Prisons vs. schools: Which is getting more of your money when it comes to meals?

Lunch at Waiawa Correctional Facility

You’ve probably heard of the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

We wanted to know who the state spends more on each day for a standard lunch, public school children or inmates. Who eats better? Which department is getting more of your money?

Of all the large expenses the Department of Education faces, feeding students ranks near the top. Even though the school lunch program is subsidized by the federal government, there is a hard cost for each and every meal served.

The same goes for inmates being fed by the Department of Public Safety. We learned both Hawaii prisons and public schools follow federal USDA guidelines aimed at providing fruit, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy with every meal.

So which one costs more?

The DPS dishes out roughly 13,000 meals each day and has an annual operating budget of about $10 million. In comparison, the DOE serves up approximately 100,000 meals every day with an annual budget of $108 million.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to feeding the kids,” said DOE food services manager Dexter Kishida. “There has been a lot of change over the last 15 years or so, especially lately, the cost is definitely an issue.”

In 2005, the cost to provide a lunch was only $3.00. Kishida says today, a single lunch costs the DOE $5.80.

Lunch at McKinley High School
Lunch at McKinley High School

Labor makes up the bulk of that total, but just food itself costs about $2.05 per meal. When it comes to quality, Kishida says there is no compromise.

“You’re not just grabbing a frozen dinner and throwing it in the microwave right?” KHON2 asked.

“No, no,” Kishida replied. “About 85 percent of our meals are cooked from scratch, so we bake from scratch. We actually have bakers that are at our production facilities in kitchens to bake everything from pizza crust to rolls.”

The same can be said for most state prison facilities. We checked out lunchtime at Waiawa Correctional Facility, where food services manager Alvin Okada beams with pride over what he serves.

“Today we have pork with squash and fresh vegetables from the farm, brown rice, two pieces of bread,” Okada told KHON2. “Yes, you have a healthy meal.”

Quality is also a priority for the food service team at the Waiawa prison, as well as the rest of the state’s correctional facilities. Okada points to a sign in the kitchen that reads: “If you’re not proud of your product, don’t serve it.”


“We follow that,” Okada said. “That’s the guideline for the workers, to be proud of what you cook, what you serve.”

Okada says cooking is something he does out of love and adds he wouldn’t do it any differently if he were cooking for school children or even the governor.

“No, I’d be cooking the same way we do for everybody,” said Okada. “Everybody takes pride so we can feed anybody.”

Unlike the Department of Education, labor costs in the prison system are low as the inmates take a lead role in preparing the food.

The actual food cost of each meal for the Department of Public Safety costs taxpayers about $1.85, roughly 20 cents less than school lunches.

While the public school system is working to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to its students, the inmates, at least at Waiawa, enjoy fresh produce with every meal. It’s true farm to table grown right in their own backyard.

One thing both the schools and the prisons have in common, they both do whatever they can to provide good nutrition and healthy choices, while trying to satisfy any and all health and special needs.

“If somebody’s diabetic or whatever, we will still give them a healthy diet,” said Okada.

“We deal with hunger and obesity all in the same community,” added Kishida, “so we’re providing a nutritious meal with lots of fruits and vegetables the kids love. It’s no small task.”

The DOE follows the nutritional standards outlined here, while the DPS follows USDA MyPlate guidelines.


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