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Food Matters publishes briefing paper on improving food in prisons

13th Feb 2024 - 04:00
A new briefing paper on food in prisons has been published by the campaign group Food Matters. David Foad talked to Victoria Williams, director of Food Matters, about the report and its recommendations.

David Foad: Can you tell me more about the work of Food Matters in prisons?

Victoria Williams: We work across the prison estate to help improve food systems in prisons. This means working with governors and catering managers as well as considering what other food is available within a prison, including the ‘canteen’ (prison shop) and growing projects. For prisoners, we provide education and advice around making better food choices in prison and beyond.

During Covid we developed food and wellbeing newsletters and an in-cell healthy eating course to support prisoners’ mental health during this difficult time and to help them make better food choices when ordering their meals. These in-cell materials were shortlisted for a Public Sector Catering Award in 2023.

DF: What leads you in the briefing to the conclusion that food can be part of the solution to criminal behaviour?

VW: We know that the nutritional quality of food can directly affect mental and physical health, both of which are key factors in recidivism. The nutritional quality can also affect behaviour in a prison setting – research has shown that better nutrition decreases antisocial behaviour in prisons. That’s why it’s important to ensure that food provided is nutritious, meaning catering staff need to be trained and have the resources to prepare healthy balanced meals. Also, prisoners need to have adequate knowledge to make healthier food choices.

Food provided by prisons is often viewed as part of the punishment, but we think it should be part of the solution when it comes to rehabilitating people serving custodial sentences. It should be an important aspect of a rehabilitative culture within prisons, which is one which promotes respect, decency and hope.

We know that where the food provided is poor it can put security at risk in a prison, because food is so important to the people serving sentences. When aspects of food are wrong – too small portions, or food just slopped onto a plate – it can result in unrest amongst a group of people who already have issues around emotional regulation.

Often the food cooked in central kitchens is perfectly good, but it suffers on its journey from kitchen to wing serveries, being held in heated trolleys for too long. One of the main reasons for disquiet is the way food is served at the servery, by prisoner workers who may have no interest in their job and no real training. This is also the place where bullying and intimidation can occur, with some prisoners losing out in portion sizes, leaving them hungry.

DF: Why do you think that the good practice you highlight exists only ‘within pockets’ of the prison estate?

VW: For our report, we used information from HM Inspector of Prisons and the Independent Monitoring Board who report their findings on all aspects of prison life including food. We also talked to other organisations which work in prisons, as well as using our own experiences of visiting prisons and talking to prisoners, governors and catering staff. From this we were able to see that food issues vary from prison to prison.

Our report talks about all aspects of food, not just the central kitchens, so this includes what goes on at the servery, as I’ve described above, as well as the canteen and growing food for use in the kitchens. Prisons used to be self-sufficient in producing food items like bacon, milk and vegetables but most of the farmland was sold off.

Only a few prison farms still exist, and they tend to sell the food they produce to the public rather than send it to the kitchens. We know that more growing is being encouraged across the prison estate and some catering managers use prison-grown vegetables, salad crops and fresh herbs in their kitchens, which adds variety to the meals they produce.

More home-grown vegetables also mean more opportunities for prisoners to train in horticulture and such outdoor activities really support mental health.

From the kitchen viewpoint, we know that catering staff are under a great deal of pressure and many prison kitchens are significantly understaffed, particularly since Covid. This undoubtedly impacts on how the kitchen runs and how much a catering manager is able to take that extra bit of time to produce food that is more than just fuel. Also, budgets for providing three meals a day remain tight, although some governors choose to top up the money allocated centrally from their own local budget.

We know there are many prisons, HMP Buckley Hall for example, doing excellent work. The catering manager and his team produce appetising and healthy meals which prisoners really appreciate. Also, throughout the prison, all staff understand the importance of healthy, appetising food, both for prisoners and staff alike. It is generally, a very positive food environment there.

The quality of training of prisoners working in kitchens is an important aspect of good practice – for example, whether they are just put onto mundane low-skilled tasks or whether they are trained in skilled tasks and study for an NVQ.

There are voluntary sector organisations like The Clink Charity and The Way Ahead which train prisoners in some prisons to work in the professional environment, cooking for the public. For example, Clink runs a restaurant and bakery at HMP Brixton and supports its catering students in finding jobs on release. It has shown this results in lower rates of reoffending.

DF: How did you decide who would be invited to take part in the briefing?

VW: Our briefing was initially informed by a roundtable workshop. We wanted to target the voluntary sector and other stakeholders who could speak frankly away from the prison environment. Jason Swettenham, who is Head of Industries, Retail, Catering and Physical Education Services for HMPPS came along to our follow-up roundtable to inform us about the innovative pilots taking place in various prisons relating to food production. We’ve separately had conversations with catering staff and with other stakeholders unable to attend.

DF: I’m curious that no actual caterers were involved. Why was that?

VW: As I’ve just explained, the first roundtable was for non-HMPPS stakeholders. We wanted to ensure that conversations could be frank, and it was easier to talk one-to-one to get the views of catering staff separately.  Additionally, we have spoken to and heard the views of a number of catering managers over the time we have worked in prisons.

DF: You make a point that food within prison should be seen not simply as a function but a ‘focal point’. What needs to happen to achieve this change in mindset?

VW: Overall, food needs to be recognised as part of the solution to rehabilitation and not part of punishment. It needs to be considered in all strategic frameworks concerning prisons, so that includes rehabilitation, security, health, mental health etc. Also, I think there is a lot to learn by looking at other countries like Denmark where food forms part of a normalised environment.

Prison catering staff need to feel more valued and they need more specialist training such as the importance of healthy menus in a prison environment. Some catering staff are recognised for their efforts through Butler Trust awards, which are specifically for prison staff, but I would love to see more prison staff and teams nominated for PSC awards and similar.

DF: The briefing includes a number of recommendations for the prison food system, so what happens next?

VW: We’ve already had conversations with HM Inspector of Prisons and the Independent Monitoring board about how they can be more involved in monitoring different aspects of food in prisons.

We’ll be talking to stakeholders from prison level up to HMPS HQ about which of the recommendations are do-able immediately. We want ministers and shadow ministers to see this report so that it gets on the government’s agenda.

DF: If you had to highlight one of them as the most important, which would it be?

VW: At the strategic level, food needs to be considered in all strategies and frameworks, including health, mental health, drug treatment, work and education and the prison environment to develop prison food systems that allow food to become a focal point rather than solely a function.

We would like to see future procurement contracts for catering and the canteen to provide greater flexibility around procuring local and seasonal produce, which supports the local economy and the environment.

At the prison level, governors and catering managers need to think outside the box, doing what they can with their limited resources. Best practice needs to be shared around more so all governors and catering managers can see what is possible eg. repurposing space for communal dining, which has been largely lost from prisons, or for a café which allows prisoners to experience some normality and for those working there to learn more skills such as baking and barista skills.

DF: Are you optimistic about change?

VW: From the aspect of the people who work in prisons, yes. They are enthusiastic about change and they want what is best for prisoners. They want those serving sentences to be rehabilitated and to go on to lead fulfilling lives away from crime. Many appreciate that getting food right in prisons plays an important role in a rehabilitative culture. Most catering managers buy into this too, but many are still hampered by understaffing, too-tight budgets and too little spare time to plan above and beyond the basics of sending out three meals a day.

What we really need to see is change at strategic policy level, and that can be trickier. But we’re in an election year, so this provides opportunities for potential governments to demonstrate commitments to a rehabilitative agenda.

Written by
David Foad