— Special religious diets in San Diego County's jails sometimes make prisoners who receive regular fare feel shortchanged. How else can you explain why several men in the system, who said they were white supremacists, once requested kosher food? "Then the chaplain talked to them," says Louise Mathews, director of Sheriff's Food Services, "and we realized that they were not kosher. Amazing, isn't it? Kosher food is bland, not spicy. And if their food is kosher, the inmates are not going to get the pizza pockets and spaghetti and the enchiladas and burritos -- all of the stuff these people love to eat."

Sheriff's Food Services does give kosher meals to those Jewish prisoners, usually no more than four or five at one time, who make genuine requests for them. Mathews buys frozen kosher entrées as well as separate items like cereal and crackers that have the kosher sign on them. The meals cost four times what it costs to prepare the food the majority of prisoners eat.

Mathews does not supply vegetarian meals to Hindus or Buddhists, though she has been asked to do so. "I tell them Buddha ate meat," she says. "Besides, there are a million vegetarian diets, and it's hard to get all the right nutrition into them."

But Muslim prisoners in the county's detention system can get replacements for pork. Mathews says she doesn't serve much pork to inmates anyway. Haram, the Muslim term for what is forbidden, also rules out gelatin made from animals' hooves. By showing them the label on the gelatin she buys, Mathews assures the Muslims she feeds that they have nothing to worry about.

If it sounds as if Mathews's primary business is to run a custom-order kitchen, think again. Sheriff's Food Services feeds as many as 6000 inmates a day at seven facilities in the county. From its production center in Otay Mesa, near the East Mesa and George F. Bailey facilities, the operation also sends food to juvenile hall and a juvenile probation camp.

The Otay Mesa food- production facility accomplishes the monumental task with a "cook-chilling" system. Workers mix up dishes like creamed chicken and chili beans in huge metal vats with gauges for measuring how long the food stays at various temperatures. State law requires that food in sauces reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit. After a dish is cooked, workers use a suction machine with a hose to siphon it into two-gallon plastic bags. Then they put the bags into other machines that wash cold water over them, cooling the food bags for several hours. Huge freezers that send blasts of cold air over meats achieve the same effect.

Finally, the meals are put into airtight containers, packed into trucks, and driven to all the facilities the production center serves for use that day or the next. In the kitchens at Vista Detention Center or the Central Jail downtown, additional food-service workers reheat the food and combine it with other items for distribution on personal trays for each inmate.

Shortly after coming to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in 1988, Louise Mathews introduced food services to the cook-chill process for inmates. She also designed the Otay Mesa facility that produces the food.

Prisoners, of course, don't always appreciate the meals they receive. "Everybody has a preference," says Mathews. "A lot of the inmates that come into the system, their preference is meat and potatoes. They don't want vegetables, salads, what's nutritionally adequate. And we're under a lot of rules and regulations to make sure that we feed them appropriately. Title 15 of state law governs how we do corrections. In particular, Title 15 stipulates how we do food service. We have to give them a certain amount of protein a day, five servings a day of high vitamin A, high vitamin C vegetables and fruits, at least six servings of bread and starches, and at least one to three servings of milk, depending on what their age group is.

"People don't always choose appropriately. But this is like being in a spa somewhere," Mathews continues. "If you go to the Golden Door, you don't get to choose. They prepare what's nutritional for you and your body type."

Many of the inmates are not even familiar with items such as cooked cereals. Says Mathews, "We get children that aren't used to roast beef. They hardly know what it is unless it comes in an Arby bun.

"We have a diverse population. We feed people from 9 to 90 years old, and we have to meet all their needs. Then you throw in the preference people. 'I've been a vegetarian for ten years, and I don't eat meat.' I reply, 'Well, you're like the guy who doesn't eat salad,' " says Mathews.

Nevertheless, Sheriff's Food Services must handle the numerous special requests that result from medical conditions in the inmate population. These far outnumber religious requests and constitute as much as 10 percent of all the meals her workforce prepares, says Mathews. Although every situation is different, one large category of meals is devoted to the needs of diabetics. Since meals for diabetics are many, they are prepared en masse at Otay Mesa.

The various detention facilities' kitchens make other medical adjustments to meals onsite. The Central Jail processes most San Diego County prisoners after their apprehension by the police by screening them medically. At the first station, an intake worker determines whether those who might be high on drugs, for example, should be taken to a hospital emergency room rather than jail. After entering the system, prisoners go through a thorough medical evaluation; it is often during this process that special dietary needs surface. A doctor finally makes the call for the special diet, such as a low-potassium regimen for renal failure.

Consulting with the doctors is the dietician for the Sheriff's Department, Marlene Tutt, who characterizes herself as "a liaison between medical and food services." From her office at Las Colinas Women's Facility in Santee, Tutt travels to the county's detention sites, interviewing inmates with unique medical problems. She remembers trying to assess the nutritional needs of a man who had no arms. On the street he had been used to feeding himself with his feet. "But he didn't like people observing him or helping him," says Tutt. "He was independent. So we could only make sure that his meals were consumed after we gave them to him."

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