Maricopa inmates learn to live vegetarian

Maricopa County Sheriffs Officer ___ stirs vegetarian stew to be served to inmates. Photo by: Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News
A Maricopa County Sheriff’s employee stirs vegetarian stew to be served to inmates. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett/Arizona Sonora News

Peter Pilat walks from room to room in a massive “Food Factory” warehouse in Phoenix, overseeing as Maricopa County inmates assist guards in packaging peanut butter and washing fruit.

The county’s roughly 8,000 inmates are no longer served meat, and they’re learning to adjust.

As Food Service Commander, Pilat has managed a gradual switch to all vegetarian meals in the jails since 2013. They are now the only jails in the nation to serve completely vegetarian meals, according to Pilat.

In 2013, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” announced plans to shift his eight jails to completely meat-free. He predicted MCSO would save $100,000 a year, but it’s turned out to be more than $700,000 annually.

“It saves money for the taxpayers, it saves labor and time when we actually cook the meals, and it’s not rocket science,” Pilat said. “We think outside the box, that’s all we do. Why are we spending when we don’t have to?”

The jails serve just two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, and also stopped serving the inmates salt and pepper to save taxpayers $20,000 a year, according to the sheriff’s office.

To make even more money, Pilat advertises unnecessary Food Factory equipment on Craigslist, inmates in the “Chain Gang” pick fruit off trees on the side of the road, and the sheriff’s office has initiated a recycling program.

Six years ago, the trash bill was about $376,000 per year. Now that they separate and recycle their own waste, the bill has been reduced to roughly $48,000, and they make back about $40,000 for recycling.

Maricopa County inmate breakfast consists of a hoagie roll, fresh fruit and peanut butter. Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News
Maricopa County inmate breakfast consists of a hoagie roll, fresh fruit and peanut butter. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett/Arizona Sonora News

Now the sheriff’s office spends about 53 cents per meal per inmate, compared to the previous 62 cents. The daily meals consist of a breakfast with hoagie rolls, peanut butter and fresh fruit, and a vegetable or soy stew for dinner. The 2,600 calorie days are plenty for the inmates, says Pilat.

“I get phone calls from other facilities, and I don’t know why they’re not doing it. I guess they’re afraid of the change, or people won’t accept it,” said Pilat.

 In contrast, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department serves its 2,000 inmates an average of 2,300 calories at $1.10 per inmate per meal. While they also offer a vegetarian option in addition to accommodating allergies or religious observances, they have not eliminated meat.

“The menu is actually lower in fat and sodium than most people eat at home,” said Pima County police Lt. Elsa Navarro. “We are able to keep medical costs down by providing a higher fiber, lower fat menu. The menu is designed for cost, ease of prep and service, acceptability and nutritional needs.”

Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office serves its 500 inmates three standard meals a day at 2,400 calories for 74 cents per meal per inmate.

Not everyone in the Maricopa jails is a big fan of the menu.

Vegetarian stew is now served in place of a meat dinner. Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News
Vegetarian stew is now served in place of a meat dinner. Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett/Arizona Sonora News

“It is either green slop, red slop, or yellow slop, with a couple disgusting veggies and grapefruit or orange every night,” said Adam Reeg, a former Maricopa County inmate who served about four months in Towers Jail and two weeks in Tent City. “I can’t express enough how awful the food is.”

He struggled to adjust to a diet in jail in 2012 even when meat was served, and two years later a switch to vegetarianism was also difficult.

“I didn’t eat dinner for two weeks. I lost 15 pounds, then started eating dinner because I was starving,” said Reeg.

He relied on the limited options available at the jail’s canteen, where inmates can buy snacks, such as sausage, tuna, chips and sweets. Profits from the canteen have remained the same, about $8 million a year, and fund inmate programs such as DUI education and anger management.

“I missed a nice steak,” said Reeg, who hurried to a nearby Jack in the Box for tacos as soon as he was released.

Five months after cutting out meat, inmates at the Estrella women’s jail protested with a hunger strike. Unfazed by inmates’ complaints, Arpaio told Fox 10 News, “They ought to shut up and eat what they have. They happen to be in jail and I’m the sheriff, and I’m the chief chef. I decide what they eat.”

Arpaio did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

As Maricopa County Sheriff for 23 years, Arpaio has been the subject of several controversies regarding racial profiling, alleged abuse of power, and the treatment of inmates, such as making them wear pink underwear, banning movies and pornographic magazines, and creating “Tent City,” an outdoor jail that reaches an upwards of 120 degrees on Arizona summer days.

___ and ___ oversee food preparation at Maricopa County Sheriff's "Food Factory." Photo by: Rebecca Marie Sasnett / Arizona Sonora News
Workers oversee food preparation at Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office”Food Factory.” Photo by Rebecca Marie Sasnett/Arizona Sonora News

 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Pamela Anderson have supported the sheriff’s office for eliminating meat, and medical staff at the jails also support the switch. Pilat said overweight inmates are shedding pounds, and underweight inmates are gaining.

 The meals contain about 2,300 milligrams of sodium, compared to the average American’s consumption of 3,400 milligrams.

 “You get some people that come in and they miss their hot pockets or chicken,” says Pilat. “Unfortunately, the standard American diet, we call SAD…their palates are tainted by chemicals.”

For Thanksgiving 2013, Arpaio tweeted a photo of a “Thanksgiving Menu,” which included a soy turkey casserole for 24 cents, potatoes for 12 cents, and carrots for 7 cents per inmate. He captioned the photo “Hope the inmates give thanks for this special meal being served in the jails tomorrow.”

“The Sheriff’s model is that if they don’t like it, they won’t eat it. But they eat it,” says Pilat, a vegan who has personally tried the food and doesn’t mind it. “It is what it is.”

The vegetarian strategy has more than met its goal, says Pilat, and “at the end of the day, it is a healthy menu, you’re saving taxpayer money, and correctional facilities shouldn’t be a country club.”

Kalli Ricka Wolf is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at krickaw@email.arizona.edu.

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