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Florida prisoners feeling recession's effect on their plates

Three times a day, the inmates at Madison Correctional Institution discover what a budget deficit tastes like.

The scene in the prison chow hall in this quaint North Florida town is repeated across the state as it returns to in-house food service and struggles to cut costs. While the inmate population is growing, the Legislature is cutting spending in the nation's third-largest state prison system.

Florida is coping with the effects of a failed and expensive food-privatization venture of former Gov. Jeb Bush. In 2001, the state turned over most prison food operations to Aramark Corp., even after Ohio had scrapped a similar experiment, citing bad results.

After seven years marked by numerous irregularities, fines for sloppy service and a state report that flagged the vendor's "windfall" profits, Aramark pulled out of Florida prisons last month. The firm said it could no longer make money due to rising prices of bread, milk and other staples amid pressure from the state to cut costs.

A second, smaller company also left: Trinity Services Group of Oldsmar, Fla., had served meals at North Florida prisons, including Madison.

Now that the vendors are gone, the privatization experiment is officially dead, and the state must run an in-house meals program on less money amid the worst budget crisis in decades.

In fiscal 2007-08, Florida paid two private vendors a total of $85 million. The current year's food budget is $76 million.

Aramark's per diem rate, or cost per day to feed an inmate, was $2.69. Now it is $2.12, which will force the state to make menu changes to save money.

Corn bread replaces sliced bread at some meals. Inmates will get one sweetener packet instead of four. In the Sunshine State's prisons, orange juice is made from concentrate.

"It's all right, but 100 percent juice is better," said Charles Christian, 24, six months into a two-year term at Madison for drug and weapon offenses. "Sometimes it's all right – like the peanut butter. They give you enough, but it's hard to eat, it's so thick. And they don't give you enough meat."

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