AUBURN — A private company may soon prepare the 175,000 meals served annually inside the Androscoggin County Jail.
Capt. John Lebel, the administrator of the Auburn jail, estimated Wednesday that more than $45,000 could be saved in one year by making the switch. It would cost jobs, though.
Currently, the jail has three staffers who work with a pool of inmate labor to prepare the meals. All would either lose their jobs in the switch, though some may find work in other departments within the jail.
For Sheriff Guy Desjardins, the savings may preserve a position among the ranks of corrections officers in the increasingly busy jail.
"I think we're all looking at the bottom line," Desjardins said. "That's a job. I can't work understaffed in this type of facility. I just can't. Reality is going to hit fast."
On Tuesday, the county's budget squeeze is expected to get even tighter.
Desjardins and Lebel plan to attend a meeting of the state's Board of Corrections, where there may to be a rundown of cuts to Maine's system of jails. Cuts in the state's share of jail costs could be immediate.
"Today, it's hard to ignore a potential savings of $45,000," Lebel said.
In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, beginning this July, the jail is predicted to spend more than $421,000 on meals in the current system. That number includes an estimate of $215,000 to buy food and $121,000 for salaries. Assuming there are 150 inmates in the jail, the money buys 450 inmate meals per day and 26 staff meals.
A bid by Aramark, a food services company based in Philadelphia, would set a straight per meal price of $2.11, when the average jail population is between 148 and 163 inmates.
According to its website, Aramark services more than 500 correctional institutions across North America. In Maine, its food systems are in the York and Kennebec county jails and in the Two Bridges Regional Jail, which serves Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.
A decision on whether to make the switch will likely take months.
On Wednesday, county commissioners asked questions about the current county-run food system. Commissioner Beth Bell asked several times whether locally grown and sold food might have preference over national suppliers. She also wondered if the jail might do a better job avoiding white flour, salt and sugar.
"Is there a reason we can't serve beans and rice and porridge?" she asked. During the lunchtime meeting, she drank juice while other county leaders ate pizza purchased from a nearby shop.
Lebel said the jail must strictly follow state guidelines for its food, including a mandate of serving inmates with between 2,500 and 2,800 calories each day and oversight of the menu by a nutritionist.
Aramark would do the same, he said.
The jail could change its foods somewhat, but big changes might cause unrest, Desjardins warned. It might also cost more money than they wish to spend.
"If you can afford it, you can buy the best," Desjardins said.
Bell argued that nutritious meals need not cost more. She asked if there were any grants or pilot projects being offered that might make it easier to change the inmate diet or where the jail's food is purchased.
To the Board of Corrections, the bottom line is all that will matter, Commissioner Randall Greenwood said.
"That's the problem," Bell said.