How to feed a per­son for $3 a meal

Ris­ing food prices may put more pres­sure on in­sti­tu­tional meals

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - CITY + REGION - ASH­LEY MARTIN amartin@post­media.com

At the Regina Cor­rec­tional Cen­tre, in­mates are eat­ing three-dol­lar meals. They’re not the only ones.

Af­ter food ser­vices in Saskatchew­an cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties were pri­va­tized — Com­pass Group Canada took over in Novem­ber — the meal bud­get dropped to $3.25 per plate from be­tween $5 and $6 per plate.

Some in­mates say the food qual­ity has de­te­ri­o­rated un­der Com­pass; there have been a cou­ple of hunger strikes in the past month in protest.

Given ris­ing food costs, in part due to a de­clin­ing dol­lar, meal qual­ity may re­main a topic of con­ver­sa­tion.

“It’ll put some pres­sure on the in­sti­tu­tional mar­ket,” said Syl­vain Charlebois, a Univer­sity of Guelph (and for­mer Univer­sity of Regina) pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­izes in food pol­icy.

“If you’re look­ing at hospi­tals, correction­s ser­vices, schools, they have to be a lit­tle bit more dili­gent in terms of what they’re buy­ing when they have a set bud­get,” said Charlebois.

In­sti­tu­tions deal­ing with ma­jor whole­sale com­pa­nies can more ef­fi­ciently ab­sorb cost in­creases — some­thing Com­pass spokes­woman Saira Hu­sain backed up in an email state­ment.

“We are able to lev­er­age our buy­ing power of more than $1 bil­lion of food ser­vice prod­ucts per year to both re­ceive and main­tain the best pos­si­ble prices,” she said.

But “at some point, (ris­ing prices) will catch up,” said Charlebois, which will force food ser­vice providers to charge more and per­haps re­quest more money from the min­istry.

“Whether or not it’s po­lit­i­cally pop­u­lar to do that, I’ll leave it up to the min­istry to de­cide,” Charlebois said with a chuckle, “but food is food. I tend to be­lieve that food is a right no mat­ter who you are.

“Whether or not they’ll serve pizza or ham­burg­ers is one thing, but peo­ple cer­tainly should have ac­cess to nu­tri­tious food.”

Even if Com­pass can main­tain a $3.25-per-plate bud­get, of­fer­ing a low-cost, yet bal­anced and nu­tri­tious meal is prov­ing an in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult task for a lot of or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Regina Food For Learn­ing is one. The non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­vides snacks and lunches in seven Regina schools.

A two-food-group snack — yo­gurt and fruit, veg­gies and a hard­boiled egg — av­er­ages 78 cents.

A four-food-group lunch — for ex­am­ple, a sand­wich or hot­dog with veg­eta­bles and milk — av­er­ages $2.34.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially right now with the prices go­ing up so high,” said man­ager Linda Gen­nutt.

“A heart of cel­ery, which used to cost $1.95, is now $3.47. A case of pears, which used to be $45, is now $72,” said Gen­nutt.

She added the pro­gram, which serves 2,391 snacks and 522 lunches weekly, may have to cut down on por­tion sizes to cope.

Dana Folk­ersen has seen the same thing at Regina Education and Ac­tion on Child Hunger (REACH), which sells at-cost gro­cery boxes to about 800 fam­i­lies.

REACH also of­fers cook­ing classes, teach­ing peo­ple to make healthy meals on a tiny bud­get — about $1 per soup por­tion and $2 per casse­role, which can in­cor­po­rate “lots of healthy veg­eta­bles … and still en­cour­age kids and fam­i­lies to eat healthy,” said Folk­ersen, REACH ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

One key to cop­ing with ris­ing costs is buy­ing in sea­son, she said.

Souls Har­bour Res­cue Mis­sion runs a soup kitchen — where chili, soup and pasta casseroles are sta­ples — and feeds an av­er­age of 200 peo­ple nightly for $3.43 per meal.

It’s a bit of an ar­ti­fi­cial num­ber, says di­rec­tor of de­vel­op­ment Ka­t­rina Robin­son, be­cause a lot of the non-profit’s food is do­nated, and that “meal” cost also in­cludes build­ing op­er­a­tion and staff salaries.

Souls Har­bour doesn’t re-eval­u­ate its meal costs ev­ery time food costs fluc­tu­ate. Five years ago, its cost per plate av­er­aged $3.11. The cost will climb again in a few years — but “is it go­ing to go up by like $5 a plate? No,” said Robin­son.

One way Souls Har­bour keeps costs down is by be­ing flex­i­ble.

Un­like the cor­rec­tional cen­tre’s rigid three-week ro­ta­tional meals, “We work with what we get in for do­na­tions and fill in the blanks as we need to,” whether it’s gar­den veg­eta­bles in the sum­mer or frozen tur­keys around Christ­mas­time.

Any­way, added Robin­son, “When you cook en masse, the eco­nom­ics of it is your cost per plate de­creases.”

Charlebois says ris­ing food costs are the “new nor­mal.”

“Whether you’re a fam­ily, a prison, a hos­pi­tal, doesn’t mat­ter who you are — the per­cent­age of your bud­get that you ded­i­cate to food will likely in­crease over the next five, 10 years,” he said.

TROY FLEECE/REGINA LEADER-POST

This meal was pre­pared for in­mates for lunch at the Regina Pro­vin­cial Cor­rec­tional Cen­tre one day last week, where the chal­lenges of eat­ing well af­ford­ably are faced each day.

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