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Police have turned prepackaged snacks to feed inmates despite domestic law and international agreements stating that prisoners must be fed three square meals a day.

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Jenny Reid never worried much about her clients' dietary well-being before she started practising law in Woodstock, Ont.

Over a 27-year career in seven jurisdictions across the country, Ms. Reid had seen some gloomy variations of the generic bologna sandwich and apple served to most inmates in police custody, but nothing that ever caused alarm.

That changed when she began working in the 40,000-person seat of Oxford County last year. At one case meeting, she met a group of accused Toronto men who seemed more concerned with their own hunger than the serious counterfeiting charges filed against them, so she asked what they had eaten in police lock-up.

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"And they told they weren't given a meal, just a granola bar and apple juice," she said. "I'd never heard of that before. … When I raised it at a local bench and bar meeting, they tried to say it was an anomaly."

Over a number of subsequent cases, Ms. Reid learned that passing off granola bars as balanced meals was anything but an aberration – it was part of a detainee meal plan endorsed by the local public-health department.

Described as "woefully inadequate" by one prominent dietitian, the Woodstock meal plan mirrors efforts at several budget-conscious forces countrywide to save money by scrimping on food for detainees. Police in Vancouver, Halifax, Saint John and elsewhere have turned to prepackaged snacks to feed inmates despite domestic law and international agreements stating that prisoners must be fed three square meals a day.

"It's absurd to me that they think they can give a breakfast, lunch and dinner of granola bars," said Toronto-based lawyer Scott Reid (no relation to Ms. Reid), who has filed applications in several courts to have clients adequately fed in custody. "That doesn't address nutritional deficiencies. I fail to see how that is in any way proper nutrition."

In Woodstock, roughly 80 kilometres west of Hamilton, the granola plan has been in place since 2012 and went largely unchecked until Ms. Reid moved to the area. She wrote to the province about her concerns and received a letter in response placing full responsibility with the local municipality. When she took up the issue with Woodstock Police, they sent her a one-page document from Oxford County Public Health laying out a menu of recommended detainee meals centring on "cereal bars" and crackers.

The first menu recommendation consists of one to two cereal bars, a juice box and a package of nuts. Another suggestion is composed of a juice box, four to eight crackers and two tablespoons of peanut butter.

Susan MacIsaac, the Oxford County Manager of Health Promotion, told The Globe and Mail that Public Health was trying to work around a police stipulation that the meals be non-perishable. But she acknowledged the "meal suggestions" outlined in her department's "nutrition guidelines for prisoners" fall well short of conventional definitions of a meal.

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"Obviously it wouldn't be the intention for someone to have this for three meals a day," Ms. MacIsaac, a dietitian, said of the recommendations.

One independent dietitian offered a far harsher assessment. "The meal suggestions listed in the 'nutrition guidelines for prisoners' are shockingly inadequate," said Christy Brissette, president of 80 Twenty Nutrition. "These are amounts of food that would satisfy a small child, not a full-grown adult. … This document needs to be updated immediately by a registered dietitian."

Ms. Brissette estimated that one of the meal recommendations provides less than 200 calories and a surfeit of sodium. "Giving an adult 600 to 800 calories a day is starvation," she said. "These 'guidelines' are a perversion of Canada's Food Guide."

Unlike provincial and federal jails, police lock-ups generally keep inmates for less than 72 hours. For example, the average stay of an inmate at Woodstock Police Station is 7.34 hours, according to a 2015 audit.

The shorter terms do not reduce the state's legal obligations, however. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that every prisoner should be fed food "of nutritional value for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served."

Prior to 2012, Woodstock Police bought meals through a local restaurant. "It was quite expensive," said Constable Nikki VanLeeuwen, a Woodstock Police spokeswoman. "If someone is arrested at midnight or later and they're held for a bail hearing and then you order them breakfast, it can be 10 or 15 dollars per person."

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Last year, police in Saint John came to the same conclusion, replacing full meals with granola bars for an annual savings of $15,000. Halifax Regional Police, meanwhile, provide "an allergy-free energy bar and water as a meal," said Constable Dianne Woodworth, a spokeswoman for the force.

In Vancouver, detainees get a prepackaged bag with two bars and a drink, totalling 420 calories. Vancouver Police also provide Ensure meal-replacement drinks and burritos. Plus, they employ two nurses at all times.

Police in Winnipeg, Peel Region and Hamilton told The Globe that they offer some variation of a sandwich, fruit and beverage.

Ms. Reid said that while the shift away from balanced meals raises greater legal questions, the heart of the matter is far more concrete. "It's ridiculous to think we're even discussing this," she said. "Is a granola bar a meal? I think the answer is common sense."

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