Three cold rotten moldy bologna sandwiches a day – that’s what local advocates and a report say people locked up in Orange County jails have been eating for the past two years during the pandemic.

Inmates and those same advocates are pushing for better food in jails and have been calling on the Orange County Board of Supervisors to stop increasing funding for the county’s sheriff department until they fully reinstate hot meals.

They also want supervisors to have open, public conversations about the food conditions in jails – which they haven’t done.

Sarah Kahn, who is a part of the Stop the Musick Coalition behind the report, said in a phone interview Wednesday the immediate goal is to get hot meals back for inmates.

“In a larger sense, I think there’s a big food justice movement happening in carceral settings and the goal is really to improve it far beyond what the jail was serving even before COVID, which was already horrible quality food,” she said.

Kahn also said inconsistently over the past several months the department has reintroduced what they’re calling “hot meals” which she said was actually just warm broth or warm cereal without any real nutritional value.

“I am in contact with several people who are currently incarcerated and so far have not heard any reports that they have actually reinstated hot meals,” she said.

One OC Supervisor publicly disputed the claims that incarcerated people were only being fed bologna sandwiches last week, although the county’s board of supervisors have not scheduled a discussion on the matter since the release of the report.

“There’s not bologna sandwiches being provided for every single meal. There is oatmeal, cream of wheat or cereal in the morning, hard boiled eggs, always a fruit option,” Supervisor Katrina Foley said at last Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I felt that we were in compliance with the state title 15 requirements as it relates to the ingredients as well as for sodium,” she said.

Foley said she recently visited the Theo Lacy jail in Santa Ana to check out the food situation.

Kahn said while people in jail do get cereal or a hard boiled egg, it’s not healthy enough and expressed disappointment over Foley’s comments. 

“People describe it as torture eating these horrible bologna sandwiches day after day after day and having a cold hard boiled egg in the morning alongside more bologna in slices of bread is really not a significant difference,” she said.

Kahn told Voice of OC that the county’s sheriff’s department has a pattern of changing their habits before inspections.

Foley also said Tuesday there were a variety of lunch meats being provided including a vegan option, but acknowledged that sandwich meals weren’t ideal.

“As we move out of the COVID crisis, we will start to be able to return to having more what you might consider to be homemade meals,” she said.

Spokespeople for the OC Sheriff’s department have yet to answer Voice of OC questions on the matter, but provided a statement they issued in December when the report was released. 

The statement said the department is in compliance with state guidelines.

“We dispute their allegations that OCSD is serving spoiled or nutritionally deficient food to incarcerated persons,” reads the statement.

Sheriff’s officials haven’t yet provided Voice of OC a jail food menu detailing what was served for the past month.

Residents Call on OC Board of Supervisors to Act

The County’s Board of Supervisors have not agendized a discussion on jail meals since the report was released in December.

Kahn said dozens of residents spoke during public comment periods since the report was made public and over 80 letters have been sent to the board on the issue.

“It’s extremely important to have public dialogue that is transparent and that every person in the community can participate in,” she said.

At last Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, two residents sent in comments condemning the supervisors and the Sheriff departments for the food conditions at the jails.

“The behavior of the [OC Sheriff’s Department] is unconscionable and inexcusable and I’m ashamed to live in a county whose supposed leaders have such an abysmal regard for human life,” read a comment from Irvine Resident Felicity Figuera.

“We should be listening to the people who are suffering from this situation every day,” she said.

Foley’s update comes on the heels of a resolution from the County’s Democratic Party calling on the Sheriff’s Department to stop serving rotten food.

Report Highlights Food Conditions in OC Jails

The report was created by the Stop the Musick Coalition and details just how bad the food conditions in OC jails are with written testimonies from people on the inside.

The coalition is dedicated to reducing jail populations in the county and are fighting the expansion and reopening of the James A. Musick facility – a jail in Irvine.

“Sometimes the bread comes moldy or soggy; we are pretty much starving,” an inmate identified as K. said in the report.

“The milk sometimes comes sour, it expired, and yet they pass it out like that. Honestly, it seems that they don’t care because at the end of the day they go home and eat fresh cooked meals […] we stay here.”

The report states that people in OC jails are being given sandwiches with moldy bread and discolored, rotting meat.

“The bologna sometimes leaks a dark juice and is blotched with green spots. Several people have described becoming so sick that they needed medical attention. People have to skip meals when the food is too rotten, often skipping several meals in a row,” reads the report.

The report also pushed the Los Angeles Times editorial board to condemn the allegedly rotten food.

Advocates found that inmates are being “given food containing over twice as much sodium as is recommended by the FDA,” which can lead to heart issues.

The coalition is also calling on the County’s Board of Supervisors to direct the OC Health Care Agency to conduct unannounced checks of jail kitchens and require the Sheriff’s Department to publicly post jail menus.

Pandemic Shuts Down Hot Meal Services in Jail

In March 2020, hot meals were suspended due to a lack of inmate work crews and to avoid congregations in dining halls as a precaution to limit the spread of the virus. 

It wasn’t long after that people in OC jails themselves took a stand against the food conditions.

In the summer of 2020, at least 300 inmates at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange and 120 at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana declared they were on a hunger strike calling for hot meals to be served once again and for family visitations to resume at the jails.

Some people raised concerns about the quality of food they were being served back then too.

[Read: Hunger Strike in OC Jails Over Lack of Visitations and Hot Meals Comes to An End]

The coalition’s reports state that in 2020 the Sheriff’s Department spent $1 million less on food than was allocated on their budget and used the savings for other expenses like staffing.

It also states that while the jail population decreased because of COVID, commissary revenue has remained consistently high.

Even before the pandemic, there have been questions about the quality of food the Sheriff’s department was serving to incarcerated people.

A report by the Office of the Inspector General after an unannounced inspection of the Theo Lacy Facility published in March 2017 expressed concern over the sheriff’s department’s handling of food. 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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