MADISON — Three times a day, the inmates at Madison Correctional Institution discover what a budget deficit tastes like.
The scene in the prison chow hall in this quaint North Florida town is repeated across the state as it returns to in-house food service and struggles to cut costs. While the inmate population is growing, the Legislature is cutting spending in the nation's third-largest state prison system.
Florida is now coping with the effects of a failed and expensive food-privatization venture of former Gov. Jeb Bush. In 2001, Florida turned over most prison food operations to Aramark Corp., even after Ohio had scrapped a similar experiment with bad results.
After seven years marked by numerous irregularities, fines for sloppy service and a state report that flagged the vendor's "windfall" profits, Aramark pulled out of Florida prisons last month. The firm said it could no longer make money due to skyrocketing prices of bread, milk and other staples amid pressure from the state to cut costs.
A second, smaller company also left: Trinity Services Group of Oldsmar had served meals at North Florida prisons, including Madison.
Now that the vendors are gone, the privatization experiment is officially dead and the state must run an in-house meals program on less money amid the worst budget crisis in decades.
In fiscal 2007-08, Florida paid two private vendors a total of $85 million. The current year's food budget is $76 million.
Aramark's per-diem rate, or cost per day to feed an inmate, was $2.69. Now it's $2.12, which will force the state to make menu changes to save money.
Corn bread replaces sliced bread at some meals. Inmates will get one sweetener packet instead of four. In the prisons of the Sunshine State, orange juice is made from concentrate.
"It's all right, but 100 percent juice is better," said Charles Christian, 24, six months into a two-year term for drug and weapon offenses. "Sometimes it's all right — like the peanut butter. They give you enough, but it's hard to eat, it's so thick. And they don't give you enough meat."
"It's fine with me. I have no complaints," said David Dixon, 46, a Madison inmate for the past six years. "To me, I can't tell the difference."
Feeding 100,000 inmates three meals a day is an expensive business. And doing it right is a major factor in avoiding unrest. Madison inmates say the quantity and quality of the food are about all they talk about.
Contrary to the myth of bread and water, inmates are fed according to a highly regulated heart-healthy menu with strict portions and caloric counts overseen by a prison dietician.
Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil has come under fire from legislators for not reducing his food budget by the $9.25 million that the Legislature ordered last spring.
"We won't do it in the time we were directed to do it," McNeil told a legislative budget panel last week.
He said the agency will need the rest of this year to hit the target, which prompted criticism from the committee chairman.
"I have concerns that your agency is not following legislative intent," said Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo.
Inside Madison's neatly manicured compound Friday, shivering inmates in identical blue and white clothing walked in single file to breakfast on a 27-degree morning.
They ate grits, scrambled eggs, a lump of hash browns, two slices of white toast, a wad of grape jelly and coffee strong enough for any long-haul truck driver.
One recent lunch was bland-tasting tuna on white bread with black-eyed peas, pasta salad and coleslaw, served with a red spork that can't be used as a weapon. The tastiest part of the meal: a big, sweet sugar cookie.
Warden Steve Wellhausen proudly showed a visitor two small gardens where inmates grow and harvest greens, cucumbers, broccoli and squash to save on food costs. Most other food is bought from the new provider, U.S. Foodservice.
The high cost of food is only part of the reason for the prison system's $21 million operating deficit. But as McNeil told legislators, cutting the prisons' food budget is necessary to control spending.
"We now control our own destiny," McNeil said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.