It’s a scenario that puts the county in a tough bind, both financially and legally. Kosher meals cost more to make, and federal law requires jails across the country to cater to the religious dietary requests of their inmates.
“It’s the subject of much litigation across the United States,” said Joseph Barnett, custody branch commander. “The inmates still have constitutional rights, and they still have religious rights. If they submit a request in writing, then we provide a religious meal. We’re following the law.”
So as requests go up, the county provides. And as the county provides, costs go up.
Why the increase? Here’s one theory
Gary Friedman, a former Jewish corrections chaplain based in Seattle, considers himself to be a leading authority on dietary rules and regulations in the United States corrections system. He suspects the rise in Clark County follows a national trend where many of the kosher requests come from a belief based on misguided views on meal safety, not on religion.
“The primary motivation is, they think it’s safer,” Friedman said. “I can’t count how many times it’s happened, how many times it has come up, that you hear stories how (jails) buy food that is out of date or how inmate workers are tainting the food. So they think (kosher meals) are safer and it is of better quality.”
Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Steve Alexander said Oregon’s largest county is just starting to see an uptick in religious meal requests.
“Yes, we are seeing it,” Alexander said. “We are seeing an increase with an emphasis on kosher. We’re above 40 (inmates) now requesting them.”
That’s a small percentage of Multnomah’s average inmate population of 1,300. But unlike other counties that have seen increases occur over the past few years, Multnomah’s two jails began to see a spike in religious meal requests in just the past three months.
“I think we’re going to see more in the future,” Alexander said. “I believe it will continue to increase.”
The Washington State Department of Corrections is seeing the rise across the state, as well. Religious meals currently are eaten by just below 10 percent of the more than 16,500 inmates incarcerated at the state level on any given day.
Clark County currently follows that practice in determining which inmates are sincere.
“If an inmate is exhibiting behaviors inconsistent with their stated beliefs, then there can be an administrative hearing and it can be taken away,” Barnett said. “We have about two or three of those hearings each week.”
The other way to mitigate the problem is to reduce costs. But that, too, is a tough option.
“What happens is, (jails) make the meals as unattractive as possible and as paltry as possible, and (it affects) the people who are sincere and actually require it,” Friedman said. “It also confirms to inmates that they can play those games.”
Avoiding the food cliff
Even with the national trend heading upward, the county is optimistic it won’t hit the $2.5 million expenditure.
“The budget was intended to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Darin Rouhier, finance manager for the sheriff’s office.
Loftgren is the guy who fretted over milk prices rising at the end of last year as the U.S. Congress debated an extension to the farm bill. He’s spent hours reading trade magazines, looking for ways to balance rising prices with proper nutrition. And he’s working on ways to reduce the cost of meals through strategic purchasing.
He talks excitedly about the recent closure of a nearby Italian restaurant chain. It means he can make an aggressive buy on pasta sauce soon, saving the county a few dollars in the process.
He has eight-foot-tall stacks of saltine crackers stored near the kitchen. He proudly talks about how he got them at nearly half the cost. More savings on the year.
Each day, from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., a jail staff of 11 and a work crew of more than 40 inmates prepare between 2,300 and 2,600 meals to feed those housed at the main jail, the work center and a juvenile facility.
Most of the plates see food such as hot dogs, rice soup and salads prepared assembly-line style in the main kitchen. The efficiency of the operation has the cost to feed an inmate at an average of $4.98 per day for the jail’s standard fare. Breakfast, lunch and dinner each cost about $1.66 to make.
To prepare a kosher dish, however, requires special ordering and preparation of food. The orange in the breakfast must be kosher, perhaps a different protein needs to be presented at lunch, and at dinner the entree must be swapped with a shelf-stored heatable dish that comes prepackaged as kosher-approved.
When the jail calculated its costs for the 2013-14 budget, it found that on average, a kosher breakfast cost $2.08, lunch cost $2.49 and dinner cost $7.21.
It’s a rugged hit to what Loftgren calls “a penny business,” but the jail has already taken steps to mitigate the hit.
Loftgren said he can’t go into specifics about upcoming contract bids in March, but his current estimate has kosher diets dropping to a cost of $9.03 per day through 2013.
“It means I just saved $300,000 if the numbers stay steady,” Loftgren said. “I don’t think they will stay steady, but I’m still excited about that number.”
Loftgren is optimistic he can cut the cost even further on his kosher meals, and he’s looking at everything to find savings.
A cardboard box in Loftgren’s office is filled with dressing packets certified as kosher. He’ll introduce them to meals by the end of the month, replacing the current method of providing dressing, and hopefully saving five cents per plate. And that five cents has him pretty happy.
“I’m not joking when I say we are a penny business,” Loftgren said. “At over 1 million meals served each year, it adds up.”
The bottom line, Loftgren says, is that he believes special meals will make up 20 percent of the jail’s food offerings in 2013. And religious meals will likely rise along with that number, continuing to drive up the cost.
“There are cost savings we can look at,” Loftgren said. “But when 10.2 percent of my population is on a religious diet, it’s a hit.”
Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov ; email@example.com.