Food Service: Dollars & Sense

Food service operations are always tasked with doing more with less. When budget cuts are necessary at an institution it seems that the food service operation is usually the one area that takes the hit—either by reduction in staff or reduction in the food budget, says Tim Thielman, CFSM, CCFP, lieutenant, Ramsey County Community Corrections, Minn., and president, Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates (ACFSA) International. “Being one of the most potentially volatile areas of an institution it is important for administrators to consider this when making budget cuts. Subpar food products will negatively impact inmate moral and jeopardize the safety and security of the entire institution to include staff safety. Moreover, food budgets are being impacted more than ever with the growing number of food allergies, therapeutic, and religious diets in the inmate population.”
Having well-trained food service personnel is a very important aspect of a successful operation, he adds. “Allergies, religious diets, and food safety should be at the top of the list as well as the safety and security aspects of working in a correctional environment. The cost in keeping food service staff well trained is considerably lower than the cost of a potential lawsuit from a foodborne illness or failure to provide a special therapeutic or religious diet.”
Doing more with food for less money is a problem that has stymied correctional food service professionals for years, says Rick Pedi, founder, Aggregated Menu Power, a start-up that is attempting to transform how the correctional food service industry uses food,  through the connectivity of modern information networks. With more than $2.7 billion of food purchases each year, the industry faces unrelenting taxpayer pressure, he notes, yet the operator community is technologically blocked from making significant progress against its Number One challenge: How to create meals that significantly reduce food costs and comply with nutritional regulations, while making sure that menu changes do not cause problems.
“We are in the process of working with a community of jails to set up a database of menu-making knowledge for the industry. We are trying to amass jails that represent approximately $30 million in annual food purchases. We estimate that our services can generate a 20 percent reduction in food costs,” Pedi says.
He explains, “These cost reductions are made possible by our proprietary NutrientMass Utility technology which cuts through conventional food-classification thinking and solves the puzzle of how the economics of nutrition actually work in meal and menu design. Aggregated Menu Power is a food-cost reducer that aggregates the industry’s vast quantities of menu data and uses new menu science and data analytics to create a wide variety of food cost-reducing services.”
“Whether you buy top shelf food items or budget-saving substitutes, food that is served at poor temperatures kills the quality,” says Rob Zachrich, president, JonesZylon. “Since most correctional facilities transport meals from a central kitchen to the housing units I see a trend in corrections food service of moving toward heated food carts for this very reason—better quality meals. A heated cart has a higher up-front cost but will allow you to use lower cost dinnerware and save operational costs each year.”
Effectiveness and efficiency can be impacted by using the right cart to transport the meals, he says. Factors to look for are: right capacity so only one cart is needed per housing unit, proper security features for minimal staff supervision, high corrections-grade durability so it stays in service and not in maintenance, compatible dinnerware that works correctly with the cart.
“The main obstacle that I see to investing in the right cart is the budget; or at least the timing of the budget,” Zachrich observes. “One solution would be to lease/finance the equipment so that it can be purchased with daily operational funds. There are also bridge leases that basically get you the carts you need right now and then finish purchasing them when the budget season finally comes.”
Smart Handling
Storing and smart handling of food products to extend their shelf life is one way to control costs, notes Tania Nelson, director of Marketing, Cambro Manufacturing. In some cases, making that happen can be as simple as educating kitchen staff on effective food processing techniques, providing the right tools and explaining specific ways to handle perishable products to optimize their freshness.
Storage products are an initial up-front cost, she says, however, facilities can often recoup the amount they invest within a few months. “Third-party laboratory testing has shown that when used properly with a Cambro Food Pan, Cambro Seal Covers can extend the shelf life of produce by two to three days beyond storage with disposable wraps, foils or no cover at all.”
Other ways to manage costs, she says: Change produce suppliers; use local vendors/products; track food waste; adjust food portions/menu options; minimize inventory; evaluate, weigh and inspect all deliveries; work with a chef or consultant to find other ways to stretch a budget.
Annemarie Fisher, director of Marketing, Insinger, makers of warewashers, says they help in the struggle between cost versus quality by offering affordable maintenance throughout the lifetime of the unit. It also hinges having a good grasp of the process. “Understanding the entire washing process from pre-scrapping to unloading clean dishes can always make an operation more efficient. Ensuring your team is putting in the effort up front will always help guarantee a clean, sanitized product.
“Environmental factors are the most challenging obstacles food service faces in any facility,” she furthers. “Making sure your ventilation is set up correctly can have a huge impact downstream on other pieces of equipment in the kitchen. Allowing the manufacturer to help coordinate installation is a best practice that can alleviate a lot of future problems.”
