. The Marines helped. All of our stuff was piled in the backyard. There were no doors or floors.
“I always thought the Beaches were a tenacious bunch. I never thought I could’ve lived through something like that and not come out crazy. You rely on your friends and family.”