Mo. DOC contracts Aramark to feed inmates

The 5-year contract for $45.7M is to feed 23,000 inmates in 20 state-operated prisons for $1.77 per meal


By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Gov. Mike Parson's administration has awarded a $45.7 million, five-year contract to outsource food service at Missouri's 20 state-operated prisons.

Now, instead of state employees serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to the state's 23,000 inmates, Philadelphia-based Aramark will be in charge of the prison kitchens after submitting a bid to spend about $1.77 for each meal.

Missouri's contract includes free coffee to prison guards and an ala carte menu for staff and visitors.
Missouri's contract includes free coffee to prison guards and an ala carte menu for staff and visitors. (Lisa Rathke)

The deal, which is still being finalized, will result in higher overall costs for taxpayers, but the company said its offer took into account high inflation and low staffing levels that have plagued hiring across state government.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections said the agency could not comment on the new contract because it is still under a mandatory review period.

The hiring of Aramark marks the latest privatization effort within the state's sprawling prison system. Last year, the agency outsourced mail service. It also pays private firms to handle medical treatments and phone service.

The change was met with some skepticism from state lawmakers.

"I'm not saying it's good or bad. I just have a lot of questions about it. Are we saving money by doing this? Will the workers get paid more or less? What is the quality of the food?" said Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis.

Aldridge, who has spent time as a lawmaker visiting prisons across the state, said the conditions for inmates can be harsh.

"The offenders are already dealing with pretty crappy food," said Aldridge, who is running for the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

The switch will affect about 300 positions, including workers at two centralized meal prep kitchens that supply the bulk of the 25.5 million meals served to inmates on an annual basis.

The move to privatize food service comes as other states have faced significant problems with the private firms they hired to cook meals behind bars.

Last year, Mississippi dumped its multimillion-dollar contract with Aramark, which was accused of serving rotten and spoiled meals to inmates.

In 2015, the state of Michigan ended a three-year contract with Aramark amid reports of meal shortages, maggots in kitchens and other issues.

"The Aramark contract has been a nightmare from day one," Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, told the Detroit Free Press at the time.

But Aramark, in its contract proposal, said it would boost staffing levels and raise wages for Missouri workers by 20%. Bid documents say there is an 18% vacancy rate in the food service division.

Included in the contract are provisions to provide free coffee to prison guards. They also will offer staff and visitors a separate a la carte menu consisting of items like a $4.99 cheeseburger and tater tots for another $2.29.

The company, which also provides concession services at sports stadiums and national parks, also promised to help inmates get jobs when their sentences are complete.

"Aramark has more than 200,000 employees in every area of the country, and we are able to help released inmates find employment no matter where they reside," the company said.

The contract will mean Aramark is feeding state-level prisoners in 13 states. It also has contracts to provide food service to 263 local jails, as well as 18 juvenile detention programs.

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