Prison food vendor pulls out

Sep 10, 2008

Steve Bousquet

St. Petersburg Times

TALLAHASSEE Food service vendor Aramark soon will cut ties with Florida prisons, bringing to an end another privatization venture begun when Jeb Bush was governor.

Hired in 2001 to replace a state-run food system, the company, often criticized by the state for cutting corners and maximizing profits, said it will stop serving meals Jan. 9.

That leaves the cash-strapped prison system four months to find a new way to deliver food to the nation's third-largest prison population, which has more than 92,000 inmates.

Aramark told the Department of Corrections on Tuesday that it will invoke a 120-day termination clause in its contract. The company cited "unprecedented" inflation in food costs and a poor working relationship with the state.

"We have been unable to achieve the type of partnership consistent with our expectations for a positive long-term relationship," wrote Tim Campbell, president of Aramark Correctional Services.

The stormy seven-year tenure between the Philadelphia-based food giant and the Department of Corrections has deteriorated in recent months. This year alone, the state fined Aramark $261,000 for violations ranging from long lines to excessive substitutions of menu items.

Food in prison isn't just a necessity. Many corrections experts consider it a key to keeping inmates under control and to avoiding lawsuits alleging inhumane treatment of prisoners.

"Food really becomes a security issue for us," Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said recently. He complained of Aramark cooks substituting lower-quality ingredients for beef or turkey.

Under pressure by the state Legislature to cut costs by $9.3-million without sacrificing quality, McNeil last month invited other vendors to submit bids in hopes of finding a company willing to earn less.

A review last year by the prisons' inspector general found that Aramark earned a "windfall" because it was allowed to serve cheaper ground turkey instead of real beef, and was paid based on the number of inmates, and not on the actual number of meals served. The report urged a rewriting of the contract or restoring food service to an in-house operation.

"The state rushed into it, and like most shotgun weddings, the marriage has been pretty tortured," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

Aramark is one of the biggest names in the nation's food-service industry. Its products are sold everywhere from the Tampa Convention Center to Fenway Park in Boston, and at resorts and state universities.

Aramark employs 7,249 people in Florida with an annual payroll of $142-million, company spokeswoman Sarah Jarvis said.

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