The state is looking for a new vendor to provide kosher meals for prison inmates. The specially prepared meals have been offered to Hawaii inmates for about 30 years.
The Dept. of Public Safety says it costs about $8 for a kosher-certified meal and $4 for a regular prison meal.
Prison officials say the state doesn’t have a choice. “They declare a religion and we have to follow through,” said Toni Schwartz, spokesperson for the Dept. of Public Safety. “Basically, when it comes to the food, we have to follow with their religious rights.”
The Jewish diet dates back thousands of years and requires food to be prepared in a certain way.
“It really comes down to doing things which enable you to become or live a more holy life and interact with people in a more holy way,” said Ken Aronowitz, spiritual leader at Temple Emanu-El. “When you think of Kashrut, you think of not eating pork or shellfish, not mixing milk with meat. So cheeseburgers are a no-no in terms of Kashrut. So it’s really foods that don’t fall into those categories of pork, shellfish, mixing milk and meat, for instance.”
Prison officials say the number of meals prepared can fluctuate, but in the latest bid request, the state is requesting more than 33,000 meals a year for 30 inmates at Oahu Community Correctional Center and 28,000 meals for 26 inmates at Halawa Correctional Facility, which houses felons and other hard-core criminals. The total for all prisons across the state is 63,000 meals, which would cost half-a-million dollars or an extra $252,000.
So why do these meals cost so much more?
“We actually have to order out to get these meals pre-made, and packaged, and sealed in a certain way so that it follows along with their religious rights and with the kosher standard,” Schwartz said. “We don’t have another way of really doing this.”
The state says it wants kosher meals like beef stew, Florentine lasagna, chicken Mediterranean, cheese tortellini, chicken and black beans, and pasta with garden vegetables.
“Unfortunately, anything that’s pre-made is probably going to be more expensive than something we can make in house,” Schwartz said.
One lawmaker says the cost for these meals is way too high.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure we are doing it in the most cost-effective way and that tax dollars are not being wasted, and that we looked at all possibilities locally before we have to consider importing these meals,” said Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Public Safety committee.
“I think it has to be looked upon as a good investment and a positive step on their part and on the state’s part,” Aronowitz said.
Sen. Espero says introducing a bill to put a price cap on kosher meals is always a possibility, but he wants to talk to prison officials before intervening.