A new charity's campaign to improve food behind bars

Education initiatives, healthy-eating drives and a cooking competition are helping to transform the meals served in British prisons

Lucy Vincent
A report assessing food standards in the country’s prisons led Lucy Vincent to set up Food Behind Bars  Credit: Food Behind Bars

Four years ago, journalist Lucy Vincent read a report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons. Life In Prisons: Food was the first of its kind in Britain, assessing food standards in the country’s jails and young offender institutions. The findings showed the situation was woefully inadequate.

The “food was doing nothing to support the health and well-being of prisoners and in some instances it was degrading it further,” explains Vincent. “Prison food is very carb-heavy. There’s often not a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. Portion sizes are an issue, too: in 80 per cent of cases, the breakfast pack that prisoners are given at dinner the night before gets eaten during the night because people are hungry.”

After reading the report, Vincent began campaigning. She spoke to ex-offenders and visited prisons, quickly realising how important food is to life behind bars: mealtimes provide structure, working in the kitchen provides training to inmates, and a poor diet can undermine other initiatives. “Eating something that’s very heavy and going into a cell afterwards until the evening leaves people feeling sluggish, which has a huge impact on mood and behaviour,” she adds.

This July, Food Behind Bars, founded by Vincent, became a registered charity working to improve the lives of prisoners through education and promoting healthy eating. Its first big project as a charity was to organise a recipe competition with HMP Brixton. “Prisons have been on a restricted regime since lockdown started, with no family visits, no education, no work, and prisoners restricted to cells 23 hours a day. I wanted to give them something creative to do,” Vincent explains.

Inmates of HMP Brixton were asked to create a recipe within the national daily prison-food budget (£2.10 per prisoner, which would normally cover the cost of three meals a day). Forty recipes were submitted, and judged (virtually, thanks to Covid-19), by chef Asma Khan, restaurateur Chris Galvin, and Tim Anderson, chef-owner of Nanban, a Japanese restaurant just 10 minutes away from the prison. Three finalists cooked their dishes in the prison’s kitchen to be tasted by its governor.

Inmates of HMP Brixton were asked to create a recipe within the national daily prison-food budget (£2.10 per prisoner) as part of the charity's campaign to improve prison food Credit: Food Behind Bars

The winning dish – a Bangladeshi chicken curry with cheesy tandoori flatbreads – is now on the menu at Nanban (where £1 from every curry sold goes to Food Behind Bars), and its creator will enjoy a week-long training course at one of Galvin’s restaurants. Two more prisons have since signed up to run similar competitions, and Vincent is lining up bigger projects: establishing prison food committees, building kitchen gardens on prison grounds, and working with more chefs to create healthier dishes for inmates.

She is often asked, “why do prisoners deserve this?”, and has a firm reply: “A healthy diet is a basic human right. You have to ask yourself: what is the purpose of prison? For me, it’s an opportunity to equip individuals with skills and knowledge to come out and lead a better life. I’m not saying that changing the diet of prisoners is going to change the way prisons are run, but it will have an impact. It really is the small things which make a big difference.”

Learn more at foodbehindbars.co.uk