At a Glance: Major Robert James Beach
Director of Food Services, Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, New Orleans
Born in Vicksburg, Miss.
Attended the University of Mississippi
Married to Angie; has two sons, Sam, 22 and Max, 20
Enjoys riding his motorcycle, a Honda 1100 Shadow ACE, and scuba diving in the Caribbean
A commissioned law enforcement officer, he moonlights as security detail for the New Orleans Museum of Art. He also serves as a search and rescue diver for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Major Jim Beach has been with the New Orleans Sheriff’s Office for 28 years and in foodservice there since 1989. His story is congruent with that of the city of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina: There was one way of doing things before that fateful week, and another way of doing things since. Beach runs his foodservice operation with an experienced hand and a wry sense of humor, something that certainly has helped him weather the storm.
“I started with the sheriff’s office on the law enforcement side of it 1983; being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time, depending on how you look at it. The sheriff had a booth at Jazz Fest [the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival] and he needed someone in the kitchen to take over the security part of it. I was a colonel at the time, and he put me in charge, not of the food, but of the security.
My dad had a grocery store when I was growing up and my mother passed away when I was a child. He had myself and two sisters and he didn’t have anybody to watch us, so he would bring us to work with him. So I grew up working in a grocery store probably from the age of five until I went to college.
I didn’t know about recipes or actually cooking things, but I knew about buying: how to do specification, price specs on meat, price specs on dairy; I knew about that. That’s really what a modern day director does. It’s good to know how to cook, but it’s better in my opinion to know how to buy food because then you know you’re buying the correct thing.
When I took over, I started working with the foodservice director and he was buying foods that were sub-par: stuff you’d buy that they would sweep up off the floor at the end of the day at the processing plant—pretty low-quality food. I took over the specifications since then and our dietitian, Mary Goodwin, and I now work on those specs every day.
The food budget is administered through the sheriff’s office. We do get city funding and state funding, but the food cost has pretty much leveled out. Prices have gone up some but not a whole lot, so we’re running about the same food costs as we were before Katrina. We use Katrina as a starting guideline.
Katrina is a long story of six days; it was something to deal with. Normally when people have some kind of disaster, it’s either at work or at home. Imagine having an office and going to work every day and your office is destroyed and imagine your home being destroyed, too. We have a one-story house and we had four and a half feet of water in our house. Imagine everything below that being destroyed. Your home can be replaced and most of your possessions can be replaced, but some things cannot, like your pictures of your children growing up and your relatives who are gone and you have no way of getting copies of those photographs.
What I didn’t wear to work I lost in the storm. We have these hurricane drills: You pack a bag, you come to work, you sleep in your office and then you go home because the hurricane has passed. I brought in a couple of shirts, shorts, a change of underwear and a couple of socks and when I got out that’s all I had. And what my family didn’t take with them when they evacuated was all they had.
When I was profiled as FoodService Director’s FSD of the Month, I had to borrow a jacket [for the photo shoot]. I couldn’t go out to buy one; there was nowhere to shop. There was nowhere to do anything. I’ve never been rich by any means, and I’ve been a proud man, but I wound up going to the bus station and taking clothes out of the box so I could go to work.
Imagine 540 square miles of town being underwater. At the prisons we lost everything; everything was destroyed. The roof blew off the warehouse. We had almost four and a half feet of water in the kitchen itself, and the kitchen stood off the ground five feet. It was something. People always ask, ‘How did you feel?’ I wrote a story to show how proud I was of my employees and the way they acted, and what they did and the mission they accomplished. (See excerpts of his diary below.)
I lost about half my staff; they just didn’t come back after the storm because they didn’t have any place to live. We’ve hired new people since then, but it’s just hard finding people to work. Five years later it’s different. My neighborhood has been rebuilt. I rebuilt my house myself pretty much. My family came and helped me with it. We don’t have carpet anymore; its all tile in the house. My neighborhood is just outside of New Orleans, so I commute to work every day; the city of New Orleans has come back somewhat. There are sections of the city that have not been rebuilt yet and probably will not be rebuilt just because people don’t have the money. There are some places they’re calling ‘jack-o’-lanterns,’ where you have one or two houses on a block where you used to have 15 houses on the block.
Right now we serve about 3,300 to 3,400 prisoners a day; at our high point before Katrina, we had 7,000. The prisons were destroyed, most of them. Today we only have three of them operating, out of 11. After Katrina, the prisoners were shipped all over the country. We’re in the process of rebuilding. We are getting ready to drop pylons on the new kitchen/warehouse there. We’ve already had the groundbreaking ceremony; that’s going to be an $80 million kitchen/warehouse. The kitchen we had before Katrina was a 52,000-square-foot cook-chill facility and, of course, was destroyed in the storm. We’re going to go back to cook-chill. Now we’re cooking in a remodeled kitchen that’s probably 70 years old, and it’s a very small kitchen, probably 2,500 square feet. The equipment is a lot smaller and it’s a lot more labor intensive.