As demand grows for green benefits, increased cost savings, and simplified labor practices, the CLeN warewasher helps customers meet those requirements, observes Tim Peters, product line manager for Hobart. The Pot & Pan mode extends wash times, reducing the need for pre-soaking. Drain Water Energy Recovery models provide up to 20 percent energy savings over previous series by capturing the heat from exiting drain water and using it to heat the incoming cold water prior to sending it to the booster heater, reducing hot water usage up to 90 percent, he details.
Automatic Soil Removal actively removes what was missed during pre-scrapping. This keeps the wash water cleaner for longer periods of time, thus saving costs of chemicals, water and energy. A programmable de-lime alert reduces unnecessary de-liming, saving money spent on chemicals and extending the life of the machine.
Food Warming Equipment Company solutions for corrections are, for the most part, custom to order and heavy duty. “We have several packages that cover more than a dozen points of customized security,” relates Martin Szalay, Marketing. Each facility may require some or all of these Heavy Duty-Modified solutions, covering common and unique requests. “Addressing requirements, logistics, compliance, and security such as latches, tamper-proof screws, locking guards and specialized handles are taken into consideration.”
Adds Szalay: “As durable as the correctional models are, simple maintenance without using caustic cleaners or complex apparatus, is a no-cost method that can do wonders for maintaining the lifecycle and integrity of any piece of equipment. And, registering your warranty as soon as possible and understanding what is covered is very important. “Correctional equipment does take a beating and inevitably replacements and upgrades will be required.”
Private Label Cost-cutting
To upgrade food and keep costs down, “Whenever possible, we try to develop products in our private label brand,” says Union Supply Group’s Debbi Drewry, director of Marketing. “These help to provide a lower-priced item with the same quality and taste as a national-branded item.” Union recently launched four private label Pancho’s Cantina items (two beef crumbles, shredded beef and roast beef in gravy) that provide high-quality beef products at a value and are Halal certified to help meet the needs of religious requests. “We are always trying to develop products for food enjoyment and our recent private label launch has done just that,” she says, referring to their new release, the Back Country Quarter Pound Beef Burger.
Cooking from “scratch,” that is with the most elementary of ingredients, adds value. “Our recipes focus on scratch cooking as much as possible, based on the capabilities of the equipment and space within each unit,” says Brian J. Caspari, vice president of Business Development, Summit Food Service. “Additionally, we offer vocational training programs for inmates to learn proper food preparation and cooking in order to gain experience that can be used after their release. By leveraging inmate labor and focusing on scratch-made food, we are able to increase the food quality and oftentimes the overall cost. We challenge our teams to think creatively and prepare innovative meals by using the ingredients they have available.
“By reinforcing a positive good behavior, staff is able to escort inmates in movement rather than force them from location to location,” Caspari says. “These programs are best when they are more holistically implemented, meaning inmates can purchase certain items for themselves and other items can be purchased by their friends and family via vendor-supported websites. When these programs can be tied to retail training in the kitchen for the inmates in a vocational program, then they take on a level of impact that benefits the facility in multiple ways, from behavior to training that can be used to help some find employment once released.”
Managing Complexities
“Food service is a multi-faceted business,” notes Karen Cutler, Aramark, VP Corporate Communi-cations. Add in the complexity of an offender workforce, limited kitchen tools and tight cost constraints and you quickly realize that correctional food service is extremely complicated.” Investing time in advance to understand these dynamics improves outcomes from the very beginning.  She says Aramark also invests a great deal of time, money and resources into training team members on how to navigate a correctional environment. Its SHIELD training program focuses on workplace safety, avoiding offender manipulation and educates on corrections-specific topics such as PREA.  Additionally, all employees must be re-certified annually by taking a SHIELD capstone course. 
Cutler sums it up, saying: “We think it’s important to think of offenders as consumers. Although they may have made poor choices that resulted in their incarceration, it doesn’t mean that they have forgotten what quality food tastes like.  But, whether you’re rehabilitation focused and understand that humane treatment improves inmate esteem which reduces recidivism, or custody focused and recognize that satisfied inmates cost you less in incidents and staff retention, improving food quality at your facility makes good financial sense.” J
For more information, contact:

JonesZylon,,, 800.848.8160
Union Supply Group,, 310. 604.4626
Food Warming Equipment Co.,, 800.222.4393
Insinger Machine Company,, 215.624.4800
Hobart,, 888.378.1338
Cambro Manufacturing,, 800.833.3003
Aggregated Menu Power, Rick Pedi, 847.323.5571
Summit Food Service, wwwsummitfood, 888.872.3788