Rockin’ Jail house food in Kenosha
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) – Substantial, tasty, cost effective.
Meals meeting these specifications are hard enough to pull off in any commercial restaurant kitchen, the Kenosha News .
But add to this the religious and medical dietary restrictions of 650 to 800 diners, along with stringent rules and regulations set by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rinse and repeat, three times a day, 365 days of the year.
This is the world of food service for inmates at the Kenosha County Detention Center and the Public Safety Center in downtown Kenosha.
On any given day, Dave Lienau, kitchen manager for the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, oversees meal preparation and service from the culinary epicenter at the Kenosha County Detention Center.
Getting the job done are 13 cooks, inmate assistants and a 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art kitchen at the center.
During a recent tour, Lienau showcased the state-of-the-art equipment that helps him manage the impressive task of feeding hundreds of inmates each day. Among the highlights is a full-service bakery in which bread, rolls and donuts are freshly produced each day.
“This is one of the largest commercial kitchens in Kenosha County,” Lienau said.
He noted several changes since he began cooking at the Kenosha County correctional system 20 years ago.
“We went from working with a four-burner range downtown (the Pre-Trial Center) to a 10,000-square-foot kitchen with braisers, steam kettles, a walk-in oven and 300 quart mixers,” he said.
These changes have allowed his team to prepare fresh food daily on site, which has improved food quality and reduced costs, Lienau said.
Currently, Lienau notes that he and his staff turn out meals for an average of 73 cents a meal, less than the cost of meal service in comparable correctional institutions.
Lienau explained that many jails elsewhere contract with food service companies to bring in ready-made meals. By cooking everything on site, Lienau says he has been able to serve up fresher meals at a lower cost than institutions elsewhere.
“This is an underappreciated part of county government that saves taxpayers money,” Lienau said.
To illustrate his point, Lienau said that when he started working for the county jail system, an outside vendor was used and costs ran 79 cents per meal. Within a year, Sheriff Allan Kehl asked the County Board to let Lienau take charge of food purchasing, and costs plummeted to 43 cents a meal.
Although meal costs have been moving up due to demand for specialized meals and dietary requirements, the whole system has been greatly aided by ChefTec, a computer software program set up by Chief Cook Shannon Filer, Lienau’s second in command.
Tailoring the program to the needs of the Detention Center kitchen, Filer continually enters inventory, recipes and nutritional diets into the master program.
“Every time we use a recipe it deducts items from inventory,” Lienau said. “There is no waste, so costs have dropped; we also get a lot of help from staff who brainstorm ways to use leftovers.”
Lienau also helps cut costs by buying non-perishables in bulk, taking advantage of online sales and purchasing in-season produce from local farmers and Heartland Produce.
“We do a better job than (other correctional institutions) that use commercial services, which serve a lot of soy and powdered milk,” he said.
Other changes in the past 20 years have included new menu items to accommodate a shift in the inmate population.
When the Kenosha County Detention Center began housing federal inmates about 17 years ago, the food service department began to incorporate ICE-specific mandates, noted Lienau. Among the requirements is that meals be ethnically diverse. Where formerly many meals might have been typically American, the five-week rotation now includes Chinese pepper steak, pinto beans with rice and salsa, and enchilada casserole.
Dietary accommodations are also made on the grounds of religious observance. “Religious diets are swelling; especially in conjunction with Ramadan,” he said.
Sixty people in the Kenosha correctional system have participated in Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting observed by Muslims, he said. Meeting the needs of these inmates means making sure they have a balanced diet after sundown, explained Lienau. “They get a double portion of veggies, a larger portion of what we had that night and a bag meal to eat during the night.”
Documentation and inventory control, important in all food service operations, is critical in a detention center.
Per ICE and state regulations, certain ingredients are treated as controlled substances. Baking yeast, for example, is kept in a locked cabinet to prevent inmates from making alcoholic beverages, Lienau said.
The use of aerosol non-stick cooking spray is also carefully monitored, due to its potential use as a flammable substance. Other ingredients are documented to prevent their overuse, such as food flavorings.
“The cooks have to do a lot of documentation, right down to the chemical content of ingredients,” Lienau said.
In addition to cooking staff, inmates are on hand to help with non-cooking kitchen duties. This translates into extra duty for line cooks to open locked doors and storage areas for inmates, said Filer and Lienau.
Mealtimes are organized with military precision. Seated by dorms, each inmate receives a meal tray and a sturdy rubber spork, a universal cutting and scooping utensil. Metal shades provide a barrier to preserve anonymity between servers and inmates.
In addition to diets adapted for religious reasons, special meals are also tailored to diabetics and others with medical needs.
“Every day is different. … and sometimes we have to make up meals on the fly,” Lienau said.