Jeffrey Vickers: The Rehabilitator

Jeffrey Vickers, director of food and support services for the Contra Costa (Calif.) Sheriff's Department, set up meal service packed with menu variety for prison and county employees; reduced food waste by 5% using a modified cook-chill system; switched to a tray-sealing system for inmates' meals; and increased commissary sales by 15% with a Web-based ordering system for the friends and relatives of inmates.
—FSD of the Month, May 2006

Feeding 2,000 inmates three meals a day is a far cry from owning your own restaurant. But in 1987, when Jeffrey Vickers realized his own eatery wasn't generating enough income to support his wife and growing family, it was the best option he could find.

Now, looking back over a 19-year career, he wouldn't have had it any other way, and early retirement is not an option he's considering since he still has plans to improve his department's bottom line in the future.

Vickers is director of food and support services for the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department in Richmond, Calif., a position he competed with 32 other contenders to attain about nine years ago. At that time, his foodservice experience included positions with Saga and Marriott, as well as in operating his own fledgling restaurant.

At Contra Costa, Vickers has created an operation in which staff members are no longer fed like inmates and inmates' meals are now served in a way that eliminates potential tampering. Meanwhile, he has morphed an ancillary commissary operation into a Web-based source of $600,000 annually.

The department consists of three detention centers spread throughout Contra Costa County, which is 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. Each detention center, Martinez, West County and Marsh Creek, has its own dining room to serve staff, including doctors, nurses, psychologists, deputies, janitors, etc.

Boosting morale: Vickers, after joining the department, quickly discovered that staff were being served the same exact food as inmates, and sought to change that. "They were unhappy and morale was terrible," he recalls. "I suggested such improvements as setting up salad bars, serving fresh soup each day and installing a popcorn machine and a cappuccino machine."

In fact, all of his suggestions were implemented, even a freezer stocked with ice cream novelties. "The staff loved us and to this day the program stands out," he says. "People try to come here from other [county] departments for lunch. We do a $15 monthly payroll deduction and that goes to cover some costs. If someone signs up for the meal plan, they can come here as long as they're a county employee. We even have a courtyard off the dining room in the West County Detention Facility, which opened in 1991. We bought a barbecue grill and now we serve grilled items out there May through October."

Breakfast is self-serve continental fare; lunch is a blue-plate special of the day, perhaps southern fried chicken, garlic mashed potatoes with cream gravy and whole kernel corn with strawberry shortcake for dessert. A scratch-made soup of the day plus 22 additional options are available at the salad bar including sliced fresh fruit; an abundance of whole fruit is accessible 24 hours a day.

Dinner is identical to lunch since it serves different people on the evening shift. For the 3 a.m. "graveyard" shift, grab-and-go items are available from a reach-in cooler located in the dining room, along with cold cuts, bread, yogurt and an assortment of frozen meals.

"The total subsidy for staff meals is $125,000," Vickers points out, "but people are not allowed to leave the building until their shift is over, and working in corrections can be depressing and stressful." Approximately 400 staff meals are served each day at an average meal cost of $2.50. Overall, staff morale has gone way up and people are now "easier to manage," he reports.

A centralized plan: Vickers' efforts to improve inmate feeding coincided with these efforts. Meal volume across the three detention centers is approximately 2.2 million per year.

In 1987, each facility had its own menu. Almost immediately, he created one master menu and consolidated production in one kitchen. When the third jail, West County, came on line in 1991, its kitchen became the central production area.

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