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Youths at L.A. County probation camps complain about food

A report finds universal agreement that 'the food was terrible,' but officials say the inmates don't like healthy meals. The camps' food service contract will be up for a vote in two weeks.

March 26, 2013|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

Youths at some Los Angeles County probation camps say that they are not getting enough to eat and are served unhealthy food, including a Sunday stew made of leftovers that sometimes contains "slippery and shiny" meat and "pink and undercooked" chicken, according to recent report.

The document is a result of a visit earlier this month by two citizens serving on the commission that advises the Probation Department about operations at the Challenger camps near Lancaster. "There was universal agreement by all who were queried on the site visit that the food was terrible," the report said.

Don Meyer, an assistant chief probation officer, said he had not seen the document and had not looked at camp food recently. But Meyer said it was hard to believe that youths were served leftovers.

"We have a full-time nutritionist that puts the menus together so they get wholesome food," he said.

Meyer said probation officials are studying whether they could make meals more presentable but also noted that many teenagers don't like to eat healthy food. One employee told the monitors that probationers only wanted hot dogs and hamburgers and rarely ate vegetables.

"They are pretty normal adolescents in that respect," Meyer said.

The report comes as county supervisors are set to consider renewing the food service contract for most of the camps. The board is scheduled to vote on the issue in two weeks.

The report is based on the commissioners' conversations with juvenile delinquents and probation employees at the six Challenger camps, which are named for the astronauts who died in the 1986 space shuttle disaster and house about 200 youths.

The report noted that youths seemed to like the lunch of breaded chicken, fried potatoes, carrot salad and Boston baked beans that was served the day they visited.

Still, the report's findings are similar to earlier county studies. Three years ago, evaluations found that nearly all of the department's juvenile facilities failed to provide adequate meals to minors who had special dietary needs, failed to meet minimum state and federal nutritional guidelines, and that fat made up more than 30% of weekly calories.

Conditions have improved since then, officials say. A similar report last year found that a majority of the problems had been corrected, although most camps still did not base their menus on federal and state nutritional guidelines, according to evaluations.

But one employee told the commissioners earlier this month that the fare was "the worst it has ever been," and several juveniles reported losing as much as 20 pounds even though they were taking psychotropic drugs that often lead to weight gain.

Probation officials said they weighed 10 juveniles who had spoken with the commissioners and that nine of them had gained weight since entering the camp. The other youth is 5 feet 7 and weighed about 235 pounds when he entered the camp and has since lost about 20 pounds, Meyer said.

County supervisors have delayed renewing a contract with the company that provides food services to the camps several times over concerns about the quality of the meals, and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he would like to reopen the bidding process.

"Competition is a cure for a lot of problems," he said.

jason.song@latimes.com

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