Jail food: County switches to another provider

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

Sherburne County commissioners voted this week to hand the keys for the county jail kitchens to a different food service provider for a three-year contract.

One breakfast at the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River.

The provider to receive the county contract, Philadelphia-based Aramark, isn’t new to the food service business, as the company has decades of experience in operating kitchens for schools, sports facilities, hospitals and senior care centers, convention centers, corporate campuses and other city, county and state correctional facilities.

Sherburne County’s agreement with Aramark will replace a jail contract with Blue Bell (or Lancer Hospitality), said

One lunch at the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River.

Sheriff Joel Brott. Lancer is based in Eagan and lists Medtronic, 3M, the University of Minnesota and both Como and Minnesota zoos among its clients on a corporate website.

Brott said Blue Bell proposed to renew with the county for a second three-year contract but at a substantial increase – “We said no, we wouldn’t agree to that,” the sheriff added.

One dinner at the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River.

Blue Bell declined to consider a new contract at the same rate, Brott said, and the county sought other bids Sept. 25. Aramark bid a price of $1.48 per meal per inmate (the county averages 450 daily inmates, who receive breakfast, lunch and dinner), which was lower than Blue Bell’s bid for a new contract and also lower than a bid last week of about $1.50 – technically $1.499 per meal, Brott said – from Roseville-based A’viands.

The county has worked both with Aramark and A’viands in previous contract cycles.

“All of them provide good, quality service,” the sheriff said. “What I’ve learned is that it’s a very competitive process, which is good for the county and good for the taxpayers.”

Food expense for most of the county’s inmates is subsidized by the federal government. Brott said typically no more than 80 of the jail’s inmates each day are from Sherburne County, while most of the others are housed there through an agreement that dates about 15 years with the U.S. Marshals Service and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those inmates are transported for any court hearings by those officials to federal courtrooms in Minneapolis or elsewhere, but Sherburne County receives $80 per diem per inmate for housing and feeding them.

The state Department of Corrections requires the county and its jail food service contractor to serve three daily meals that total 2,650 calories and meet nutritional guidelines. The inmates are separated into housing units by gender and must meet in central areas at set times each day for their meals, with usually 60 to 80 prisoners eating together. “They’re not allowed to eat meals in their cells,” Brott said.

Entrees are scheduled on rotating menus, and inmates receive no more or no less than a set amount of food at each meal. No alternatives are made available — such as cereal for breakfast — at any meal time, and there also are no special allowances made on holidays. “We don’t serve holiday cookies,” Brott said.

The sheriff added that the inmates receive no coffee. They are limited to drinking milk or water with most meals. “I think they get a juice with breakfast here and there,” Brott said, “but not every time.”