By SCOTT MacLEOD

Prisons are feeding their inmates on less than $3.97 a day.

Menus obtained under the Official Information Act reveal the average cost of food for each inmate in the year to June.

The menus squash the myth of prisoners dining on fillet mignon, but have raised concerns about nutrition.

The Department of Corrections said it was testing a new menu that met nutrition guidelines, but one just-retired prison catering boss said it was almost impossible to feed inmates on the budgets provided.

The department started devising the new menu in January.

Most days the breakfast is Weetbix, Ricies or cornflakes, and the lunch is either two salad rolls or three salad or vegetable sandwiches. The dinner varies, but includes two vegetables and one fruit.

Former prison catering instructor Ian Pavitt, who resigned from Christchurch Prison this year, said the new menu sounded similar to the old one.

He had found prison food budgets "a wee bit unrealistic".

Mr Pavitt said the department spent less on feeding each prisoner now than it did 10 years ago - despite the rising cost of food.

It was possible to feed a prisoner on $4.10 to $4.20 a day, but having less than $4 was "nigh on impossible".

Mr Pavitt said inmates were not starving, but hated the typical fare of salad and pasta, rather than meat.

"In jail, they demand the best," Mr Pavitt said. "With pasta they say, 'We're not eating that wog [stuff]'."

A spokesman for the Howard League for Penal Reform, Peter Williams QC, said "nearly all" prisoners serving long sentences got sick from vitamin deficiencies, diet problems, lack of exercise and other jail conditions. It was "not a question of being over-liberal".

Corrections chief financial officer Richard Morris said the new menus were devised to meet Ministry of Health guidelines. Trials started in Canterbury prisons last month.

The NZ Dietetic Association ran nutrition checks for the Herald on the food intake for Monday, Week One of the new menu.

Association spokesperson Lyn Gillanders said an average-sized man aged 25 would receive all nutrients that day.

The only shortfalls were energy, at 82 per cent of the recommended daily intake, and zinc, at 89 per cent.

"It's all pretty good if you're a prisoner," she said. "They're getting healthy nutrition. They might come out with healthy eating habits."

Wendy Pedler of the Sensible Sentencing Trust said the menu was more than adequate. There were plenty of hard-working New Zealanders who ate worse than prisoners, she said.

The Herald approached Auckland hospitals for cost comparisons, but was told the food costs could not be separated from other expenses.

One hospital worker said the food costs were generally low, because of the economies of scale.

Documents obtained by the Herald showed that the ministry wanted the new menu to go national next month. The papers included a risk assessment strategy. It said the impact on success would be "high" if "inmates respond negatively to the pilot".

The department planned to reduce the risk by telling inmates it was important to have standardised menus that met health guidelines.

What's on the menu today?

The ration for a typical Thursday, during week one of the pilot menu.

* Breakfast:

Ricies (30g)

Toast (3)

Margarine (15g)

Vegemite (15g)

Bran (one dessert spoon)

Milk (300ml)

* Lunch:

Creamed corn sandwich

Lettuce and beetroot sandwich

Egg and mayonnaise sandwich

Fruit (1)

* Dinner:

Mince and cheese pie

Bread (2)

Margarine (15g)

Vegetables (2)

Fruit (1)

Tomato sauce

Potatoes

Sugar and tea with each meal