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Feeding a captive audience

12th Apr 2021 - 08:31
How to Source British in a Changing World’ is produced in partnership with Love British Food and Tried and Supplied

Published initially in the March issue of Public Sector Catering magazine, the second of our series taking a practical view of what it means for public sector caterers to buy British, or indeed local, Domini Hogg turns her attention to the prisons sector and how the UK’s 83,000 inmates are fed.

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (England and Wales), the Scottish Prison Service, and private operators between them operate 132 prison establishments in the UK. They house about 83,000 prisoners and are staffed by a workforce of more than 23,000 prison officers

When we came to look at how they are fed, the prison sector rather surprised us.

On a budget of just £2.15 a day per person, the prison catering service provides breakfast, lunch, dinner, bread and beverage packs. Their brief is essentially to cater for people who have little say in the food that they are served and, in most cases, probably aren’t interested in where it is sourced from.

In spite of this, the prison catering service can be regarded as is one of the furthest ahead in its strategy to serve local, nutritional food. It is the only sector that is able to supply precise figures about the extent of local sourcing across the whole sector.

It reports that 62% of the food it sources from Bidfood (1,121 different food lines across fresh, frozen and ambient) is home produced, and 100% of the bread it buys – all from Hovis - is UK produced.

The reason, in part, comes from the passion of one man - Al Crisci. Formerly the Prisons Catering Services Manager, and founder and former director of The Clink Charity, Al has just embarked on a new role as the operational lead for EU Exit and Covid-19 food supply contingency. In addition, he has responsibility for improving nutrition for HMPPS.

Al says: “I always start from the premise that the punishment in prison is losing the freedom, not becoming malnourished and sick.”

What are the challenges?

Low budget: Unsurprisingly the food budget for prisons is the lowest we have seen in the public sector, so nutritional impact is a hugely important factor when choosing what to purchase.

Vulnerability of prisoners: The fact that prisoners do not get out as much as other citizens, means they are particularly vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency. They may also have a tendency towards depression, suicide or aggression.

Bad eating habits: Prisoners have often already developed bad eating habits long before they are jailed. They may be used to grabbing something to eat in front of the TV without paying any attention to its nutritional value or the importance of social interaction at mealtimes.

What has worked well?

Operational simplicity: What is particularly notable about the catering set-up in prisons, is its simplicity. They have a centralised procurement process for all prisons and work with just two suppliers who cater for all their needs. Each prison has its own fully operational kitchens, with centrally-managed, in-house catering teams.

This simplicity has enabled prisons to establish a senior leadership team focused on improving their catering service as a whole.

Working with only two suppliers means that Al can focus on the strategy and pushing those suppliers to improve their product offering.

He says: “We deal with one supplier, but that supplier will work with SMEs throughout the country. It’s much easier for us to performance manage the SLA of one contract.

“If we said we wanted to lower the sugar level across several food lines, it’s one conversation nationally. We can also negotiate prices on a national level. A splintered approach would be much more difficult.”

Working with academics on nutritional impact: The prison services have actively sought out academics to work with them on nutritional research projects aimed at improving the quality of life for prisoners.

This is a win-win for both the prison service and academic researchers. Prison catering and other teams have access to a knowledgeable team to support them, while the researchers gain access to a relatively controlled environment in which to analyse and test theories at scale.

Al is currently working with Professor John Stein from Oxford University’s Institute of Food, Brain and Behaviour and Professor Jonathan Tammam, programme lead on nutrition at Oxford Brookes University.

Two of Professor Tammam’s students have been analysing the prison menus with the aim of coming up with nutritional recommendations. These recommendations are now forming the basis of new menu guidelines.

The menus will consider seasonality, UK produce, health and cost, although Al emphasises that cost won’t be the main driver.

He adds: “Chefs are better motivated when they aren’t told what to do. The guideline menus will serve as inspiration and advice. However we will still ensure that nutritional standards are met in line with PHE guidelines.”

