|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average price for food is now six percent higher than it was one year ago. From meat to fruit , vegetables to coffee, consumers have to pay a lot more to put a meal on the table.
But it’s not just families that are hurting. The food costs issue was front and center for attendees and vendors at August’s 39th Annual International Conference of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates (ACFSA) .
“Money is always a huge concern in correctional food service, but especially with the way the economy is now it’s just ‘money, money, money,” says Pattie Whitlock, president of Design Specialties, Inc., a Connecticut-based manufacturer of plastic reusable tableware items. “Just because food costs are rising doesn’t mean state budgets are growing.”
ACSFA, a U.S. non-profit dedicated to the professional growth of correctional foodservice employees, brought concerns like Whitlock’s to the attention of its audience, which was comprised of more than 400 professionals from the United States and Canada. Attendees at the five-day event included correctional dieticians, foodservice employees, sheriffs, and other corrections leaders, as well as the vendors that supply food equipment to correctional kitchens.
The conference offered general and breakout sessions on everything from the current menu being utilized by the federal corrections system, to tips on employee retention, and utilizing mobile kitchens during emergencies or renovations. The Registry of Food Service Professionals was on hand to run sanitation certification and recertification programs.
One of the more popular sessions addressed the growing restrictions religious diets are placing on facilities and food service personnel.
“Most of your religious diets are vegetarian-based, the big ones are mostly for Islam and Hebrew Israelites, and occasionally Catholic,” says Philip Atkinson, food service and laundry programs manager for Minnesota’s Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. “I’m in the process of trying to put together a vegetarian diet that will handle our diabetic patients as well as 95 percent of our religious diets.”
Atkinson says he gets new ideas from the networking he does at the ACFSA conference. His facility runs an average daily count of 750 inmates. Fifteen percent claim a food allergy, compared to the average of four percent of the general population in the U.S.
Like many facilities across the country, Hennepin is trying different measures to cut back on how much it spends on food.
“We have gone to a little bit more scratch cooking, because the ingredients quite often when combined are much less expensive than the prepared product,” Atkinson explains. “We have eliminated milk once a day and are instead offering milk substitute. We use very tight portion control and delivery control. It’s all about what you can get rid or buy less of.”
Even with a full plate of challenges ahead of them, Whitlock and Atkinson say the conference helps keep them positive and focused on solutions.
“The conference is terrific for vendors because there are so many opportunities to network with the attendees and get to know them outside of their own facility, to better learn what their needs are and how to accommodate them,” says Whitlock.
“You get to talk to people that do what you do every day,” Atkinson adds. “In the normal daily operations of your facility, that doesn’t happen very often for the food service professional. Very few people know what we do, or what we deal with. This way you get to talk to people who are dealing with the same challenges. You feel so much better knowing there are people out there facing the same thing you are.”
Food and fuel briefing from the USDA
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