Ex-Mayor Serves Prisoners 10,000 Meals a Day : North Kern Prison: As food services supervisor, he heads a staff of about 30. He rarely has time or a desire to mingle with the customers.
When Leonard T. Velasco tells people he’s been in prison since 1990, their eyes normally get as large as silver dollars, and they silently wonder what heinous crime he committed.
Did the former Delano mayor run off with the city treasury? Did he take a bribe?
“I try to explain to them it’s my job,” Velasco said. “I am very proud of my work.”
Velasco, 63, a former food manager in the Earlimart School District and three-time mayor of Delano, was a local restaurateur throughout the 1970s. His small Filipino-American restaurant was the centerpiece for idle chitchat, midday dining and banquet dinners.
But now, as the food services supervisor for North Kern State Prison, he heads a staff of about 30 who serve more than 10,000 meals a day. He rarely has time or a desire to mingle with the customers.
Prisoners “are always complaining about the food even though this is better than the food many of them would get on the outside,” he said.
The prison menu is comparable to high school cafeteria food, Velasco said. Salisbury steak, hamburgers, ribs and baked chicken are the norm for the 4,200 inmates.
“We order about 2,500 pounds of rice and beans a week and about 800 pounds of beef per day,” Velasco said.
For breakfast, inmates go through about 9,000 biscuits a day and wash them down with approximately 7,300 gallons of milk a week.
“I think the only time you really worry is during the meals, because there are so many prisoners together at one time,” he said, adding that more than once he and his staff have had to seek refuge in the prison kitchen as guards locked down the inmates.
“I really don’t think too much about it now,” said his wife, Estelita. “I think at first I worried, but now it’s just like any other job.”
After emigrating from the Philippines in 1956, Velasco and his wife worked in the fields and got their start in food service by volunteering as camp cooks for up to 150 people in migrant labor camps.
“It was a fun time,” recalled Estelita Velasco. “It was a very close-knit group of people, and I don’t think we ever really realized just how hard it actually was.”
Velasco later became a farm labor contractor, then bought a Delano restaurant in 1972.
“We basically saved our money, borrowed a little here and there and took a chance,” he said.
The same year, he became the Kern County community’s youngest councilman ever.
“We were blessed with the chance to host Benigno Aquino in our home here in 1972,” he said. “He had been elected the youngest senator in the Philippines and I was the youngest councilman. My wife joked that we had the two most up-and-coming Filipino politicians under one roof,” he recalled.
Just as most Americans remember what they were doing when told of the news of the death of John F. Kennedy, the couple say they recall the day of Aquino’s assassination on Aug. 21, 1983, as if it were yesterday.
“I still get butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it,” said Mrs. Velasco. “It was just such a shame. He was such a bright young man with such a bright future.”
Now, despite the fact that Benigno Aquino’s wife, Corazon, went on to become president of the Philippines, the idea of returning to Velasco’s homeland stirs mixed emotions.
“My youngest daughter, Elizabeth, is against it, but eventually I’d like to go back and start a business there,” Velasco said.
“I could take about six months,” said Mrs. Velasco, “but after that I’d get bored.”