How to feed a person for $3 a meal
Rising food prices may put more pressure on institutional meals
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.
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.