Prisoners' diets will include more beef and less salt when the state's Department of Corrections this spring introduces a new menu in half of its prisons statewide.
"It's a pretty big change," food program manager Jay Jackson says of the menu, which includes beef stew, braised beef and a sliced beef sandwich. Washington previously served biweekly burgers to offenders.
The beefing up of the menu reflects many of the considerations prison administrators have to balance when devising a feeding plan. They're charged with cutting costs (the price of beef is falling relative to other proteins); accommodating various medical and religious dietary restrictions; maintaining prisoner health and keeping prisoners relatively happy. While prisons today never serve the lavish meals that decades ago inspired vagabonds to get themselves arrested so they could enjoy three squares a day, administrators are keen to avoid the riots that inevitably result when offenders are served rotting, monotonous or insufficient food.
"I think most offenders aren't looking to have steak and eggs every day for breakfast," Jackson says. "They realize there are budget issues out there."
The state typically revises its menu every 3-5 years. According to Jackson, the new menu will save the state money by including more casserole-type dishes which the department's central food production facility can ship to prisons in two-gallon bags: Prisoners will now eat jambalaya and turkey a la king once a month.
In previous years, Washington's prisons trimmed costs by eliminating menu items with no nutritional value - coffee is now available by purchase only - and reducing the daily milk serving from two to one, a move cheered by nutritionists.
"It was not that long ago we were high in salt and fat," Jackson says. "The new menu drops us from 30 percent to 28 percent fat, which the dieticians really like."
Even with the addition of red meat, the menu is also lower in salt. On a daily 2800-calorie diet, prisoners will now consume 3300 milligrams of sodium a day. While federal dietary guidelines recommend fewer than 2300 milligrams of sodium, the new sodium count represents a 400-miligram reduction.
Healthier meals help decrease the need for expensive medications, Jackson says. They also provide a template for prisoners to follow when they're again free to make their own food choices.
"We try to make the menu so offenders can see the different food groups," Jackson says. "It's important for their lifestyles; they're going to be returning to your neighborhood or mine."
The new menu debuts on Mar. 25.