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Missouri may turn to private company for prison food service

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson’s administration is considering putting a private company in charge of serving meals to Missouri prison inmates.

Against the backdrop of low pay and high turnover rates among state workers, the Missouri Department of Corrections issued a request earlier this month for companies to submit proposals to cook and serve three meals a day to the state’s 23,500 inmates.

For now, DOC said it has not committed to the idea, which was last considered — and rejected — in 2007.

“At this point, we’re exploring the possibility of privatizing food service,” agency spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said. “Contracting with a vendor could help to alleviate some of our staffing shortages, save money and improve delivery of services. On the other hand, it might not.”

The move to potentially privatize food service comes as other states have faced significant problems with the companies they hired to cook meals behind bars.

Last year, Mississippi dumped its multimillion dollar contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark, which was accused of serving rotten and spoiled meals to inmates.

In 2015, the state of Michigan ended a three-year contract with Aramark amid reports of meal shortages, maggots in kitchens and other issues.

“The Aramark contract has been a nightmare from day one,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, told the Detroit Free Press at the time.

Missouri’s prison system is not a stranger to outside companies providing services to inmates.

Centurion Health, a subsidiary of Clayton-based Centene, won the bidding process last year to provide health care to inmates within the state’s 20 prison facilities. The contract could be worth more than $1.4 billion if the state exercises all of its options over a 10-year period.

Corizon had previously held the contract for health care since 1992.

Other state agencies have used outside contractors to assist with IT issues, staffing concerns and management consultants.

Under the state’s plan, current workers in the prison kitchens must be given the option of becoming employees of the prospective contractor. Or, they could transfer to another vacant state agency position if they are qualified.

Bidding documents show there are 336 positions potentially affected by a switch to a private food service contractor.

That includes workers at two centralized meal prep kitchens that supply the bulk of the 25.5 million meals served to inmates on an annual basis. The kitchens, located in Jefferson City and Bonne Terre, cost more than $3.3 million to operate in the most recent fiscal year.

According to the bidding documents, the private contract must design menus “to be balanced in color, flavor and texture.”

“Menus shall contain a minimum daily average of 2,800 calories and less than 3.5 grams of sodium for all offenders,” the request notes.

In addition, the contractor also must provide special holiday meals for national days of observance, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.

The state says it will only consider contractors that have five years of experience serving meals in prisons and jails, limiting the number of vendors to a handful of major companies.

On-site inspections of the kitchen operations at each prison are scheduled for mid-October. Proposals are due by Nov. 10.

“We’re just exploring options now; no specific plans are in place. There are no plans for changes to food service staffing,” Pojmann said.

File photo of ERDCC in Bonne Terre in October 2019.

File photo of ERDCC in Bonne Terre in October 2019.

Kurt Erickson • 573-556-6181

@KurtEricksonPD on Twitter

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