Meet Prison Food Reformer Lucy Vincent
CEO Lucy Vincent is a firm believer in the power of food to change lives in prison. Ambassador of Women In the Food Industry, Antonia Lloyd, finds out more about how Lucy came to found Food Behind Bars, the UK’s only registered charity dedicated to transforming the food served in British prisons, and why she is on a mission.
It’s statistically proven that by improving prisoners’ health and wellbeing through increased nutrition, violent offences can be reduced by 37%. In addition, with research showing that poor diet is linked to mental health issues and anyone obese being 55% more likely to suffer from depression, the charity’s philosophy of wholesome food for everyone in society is more than just humane. It could hold the key to alleviating the onset of depression, schizophrenia, ADHD and more.
Journalist Lucy first explored the subject of prison food in 2016 for an article in The Guardian which was a call to arms asking then Justice Secretary Liz Truss to step up to the plate in prison like Jamie Oliver had in schools. It followed a report released by HM Inspectorate of Prisons concluding that poor nutrition was contributing to the state of disorder, from Bedford to Belmarsh. This wasn’t isolated incidents such as a prisoner at HMP Northumberland staging a protest on a high railing after being served a cold meal, there were record high levels of assaults, violence and self-harm, and studies had found, “that nutritional supplements reduce disciplinary incidents, aggression and violent behaviour,”.
Frustrated by a lack of information, Lucy, having never set foot behind bars, started visiting prisons across the country, speaking with prisoners, inspectors and staff. “I was getting under the skin of the subject and the more I learned, the more I campaigned I suppose.” Lucy’s campaign snowballed and by 2020 she made the step to inaugurate the charity Food Behind Bars on a mission to bring about a better quality of prison food within the existing budget (3 meals for around £2.10 a day) by collaborating closely with kitchen teams, prisoners and staff – she wanted to empower catering teams to create a positive impact on prison life.
Fast forward 3 years and CEO Lucy and her Development Chef and Head of Food Education Nat Middleton work tirelessly to shape their work around each unique prison establishment offering practical food-based education, working with the catering teams on menus, promoting healthy eating, and establishing garden and growing projects that involve the prisoners.
To combat the fact that the entire UK prison service is served by one food supplier which delivers more than 50% of their produce from abroad in vast quantities and not of the best quality or seasonality, they have created a kitchen garden with fresh ingredients at HMP Swinfen, inroduced new menu options to transform the food culture at HMP Wealstun, even a 12 month butchery training course for the women prisoners to learn the fundamentals of nose-to-tail butchery with products for sale at the farm shop at HMP East Sutton Park.
Their brand-new initiative at HMP Bristol is a ground-breaking programme to break down barriers and promote cultural understanding through food. It’s designed off the back of a HMP Inspectorate report in December about the experience of black prisoners which highlighted the greater need for diversity of menus, more opportunity for prisoners to cook from their culture and, unusually, the recommendation for prisoners to eat together. Lucy set about planning it at HMP Bristol, “the ideal location with an ethically diverse prison population and almost 95% white prison force”.
Chef Nat designed three days of culinary workshops where half a dozen prisoners from West Africa, India, Turkey and Albania could explore diverse global food styles cooking everything from Japanese dumplings to Brazilian vegan feijoada, a Ghanian spiced fried plantain to curry chicken and roti. At the end the prisoners were asked to draw on their own heritage and cook a dish to share and eat together and serve to a member of the prison staff. Dishes included ‘rasta pasta’, a type of jerk corn pasta; jerk salmon, carbonara and they all opted to make extra rotis together following their session earlier in the week. It was the first of its kind: a shared meal bringing together prisoners and prison officers exploring cultural difference through food. This powerful cultural programme elicited an incredible response with some prisoners declaring it the best days of their prison life and showing “that difference can be beautiful.”
Dynamo founder Lucy Vincent has now landed an esteemed Churchill Fellowship 2023, given only to passionate changemakers, to spend a month in Scandinavia, exploring how prison food is approached in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Scandinavia is known for having the lowest reoffending rate in the world and a humane approach to criminal justice which also filters down to their approach to food – focusing on self-sufficiency, self-catering, communal dining and fresh, seasonal ingredients. With the prospect of this knowledge sharing leading to more great initiatives, it’s clear that the power of food to change lives behind bars is firmly in motion and only gathering more momentum.
Lucy Vincent will be documenting her trip and sharing updates on Food Behind Bars Instagram page, as well as releasing a public report at the end of it to share her findings. The charity will use this experience to incorporate positive practice into their work in the UK, hopefully generating change and introducing new ideas to some of their prison partners. Find out more at Food Behind Bars website.