A strong supplier partnership: Al has been working with Bidfood for almost two years, and during that time he has been channeling the focus onto sourcing seasonal, UK produce with high nutritional value that will also cater for a whole range of dietary requirements.

Until Covid-19 he was meeting with Bidfood every week. Below are two examples of cost-effective UK products that have been developed through this partnership to cater for prisoners’ nutritional needs.

Vitamins: Prisoners are typically deficient in vitamin D. As such they are defined as an ‘at-risk’ group and, in line with government recommendations, all prisoners have access to daily vitamin D supplements.

Not only that, but vegan prisoners are also often deficient in vitamin B12, selenium and iodine. Most vegans in society take daily supplements to counteract these deficiencies, so the prison catering service is working to provide the nutrition required through fortified foods rather than solely tablet supplements. Together with Radnor Water in Wales, they have developed a low-calorie drink enriched with vitamins B, C, A and D.

Omega-3: There is strong enough evidence to show that omega-3 can reduce mood swings, sadness and depression that the prison services have been persuaded to embark on a pilot study into the effects of omega-3 on reducing violence and suicides within prisons.

To do this, they needed to find a source of omega-3 that prisoners would eat regularly because although a typical daily menu will offer them five choices to cover a range of dietary requirements, if one of those choices is an oily fish that is rich in omega-3, prisoners will almost invariably choose a ‘more appealing’ option like a cheeseburger.

To get round this, they are working with suppliers to develop foods such as a bread roll fortified with omega 3, as well as creating a nutrition awareness programme that will aim to encourage prisoners to consider healthier choices such as oily fish and to avoid foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

Adds Al: “I think what I’m asking for will be beneficial not just for prisons, but also for schools and hospitals. This is encouraging Bidfood because they see the value.”

HMPPS is also piloting a digital platform (not online) which will provide nutritional information alongside menu items to track how this influences prisoner food choices.

Meet-the-buyer events: The supply chain needs to be robust and food has to be available when ordered, which means Brexit is putting even more focus on sourcing British produce.

Al says he expects to see the prison services’ 62% British-sourced figure with Bidfood rising rapidly over the next year or two. Already there are regular meet-the-buyer days when UK SMEs can present their products to Bidfood and prison catering teams, and a number of UK producers have already come on board in this way.

Prison farms: Until 2005 prisons were self-sufficient in pork, bacon, eggs, salad crops and milk, which were all produced on prison farms. Prison pork was regarded as some of the best in the country. Since then most farms have been closed, but Al says he is enthusiastic about restarting them. Already grow-your-own schemes are included in prisoner industries workshops. One prison, Prescoed in Wales, has its own farm where it has its own, large dairy herd, chickens are reared and prisoners help grow vegetables.

What can other public sector caterers learn from prison catering?

On the lowest budget of all, prison catering demonstrates the art of the possible. Importantly the service had clear data and can measure progress, so it can share successes more meaningfully. Prison farms could provide a model for school farms. Similarly, a digital educational menu could well be beneficial in schools. Other public sector caterers could consider how they might work more closely with academics on assessing the nutritional impact of their menus.

Key recommendations

•    Re-introducing prison farms
•    Knowledge-sharing with schools on farms and menus
•    Working more with farmers and academics to understand what regenerative UK farms could benefit from producing
•    Work with UK producers on the remaining 38% to understand what is and is not possible to produce in the UK and whether there could be alternatives
•    Consider offering local food processing services run by prisoners
•    Educate prisoners on nutrition, farming and cooking skills through courses and charitable programmes.

Love British Food is the leading promotion of British food in the food service sector. Alexia Robinson, its founder, has sat on the PSC100 for the last 3 years.

Tried and Supplied is a user-friendly sourcing and purchasing software for caterers looking to shorten their supply chain, reduce their risk, and increase their social impact.

Together they are working to identify opportunities for British SMEs in the public sector.


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