Illinois plan to change canteen suppliers may hurt small business

At present, each Illinois prison deals with its own suppliers to stock their respective canteens. However, after studying the current processes for almost three years, the state is considering centralizing the bidding process. It may even choose only one company, and out-of-state one at that, to handle this task. This could end up causing problems for more than one small business.

Supplying prisons with items such as Ramen Noodles and toothbrushes is a multi-million dollar business in Illinois. In 2011, prisoners spent nearly $30 million on these items, with a good portion of the profit going to small businesses. Recently, the state realized that there are problems with the current bidding process and delayed it for at least a month to reassess the process and make it more fair.

Currently, the largest supplier to the state's prisons is a coffee company out of St.Louis, Missouri. That company has 30 percent of the market, which leaves approximately 180 companies to grab a piece of the remaining 70 percent. Up to this point, the bidding process has been more informal across the institutions, allowing hundreds of companies the chance to do business within the prison system. There is concern that a centralized process could leave the door open for one large company to swoop in and take control.

Without changes to the proposed centralized bidding process, a small business simply cannot compete. The state hopes that the winning vendor or vendors will subcontract with smaller, local commissary providers to fulfill the needs of the state's prison canteens. However, there is skepticism that this will actually take place. Small businesses are still considered by many to be the lifeblood of many state economies. Fighting for the rights of those small businesses could become a full-time job if the proposed bidding process does not function as the state intends.

Source:, Changes in prison canteens draw concern, Kurt Erickson, Nov. 17, 2013

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