What the food is really like in prisons, hospitals and the army

Can you really believe what the TV shows say about prison food?

Can you really believe what the TV shows say about prison food? Photo: Netflix

Ever wondered what – and how – prisoners, patients and soldiers are fed? Meals on mass is a daily logistical issue for large institutions like prisons, hospitals and army barracks.


Film critic Jim Schembri says there are many food scenes in movies from which we draw our assumptions of what prison food is like.

“Prison food plays a bit part in the 1980 Robert Redford movie Brubaker. The food is crap and plopped onto the plates contaminated with maggots. One of the prisoners tells Brubaker (Redford) to eat it because it’s full of protein,” Mr Schembri says.

And it seems that fictional depiction wasn’t far off reality. In 1978, the Nagle Royal Commission reported that at the worst maximum security prisons in New South Wales the food was “at best unpalatable and at worst not fit for human consumption”.

However, one of the recommendations made nearly 40 years ago by the commission was the employment of a dietician to ensure that “the dietary standards of food was adequate”.

Indeed ‘adequate’ was the word used by a Corrective Services NSW spokeswoman when asked about the meal standards recently.

“All meals provide adequate nutrition and comply with legislated food and health requirements.”

So, it’s food without fanfare.

However, menus can be modified for religious and cultural reasons to meet the needs of individual inmates.

Each day, over 30,000 meals covering breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at 32 correctional centers across NSW to 10,000 inmates.

The food is supplied by Corrective Services Industries, a commercial arm of CSNSW, which not only grows, tends and processes the food, but employs inmates to do this.

Corrective Services Industries is very industrious and each year produces or processes around 120,000 kg of fresh beef; 338,000 kg of vegetables; 1.3 million apples, 1.8 million litres of fresh milk; 1.5 million loaves of bread and 1 million pies and sausage rolls.

The army

The Australian Defence Force Academy located in Canberra has four dining areas, known as Messes, delivering meals to members according to rank.

The ADF has a policy of feeding its members to the best possible standard, according to a Defence spokesperson. 

“ADF members receive foods that provide the level of carbohydrate they need to fuel vigorous physical activity, protein for muscle maintenance, repair and growth, and vitamins and minerals to support health and physical and cognitive performance.”

In addition, the ADF recognises the important role good food plays as a morale booster for troops both in the barracks and on the field.

Consequently, a seasonal six-week cyclic menu aims to provide a good variety of nutritious and appealing meals.

Vegetarian, halal and low fat meals options are available. In addition, themed food nights are held regularly as a way keeping meal times interesting.      


Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital has been fixing kids for over 140 years. Good nutrition is of course a vital part of a patient’s recovery but each child’s nutritional needs – plus their ability to eat – must be accommodated.

Dr Heather Gilbertson, Manager of Nutrition at Food Services at The Royal Children’s Hospital says that the menu is designed by specialist dietitians and an executive chef.

“Therapeutic diets are prescribed by dietitians and the meals provided to all inpatients are determined by the diet code entered by the nursing staff.”

While patients can’t get seconds because food is cooked fresh from a food service distribution system, they do have the option of ordering a larger serving size.

Patients also have access to additional food supplies in the ward pantries if they are still hungry, and the RCH also has several cafes and an onsite supermarket.

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