The other week I put a set of photos on Instagram of a vast, dilapidated old greenhouse set within some wild and unruly grounds. The whole thing was surrounded by barbed wire fencing which was the only indication of where this imposing greenhouse was actually located - in a prison. It takes up the corner plot of HMP Swinfen Hall, a category C prison in Staffordshire housing over 600 male adult and young offenders. Last year, I visited the prison for the first time - they had asked me and my charity, Food Behind Bars, to set up a food committee in the prison so that the prisoners and the catering team could work more collaboratively on the menus and the food served. My ears pricked up when one of the officers mentioned a barely-used greenhouse on the prison land. Could I see it? Why was it barely being used? And could we use it to grow food?
One year later and here I am being inundated with kind messages, offers of support and interested volunteers in reaction to my Instagram post. I have long been a believer that food brings people together but this greenhouse was already proving that that was not just limited to the food we eat, but the food we grow too. That first visit to the prison sparked something inside of me that has ultimately led to where we are today: about to embark on a 12 month project in the prison, renovating the greenhouse, transforming it into a kitchen garden and delivering a programme of food education in the prison kitchen alongside. It’s one of three food-based projects we are launching in a set of prisons from Hertfordshire to Yorkshire this Autumn, each united by my goal to transform the food culture of our entire prison system.
But how did I get here in the first place? My journey into prison food wasn’t straightforward and it certainly wasn’t planned. I trained as a fashion journalist and by my early to mid twenties I was becoming disenchanted with the industry and more and more consumed by my part-time restaurant jobs. I became more engaged in political issues and my writing soon shifted from fashion to food. Food had been a focal point for me since a young age - I learnt to cook by watching back-to-back episodes of Come Dine With Me on Sunday afternoons after my job at the village pub. When I was 13, my parents split up and mealtimes changed. My mum worked full time so I took it upon myself to make the evening meal every night and I became a dab hand at cooking inventive food with a tight budget. I used to sit and do the online Tesco shop with my mum, scouring the web for resourceful recipes and budget-friendly swaps - chickpeas instead of meat in a curry, cans of Heinz tomato soup in a tuna pasta bake. Now I am developing recipes for a budget of £2.10 per person, per day (for three meals) and I can’t help but feel it has all come full circle.
In 2016, a report was released by HM Inspectorate of Prisons entitled “Life in Prison: Food”. It was the first of its kind, assessing food standards in prisons up and down the country and ultimately drawing the conclusion that prison food wasn’t good enough. The quality and quantity was having a real impact on issues in prison that were already at breaking point: safety, mental health, behaviour, wellbeing, reoffending. The journalist in me read the report and knew there must be more to the story. I started writing about prison food and educating myself by speaking to people who had experienced it firsthand. The very first person I spoke to, Sophie, was in prison for 3 years and put on 5 stone. Her prison diet consisted of measly breakfast packs, lots of carbohydrates and minimal fresh fruit and veg. The fruit and veg she did eat was either mouldy, overripe or overcooked. Her self esteem and mental health took a nosedive, she was prescribed laxatives (along with the rest of her wing) and she felt sluggish all day, everyday. The first thing she did when she was released was head to Morrisons to make up a fresh salad and some chicken breast which she ate on the train home.
I was hearing replicas of Sophie’s story again and again, so I decided to do something about it. I started Food Behind Bars, the UK’s national campaign to improve prison food, with the hope that by raising awareness of this underrepresented issue, it might just galvanise some change. Four and a half years later and we are now the only charity dedicated to the issue. We became a charity in the middle of the pandemic and I worked relentlessly for a year to secure some funding so that we could roll out the work I had spent years thinking about. I never intended for Food Behind Bars to become an ‘official’ organisation, but the more time I spent at the forefront of the issue, the more convinced I was that an organisation like mine needed to exist.
Food is a political issue and there is nowhere that this is felt more than in our public services. Hospitals, schools, prisons, care homes - none of them have historically been known for serving the best quality food possible, and yet these are the spaces that need it the most. But unlike schools and care homes, prisons have the added layer of public perception that, in my view, has held back any potential progress in improving the food. Firstly, no-one really knows what the food is like in prison (and most haven’t eaten it), so it’s easier to turn a blind eye. Secondly, the sector is underfunded, undervalued and understaffed, which inevitably impacts the food. Thirdly, the media tends to tarnish anything to do with prisons with a sensationalist brush which leaves the decision makers at the top afraid of making any real change.
Prison meals are planned by catering managers who head up each kitchen and manage the workforce which is always made up of prisoners. They have just over £2 to spend and are locked into a centralised system with one national supplier. Although this helps with bringing the cost down, it can stifle creativity and seasonality - kitchens can’t work with a local supplier like a restaurant would so more often than not, menus can get repetitive and uninspiring. Only half of the ingredients available are from the UK and most of the meals are made in advance and reheated for ease and efficiency. They are loaded onto hot trollies - one per wing - which are then transported across the prison grounds to whichever servery they are heading to. Prisons are vast and sometimes this journey can be long - most prisoners tend to agree that the quality would be improved if the meals were served onto a plate, fresh from the oven. But prisons haven’t been designed to mimic our lives on the outside and that means that for many, the food culture can feel isolating and detrimental to their wellbeing. Meals are eaten behind the cell door and by early evening, prisoners are usually firing up their kettles to cook a bowl of spicy noodles using ingredients they’ve bought from canteen or salvaged from their dinner.
The issue of prison food is a mammoth challenge and I’ve yet to prove it can be tackled. But it is part of a wider question around our food system as a whole and how we feed everyone in society, regardless of their circumstance. I’ve seen bins full of uneaten meals and met prisoners who have told me they have never eaten the food from the servery - choosing to whip up their own meals in their cell instead. When budgets are so tight, the idea of waste can be infuriating. That person’s £2.10 is still being spent, but his meal is going in the bin because he doesn’t enjoy the quality and would rather cook something better himself. If we made prison food healthier, more wholesome, more exciting and more delicious, would we be throwing so much away?
Likewise, creating self-sufficiency in prisons is a no-brainer and something I have seen done successfully at prisons from Scrubs to Stafford. Thriving polytunnels situated on empty acres of prison land can provide the perfect solution to the lack of seasonal, locally-grown ingredients and the need for healthier food. I’ve seen brilliant catering managers build herb gardens and send their kitchen workers down to the greenhouse to pick up some tomatoes for the day’s lunch. Prisoners work on the land where they learn practical skills, benefit from being outdoors and using their hands, whilst understanding our food system and the environment on a deeper level. It goes without saying that this will have a lasting impact on their lives outside of prison.
I’ve always believed that everyone in society has the right to a good meal. I also believe we all have the right to learn to cook and to grow food. Prisons are not immune from this right, in fact, they could benefit the most from cooking, eating and growing fresh, wholesome and delicious food. If we achieve that, everyone in society will feel the benefits. I’m hopeful we’ll get there one day and if Food Behind Bars plays a small part, I will have done my job. Right, back to building this kitchen garden….