Prison Food: Cheaper than FoodtoEat

By Maria Laposata

As a college student, I try to keep my daily food expense around $0, and, every day, I fail with reinvigorated bravado.

Somehow though, over a million Americans every day eat for $2.30, tops.

Wait, what?

The missing piece of information here is these people are all members of America’s healthy prison population, and their food is so cheap for a number of reasons, most of which I’m incapable of replicating.

Let’s talk numbers for a second. As of 2005, prisons were at 111% capacity, with some states like California hitting 141%. So, it’s safe to say that prisons are full. The issue is that prisons are constantly getting full-er. That 2005 statistic represents a 10% increase in prison population since 2001.


With large growth in population and budgets growing at a much, much slower pace, prisons find ways to cut costs—food costs. In 2001, prisons spent $955 on food per inmate per year—that’s $2.62 per day. In 2005 that number fell to $2.30. Places like North Carolina even managed to reach $0.52 per inmate per day.

Again, what?

There are a few explanations as to why prison food is so inexpensive. The go-to answer is that it’s all some form of disgusting broth/slime. But that’s apparently not completely true.

The New York Times claims that many prisons eat the same foods we do, but their method of production is different. I might put my leftovers in a ziplock bag. Prisons “regethermically” freeze everything. Nothing goes to waste, no nutrients are lost, and they cut their expenses by around 15%.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics features another explanation involving prison-operated farms and food processing centers with the helpful interplay of economies of scale.

More recently, NPR featured a story claiming most food was “canned, frozen, or fried.” (Cases of botulism in the past year would back up NPR.)

I would imagine that all of these explanations are responsible for the low costs to some extent. Cost of food per inmate varies widely across the country, implying that different strategies are used in different states.

Hilariously, as prison food costs decrease, requests for Kosher meals increase. Clark County Jail says that, in 2011, 1% of their inmates requested Kosher meals, which they are, by law, committed to honor. In 2013, 10.8% of their prison population requested Kosher meals.

I highly doubt so many Orthodox Jews were arrested in the past two years. It’s much more likely that the request for Kosher meals says a lot more about the state of the non-Kosher cooking.  Again, point for NPR.

Food innovation in prisons isn’t limited to cost reduction though. Prison food is also used as punishment.  The “Food Loaf” has been the subject to multiple court cases, in which prisoners argue their 8th amendment right was violated, subjecting them to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The “Food Loaf” is a mix of pretty tasteless foods (cabbage, oatmeal, etc.) with no seasoning. It doesn’t sound like cruel and unusual punishment, but, by multiple accounts, it makes you sick and is, all in all, disgusting.


Prisons are also helping their inmates to break into (har har har) the food industry after they are released. As of 2005, 956 of the 1,821 prisons in the U.S. had some form of vocational training program. The Northeastern Correctional Center has a restaurant open to the public staffed with inmates who are in a food service training program. This program model even hopped across the pond and is being integrated into prison culture in the U.K. One training program cites recidivism rates of only 12.5% among those who participated—compared with 47% nationally.

A hundred and fifty years ago, meals in prison were made from scratch every day. With the increases in both technology and population, such culinary nostalgia is misplaced. While I’m sure my wallet looks at the state penitentiary’s food budget today with a mix of envy and pain, my stomach is still thinking about “Food Loaf.” At least now I know what to serve my brothers next time I make dinner.

DailyFoodtoEat is the official blog of FoodtoEat, a sustainable online food ordering and concierge catering service featuring your favorite restaurants, food trucks and caterers. Check out the deliciousness here:

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