OCALA, Fla. — Marion County Jail inmates are served three meals a day. In 2012 and 2013, the average inmate population on any given day was 1,546. That means roughly 4,638 food trays a day, or 1,692,870 meals per year.
To help save taxpayers money — and to keep inmates occupied and, perhaps, learning new skills — the Marion County Sheriff's Office operates three inmate work farms.
The main farm is at Maricamp Road and Baseline Road in Ocala, where inmate workers grow a variety of crops and raise cows, pigs and chickens.
Another site is a partnership at the 1,100-acre University of Florida Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra. This farm also produces a number of plant and animal foods, with a focus on creating new varieties, such as plants that do not require much water or fertilizer.
The third site is a county-owned orange grove on Carney Island.
According to the Florida Department of Corrections, the average cost per tray to feed a state prisoner is $1.54.
According to Lt. Richard Byrd, food service unit coordinator at the jail, in 2013 the average food tray cost was 50 cents per tray, as determined by the price of food the Sheriff's Office had to purchase.
The cost to the Sheriff's Office varies by season. For instance, in May, June and July of 2013, the average food tray cost was 44 cents per tray. Prices were down due to a greater variety of vegetables and fruits coming in, Byrd said.
The most expensive months were August, September and October, where the cost was 56 cents per tray because that was the end of the harvest and fewer vegetables were coming in.
Byrd said one example of significant savings through the main inmate farm in Ocala is in the production of eggs.
If the sheriff had purchased eggs at a store last year, the average price would have been $31.47 a case, with 30 dozen eggs in a case. On average, to prepare a meal at the jail that includes eggs, it takes 10 cases, which would have meant paying $314.70 per meal.
The jail offers meals that include eggs 208 days a year, which means the total cost if they had to buy eggs would have been $65,457.60.
"That would be a lot of money for that one item for us, which is a large savings for us," Byrd said.
The plant and animal foods produced at the three farms are transported to the jail two or three times a week. Once the food arrives, it is kept in a cooler until it is prepared for consumption.
What is not to be used immediately is frozen for later use. Byrd said most of the meat products are purchased by the agency, which solicits bids to get the best prices.
All meals have to be certified by a dietitian according to state jail standards before they are served.
"You have to follow the guidelines. For example, I can substitute a dessert, like a cake, with a fruit. I can replace a carbohydrate, such as rice, macaroni or noodles, with potatoes or sweet potatoes. All canned vegetables can be replaced with farm vegetables," Byrd said.
While some inmates complain about the food, at least one thinks the meals are not all bad.
"The oranges and vegetables are pretty nutritious," said Kyle Katona, 20, currently incarcerated on a violation of probation charge.
Master Sgt. David Hurst is in charge of the inmate farm system. He and Dr. Daniel Colvin, director of research programs at UF, estimate that between the Citra location and the work farm in Ocala, the production of food including eggs, meat and plant crops is valued at more than $1 million a year, which is measured by a comparison of what is grown and harvested and what others are paying for those same products.
Colvin hailed the UF/MCSO partnership and said it not only provides the research facility an abundance of labor they "could never afford," but also provide inmates a chance to learn new skills.
"It gives them access to agricultural teaching and farming," Colvin said.
Research activities at the Citra site include developing different plant species as well as the breeding and raising of livestock. Numerous crops, such as peppers, watermelons and beans, are grown on the property.
Colvin said there are about 20 staffers at the site and 30 inmates work on the farm.
When there is a surplus produced at any of the properties that supply the jail, the extras are turned over to local social service agencies. For example, in mid-December, when the Citra property had an abundance of citrus, Interfaith Emergency Services and Brother's Keeper were the recipients of 3,000 pounds of fresh oranges each.
Hurst said that through the end of this month, the UF farm is projecting a harvest of roughly 225,000 pounds of citrus and the excess will be passed on to the food banks, which in turn will disperse the fruit within local communities.
The 58-acre farm in Ocala is divided into areas for raising hogs, cattle, chickens and farming.
On average, 25 inmates work on the farm five days a week to feed the animals, collect the eggs and wash and package food for delivery to the jail. On weekends and holidays, about a dozen inmates work about four hours a day.
The inmates do not get paid but do receive time off their sentences.
There are approximately 6,500 chickens at the farm, which in December produced more than 110,500 eggs. Once they can no longer produce at a high level, the chickens are slaughtered and the meat is sent to the jail for consumption. Manure from the chicken coops is used as fertilizer.
The cows have a large area for grazing and the hay they eat in the fall and winter comes from the Citra farm, where it is cut and rolled by inmates. The cattle also feed on crops planted on the Ocala farm.
The pigs, Hurst said, are fed in part with the leftovers and scraps from the jail.
The plant crops are grown according to season. For instance, in the spring and summer, inmates plant cucumbers, squash, corn and tomatoes; in the fall and winter, they grow sweet potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower.
Hurst said equipment at the farm, such as tractors, typically comes from other county departments, such as the road division, and that one of the tractors in use now was from an asset seizure in a drug case.
Hoes, rakes, pitchforks, shovels and other tools are replaced as needed.
In 2012, Hurst said, the expense to operate the Ocala farm was $174,100.35 and the value to the Sheriff's Office of items produced there was $925,878.46.
Last year, expenses were $144,879.79 with a production value of $1,059,439.53.
The county-owned property at Carney Island spans 13 acres and contains several hundred orange trees. Inmates work there to maintain the property, performing tasks such as mowing, trimming, pruning and picking the oranges.
Hurst said that about a year and a half ago, they took about 150 inmates there to do a major cleanup that included cleaning out the underbrush and removing dead trees.
County Commission Chairman Carl Zalak said that, in general, the main farm and its subsidiaries are doing a "good service for the community."
"But, like everything else, it needs to be constantly evaluated so taxpayers will see the benefits of having these programs," Zalak said.
He said he hopes in the upcoming budget year that the commissioners and the sheriff can meet early to discuss everything within the budget so no one has a repeat of last year's budget battle.