We do a lot of beans: red beans and rice is a big staple here in New Orleans, both inside the jail and out on the street. If you come on a Monday in New Orleans you know you’re going to eat red beans. You can come this Monday or on a Monday 10 years from now, and you know you’re going to have red beans and rice. Monday was always wash day for the ladies of New Orleans, and what they’d do before they’d go to do their laundry, they’d put on a big pot of beans and they’d cook all day on the stove while the ladies were doing laundry. So that’s how the tradition came about.
We prepare pretty much everything that you can imagine. You have to be very creative and inventive in corrections. In restaurants, when someone serves a meal that the clientele doesn’t like they just don’t come back; in corrections, they end up killing somebody—so that’s a bad day at work. Inmates look forward to meals and talking to their mamas on visitation day. At the foodservice division in the jails, we reach out and touch each inmate three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are no other departments that come into that much contact with the clientele, or whatever you want to call them. So you can do 100 million good meals, but do one bad meal and something can go wrong.
Before Katrina we raised tilapia, but we don’t do that any more. They’re trying to get back into it. We used to do hydroponics also: cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and bell peppers. They’re trying to get that going again too.
The sheriff does a big Thanksgiving meal. This is actually going to be the 36th year where we prepare Thanksgiving meals. Before Katrina that pretty much had been for the elderly, but now it’s citywide. They hold it at the [Ernest N.] Morial Convention Center downtown by the river. We have volunteers who come from all over the city. The sheriff opens it up to anybody who doesn’t want to be by themselves. You can either come down and eat, or you can come down and serve food. I’ve had my sons come since they were old enough to carry a pitcher of Coke. It teaches them public service.
We used to have 100 inmates working in the kitchen and now we have about 40 to 45. We use them for lifting, for the grunt work; they do the cleaning. We use it as a big teaching tool. You teach them a trade so when they get out they have something they can call on. I have a big training program here where we actually give them a little test. They earn a certificate when they get out of jail. I’ve gone out and talked to restaurants and found out what skills they like to have in an entry-level employeeand that’s what we teach, to help inmates stay out of jail when they get out. I talk to each one and teach them how to interview, how to sit up properly, how to say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir,’ how to look them in the eye and give a firm handshake. Most of the guys here have never had a father figure—not that I want to be one, but they need to have a father figure. You have to teach them the right things, teach them how to act, how to work and work hard and what hard work is, so when they get out they don’t come back to jail. That doesn’t work all the time, but I feel like I have to do that.
I’ve had success stories here and I try to get those guys to come back and talk to my guys and try to show them there’s a better way of doing things than running from the law. And they may not make the instant gratification money, but there’s something to being able to work hard every day.
I have about three years left until retirement. I don’t know what I’ll do; maybe some kind of consulting. The world is open to me. I don’t want to do anything for a little while. I want to drink beer and ride my motorcycle. I want to sleep in late ‘till 7 a.m. And I only want to do it once.”
Excerpts from Major Jim Beach’s Katrina Diary
“I got off work Friday Aug. 27 and listened to the radio on the way home and heard of Hurricane Katrina heading for Florida. After my last night of restful sleep for weeks, I got up Saturday morning as usual and cut the grass when I was phoned by Sheriff [Marlin N.] Gusman, criminal sheriff for Orleans Parish, and informed the storm was heading straight for New Orleans. I reported for work Saturday and began preparations for Katrina. Captain Mary Goodwin (the warehouse director) and I met and discussed the amount of emergency supplies we had in the storeroom and felt that even though the bottled water supply was a little low we would be able to fare well in yet another two-day hurricane drill (normally we report for work, spend one night in the kitchen and go home). This storm would prove to be far from a drill.
I notified the kitchen personnel to prepare to stay at the jail kitchen for two days and bring their families if they had no place else to go. This was a longstanding policy to allow family members to evacuate to the jail (this was discussed with the sheriff and he stated that if he had not allowed the family members to come to the jail, some would surely have drowned). It is usually a picnic atmosphere at work as families get together and cook, play video games and just visit with each other.
Everything was normal until Monday morning around 5 a.m. when the outer bands of Hurricane Katrina hit. After several hours of intense winds in excess of 100 mph, several roof panels of the kitchen began to blow off. I decided it was unsafe to remain in the building and evacuated all staff and family members to the Community Correctional Center, which is just behind the kitchen. Several hours later, after what seemed like the storm was over, we returned to the kitchen and found the lights out. We were running on generator power and basically still functioning. . . .
The generator in the kitchen soon went out and all that was left were minimal lights on the UPS system. It was now around 9 p.m. and the water was around five feet deep outside. We had no idea the levees had broken because all communications had failed after the unrelenting winds, and we prepared for the worst. All employees were evacuated to the Community Correctional Center for a final time, and my rank and I went to sleep around midnight in the kitchen. . . .
I was dreaming and I thought I could hear angels singing. I was thinking about my mother, who died when I was a child and although I don’t have many memories of her I do remember her singing and playing the organ a lot. Her favorite song was “How Great Thou Art,” and that was what the angels were singing. I realized it was Captain Mary Goodwin (my dietitian) singing quietly to herself “How Great Thou Art,” rocking gently back and forth with a shotgun across her lap.”