It’s every adolescent’s snack shack fantasy.
Pristinely stacked red and blue boxes are filled to the brim with the most coveted after-school eats — chocolate Zingers, jalapeño-flavored bagged popcorn, candy bars in several varieties and Kool-Aid powder.
Greg Boston picked up an individually wrapped dessert and held it out.
“I mean, who doesn’t love a Moon Pie?” he said before tossing the marshmallow-filled, chocolate-covered treat back in its pile.
Adolescents probably love a good Moon Pie (and the candy and the Zingers and the Kool-Aid), but this is not the school yard snack shack.
Housed in a 53,000 square-foot former Nabisco factory in Anaheim, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department runs its commissary — an operation in which thousands of inmates order up snacks to satisfy their sweet tooth cravings and affinity for all things salty.
They also can purchase other items such as shower shoes, lip balm and stationary for letters, along with over-the-counter medical supplies such as Band-Aids and individual packets of pain relievers.
The OCSD does not allow families to send care packages or snacks because there is too much of a risk for smuggling items in, Boston said.
As the OCSD’s Director of Inmate Services, Boston is tasked with running the well-oiled operation that employs 200 people, draws more than 1,000 volunteers and puts dozens of inmates to work to finish out their sentences.
The commissary brings in $9.5 million a year and costs about $8 million a year to run with food costs, employment and general business expenses.
The remaining $1.5 million is funneled back into the inmates’ welfare fund, which helps pay for some programs and services.
“This really is a business I run inside the county of Orange,” said Boston — a former OCSD special officer who holds a bachelor’s in business management and a master’s in public administration. “It is its own self-contained operation.”
The 10,000 square-foot front room is split by a conveyor belt that quickly moves orders along.
Behind that room is the warehouse — OCSD’s own version of Costco with pallets stacked five feet high with snacks.
“We’ll probably go through two pallets of Top Ramen a day,” Boston said.
Orders are filled by inmates in the Community Work Program (inmates who fit certain criteria to work off part of their sentence), then are checked by OCSD staff to make sure no extras were slipped in.
Staff also reviews each order because, in some cases, it can hint at a brewing problem at one of OC’s five facilities, Boston said.
“They know we shut down operations for 24 hours if something breaks out so if we see a lot of large orders and from the same facility, it could mean a fight is coming,” he said. “We’ll call over to the deputies and give them a heads up, just in case.”
That’s rare, however.
For the most part, the inmates stick to ordering from the bubble sheet three times a week.
They choose from 126 items priced similar to buying items at a convenience store such as 7-11 or Circle K.
Most candy bars run at about $1.40, with crackers and pretzels priced at $1.05.
The cheapest item on the list: a pencil for 10 cents.
The priciest: over-the-counter heart burn medication that costs $25 and change.
Top Ramen, bagged popcorn and Snickers have clinched the top three spots for most popular items for many years now, Boston said.
He acknowledges that the well-organized aisles of the commissary would likely make a health-conscious outsider cringe, but — like any good business — they stock what sells.
“We’ve tried incorporating healthier items, especially when we get requests from family members on the outside,” Boston said. “But they don’t move. They just sit here and go bad.”
Inmates have access to three square meals a day where they can nosh on healthier food options, anyway, he added.
Though they have some healthier versions of granola bars and crackers, inmates trend toward choosing sugar-laden or spicy snacks.
The demand for sweet treats is an easy one to explain, Boston said.
“About 85 percent of our inmates have some kind of substance abuse problem, and when you’re coming down off of something, sugar can help curb those side effects,” he said.
For those not battling addiction issues or opting instead for for salt bombs bagged in foil wrapping (aka Funyuns), the likely explanation for the sale-driven food picks: They simply taste good.