Captive customers

Local industrial kitchens turn out more than tasteless goo. We
would know.
Should you ever wind up behind bars or inside a local hospital, you’ll be glad to know one thing: the food is good.

That’s right. South Valley Newspapers staff did go and – willingly, we must point out – try out the food at local institutions such as Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital, Saint Louise Regional Medical Center and San Benito and Santa Clara county jails. To our surprise, it’s better than what’s being served in most high school and college cafeterias, and some of it is downright tasty.

Of course, we don’t recommend checking in just for the chili, but despite cost constraints, large populations to feed and demanding schedules, each of the four kitchens we visited manages to turn out quality meals three times a day, 365 days per year. Most of them were restaurant quality, provided visitors were able to ignore the plastic trays. And one meal – at Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, the main holding facility for Santa Clara County – came with a from-scratch cake so delectable we’d order it for a birthday party if we could.


Refuting hospital food’s stature, usually imagined to be something along the lines of glorified pig slop, both Saint Louise Regional Medical Center and Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital provided delicious meal options. At Hazel Hawkins, hospital staff served up vegetarian lasagna, fresh-cooked broccoli and toasted cheese bread for lunch while dinner at Saint Louise – prepared by the in-house chef – consisted of baked chicken, seasoned rice, steamed carrots and a house salad of mixed greens topped with garbanzo beans. There was also a side of mixed fruit, including cherries, strawberries, pineapple and watermelon.

Saint Louise Chef German Leyva, who helps the kitchen staff prepare 400 meals per day, pays particular attention not just to what the hospital serves, but to quality, patient dietary needs and preferences.

“With food, it’s very hard to please people because everybody is an expert,” said Leyva. “Everybody cooks, so one of the things you need to make sure you have is quality. We don’t want SaintLouise to be the dumping ground for our distributor. It’s not like we’re shopping fire sales.”

Instead, staff has been known to whip up specialty items for patients, or even visit the local grocery store to meet food needs. They also try to keep their services in line with the hospital’s mission of aiding the poor and acting as responsible stewards by serving, among other things, only fair trade coffee.


Movies like “Cool Hand Luke” depict the worst of the worst … jail food, that is. But food on the inside isn’t as terrible as it’s cracked up to be. Under Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations, prisoners are entitled to a hot breakfast, cold lunch and hot dinner, all produced under the guidance of a registered dietitian who ensures they meet federal food pyramid guidelines.

San Benito County contracts its jail food service to Aramark, a food-supply company that purchases pre-wrapped individual meals from another correctional facility outside the county. The meals are quickly frozen and delivered to the facility daily, where workers reheat them in a variable temperature oven called a rethermalizer, said Correctional Sgt. Edward Escamilla.

We tried the jail’s chili, a decent mixture that ranks somewhere near that of canned Stagg and contained a portion-sized chunk of ground beef. It was served with rice, bread, stewed carrots, a shredded lettuce salad and two snack cookies.

On average, jail officials order meals for 160 prisoners per day, about the number of hot plates that can be produced on the Santa Clara County Elmwood Jail’s main line in five minutes.

The Milpitas jail is home to 3,600 inmates, and houses the county’s main kitchen, which turns out meals for Elmwood and San Jose Main Jail, totaling about 15,000 meals per day. In the jail’s 40,000-square-foot kitchen, 160 prisoners hone their skills alongside employees hired by the correctional system. Together, they run huge industrial appliances, from an elevator-equipped mixing bowl to a near-semitrailer-sized dishwasher.

Santa Clara County has two registered dietitians on staff, who work with dietary aides to ensure that county foods meet federal guidelines, and changing rules are making their job costlier. Reductions in overall fat content will necessitate changes in the menu, and the addition of a third milk portion in the day will add $320,000 to the county’s budget since.

When it’s time to hunt for bargains, administrators like Karen Candito, correctional food services director for Santa Clara County, and William Miller, assistant director of food services, go to work. They solicit bids for one- to two-year contracts on certain supplies – say fresh broccoli or baking flour. The lowest bid wins, but that’s not where the process stops. Candito is constantly on the lookout for “special opportunity buys” from commercial retailers. Should stock be too plentiful for a corporation or a grower be faced with a massive surplus of perishable goods, she’ll make an offer and land specialty foods, often at less than even volume prices.

“Since we feed so many people, we have to think ahead,” said Miller, showing off the jail’s warehouse-sized dry pantry and basketball-court sized freezer.

But the most impressive item in the kitchen lies at its heart. A trio of 200-gallon cauldrons are the soul of the kitchen, used for cooking most hot meals and some cold meal options like boiled eggs.

A computer monitors the temperature and activity of each kettle, charting heat cycles during the day for reference and controlling a giant, paddled arm that stirs the mixture in two of them as well. The third is a giant pasta kettle, equipped with a crane-operated colander.

When pasta is finished cooking, it is lifted, drained and dumped directly into the kettles simmering marinara sauce. A giant tube at the bottom of each kettle can spurt computer-separated portions between one half and one and a half gallons, which are then bagged, stapled and loaded onto a conveyor belt. Finally, the bags are dropped into a gargantuan industrial washing machine, which has been converted to tumble ice cold water, chilling the bags from 200 degrees to 40 in under an hour. The kitchen is a round-the-clock endeavor, but the busiest activity is in the morning. All meals, including that night’s dinner, are shipped out by 9:30am.

It’s a far cry from the under-funded kitchens Candito worked in at her last job as director of industrial kitchens for the University of California, Berkeley. Not only does the prison system have free labor, it also has more space and better equipment for producing its own meals, while colleges and many smaller schools have been forced to offer pre-packaged meals because of high operating costs for their kitchens.

“The school system is just very underfunded, and a lot of the facilities are outdated,” said Candito. “In the last two years, the workers I was supervising got 23 percent raises in their health and welfare benefits, but the state reimbursement rate for meals from went up 0.02 percent. That’s just not enough to cover changing costs.”

Life at the prison does come with its own set of worries, though. Officials must keep a close eye on prisoners to ensure they do not remove items from the kitchen. Stolen fruit and dry goods are bartered inside the housing units for favors, snagged foil can be jammed in electrical sockets and heated for lighting cigarettes and some prisoners attempt to hide fruit and bread in order to make their own alcohol, known in the system as prune-o.

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