Oxford County Jail cook balancing nutrition and budget

PARIS – Gary Tardiff smiled as he polished off the last bit of the garlic bread.

He had just finished a good-sized portion of lasagna, tossed salad, and serving of applesauce along with the fresh-baked garlic bread that was topped with basil, oregano, oil and a little cheese.

Dinner was already set: pork roast, gravy, mashed potato, French bread, vegetable and a pudding.

Tardiff likes to eat. And when you are an inmate at the Oxford County Jail, mealtime is one thing you look forward to.

“It’s good,” Tardiff said from the kitchen of the jail, where he helps out as part of the work-release program. “I eat it all.”

“Everything’s his favorite,” said inmate and co-worker Roland Cornish. “I don’t eat half the stuff. I’m picky, it doesn’t look that good.”

“The presentation is superb,” Tardiff chipped in.

“I will say this,” Cornish said. “This is the only jail – and I’ve been to a few of them – that has a hot meal in the morning.”

Jail cook Peter Rogers laughs at and with his crew.

He’s pretty proud of his menu and serves the inmates three balanced meals every day for an average of 92 cent to 94 cents per meal, a price cheaper than a coffee shop in a Las Vegas casino.

Rogers, 54, began cooking 35 years ago for the Mariott Corporation in Boston. He retired after 178 years there and then was operation manager for Green Mountain Coffee in Portland for about eight years.

He built a home in Otisfield, got tired of driving and took the job at the jail in about 1996.

Rogers said he shoots for serving 2,200 calories to 2,800 calories per day and has to meet federal dietary requirements. He said most inmates lead a sedentary lifestyle while incarcerated, although some eat like they work outside.

There’s three cooks. Theresa Taylor, is full time and Alice Thyng works part-time.

They serve 30 meals to 50 meals, three times a day to a clientele which is constantly changing.

Peaches are the favorite fruit and hot dogs and beans and hamburgers are the two most popular meals. Kool-Aid, which is served fairly often, is the least popular drink and fruit and salad are the least popular food items.

“We serve fruit and salad at most every meal,” Rogers said. “These are two items inmates have to get used to because they don’t eat them much on the outside.”

Desserts are only served two to three times per week.

Rogers said there are occasions he has to make special meals such as one for those requiring a bland diet, sometime diabetics, those having religious considerations and those allergic to a specific type of food.

“There are no seconds,” Rogers said.

Rogers used to average about $1.10 to $1.20 per meal, but a budget reduction for 2003 to 2004 from $59,000 to $51,000 is forcing him to make some cuts.

Rogers said he used to serve beef five to eight times a week. But now inmates will only see beef in the hamburgers they get three times a month and the once-a-month cheeseburgers. He said he will use more chicken and pork in meals.

Sheriff Skip Herrick calls Rogers one of the best assets the county sheriff office has.

“It’s just amazing how he regulates the meals and keeps within the costs and meets the state quality standards,” Herrick said. “I have never, since the day Peter walked through the door, have had a complaint on the quality or quantity of the food served.”

That is, except for the picky Cornish.

“This Kool-Aid ain’t really Kool-Aid,” Cornish said.

“It’s a calcium enriched drink,” offered Tardiff, as he moved a load of dishes into the washer.

“It’s awful,” Cornish said.

“It’s delicious,” countered Tardiff, who had gained 15 pounds in the 75 days he has been there.

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