Given that the Oregon Youth Authority houses about 500 youth in nine facilities statewide, 24/7, it’s not surprising that the agency serves a lot of food in one year. Still, the total number of meals and snacks served in 2018 was staggering: 1,284,678.
The 30 full-time and part-time staff members in nutrition services at OYA — with the help of youth employees — work at all hours to ensure that youth at OYA stay well-fed and healthy. Nearly half of those staff members work at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, OYA’s largest, where they plan for 400 servings for every meal and snack — that’s 1,600 a day.
In order to crank out that many meals, organization is everything. At MacLaren, the morning shift arrives remarkably early — 4:30 a.m. — to make sure breakfast is ready to go at 6. Lunch at MacLaren has to be ready by 10 a.m. so they can have time to deliver it to the living units. And the afternoon crew serves dinner by 5, with an evening snack to follow.
Timing is key, not only for the volume of meals, but also because of MacLaren’s expansive campus. Employees have to load up a trailer with carts of food for each unit. Employees then hitch the trailer to a motorized cart and drive the food to its destinations. Other facilities also have staff deliver carts to units, except at Camp Florence and Camp Riverbend youth transitional facilities and both facilities in Tillamook, which have cafeterias.
Despite the high number of meals served every day, it only costs OYA $6.14 per day to feed a youth.
That’s because OYA generally purchases food items in bulk — the primary vendor is Food Services of America. But that doesn’t mean quality is compromised. In addition to working with FSA, some facilities use local vendors for produce or bread. Canned and frozen food purchased from Department of Corrections is also more affordable and of good quality.
No matter where the food is sourced, each facility follows a menu written by Elaine Adams, a registered dietitian who oversees nutrition services from OYA’s central office in Salem.
“Even cooks get tired of the same thing,” she said. “They can customize recipes as long as they don’t change the key components. I tell them to let me know if they come up with something good so we can share it with others.”
The key components can’t change — at least not for breakfast, lunch, and snacks — because those meals fall under USDA National School Nutrition guidelines for youth ages 19 and under. That means every youth is served a cup of milk, a cup of fruit, a cup of vegetables, 2 oz. of bread, and 2 oz. of meat at lunch (and the bread has to be largely whole grain rich). The guidelines also place restrictions on sodium and milk, the latter of which has to be either 1 percent or fat free.
It’s especially important to follow the guidelines because more than half the $1.8 million food expense is provided through those federal funds. Oregon Department of Education conducts an audit for this reason every three years, checking the menu and meal pattern, among other criteria.
“We’re different from public schools in that we don’t have to sell (the food),” Adams said. “Students at public schools have other options that compete with the school food service programs.”
The remainder of the food cost is supported entirely by the OYA general fund.
Most of the nutrition services staff previously worked within the food service industry, Adams said. Youth can also work in the kitchen, and at MacLaren, site manager Dane Nelson makes sure they go through a proper interview process.
“I want it to be like a regular job, that you have to follow expectations,” Nelson said. “I want them to be ready for the real world.”
Generally the youth load or unload units’ carts, wash dishes, and cut vegetables, but sometimes, on slow days, they try their hand at making food or shadowing one of the cooks.
“It’s teaching a life skill,” Nelson said. “They’re not only washing dishes or doing monotonous work, but (the staff) is teaching them.”
Overall, there can be some challenges to feeding so many people, such as meeting dietary restrictions — like providing a sack lunch for Muslim youth to eat after sunset during the month of Ramadan, or providing an alternative option to accommodate an allergy. But Adams tries to have fun with the menu, reserving special meals for holidays, and celebrating fun national days, like cherry pie day or popcorn day. For the most part, food served at OYA is healthy.
“Hopefully they’re learning to like something other than fast food,” Adams said.