One of the dishes on the menu is butternut squash—halved and slowly roasted until sweet and tender—served with a sauce made from fresh tomatoes and chilli. On the side, there is nutty brown rice. This is the kind of food that chef Kirk Haworth might serve in his restaurant space in East London or develop as part of his food design and consultancy work. But he has come up with this vegan and gluten-free recipe with a very different setting in mind.
Haworth joins a roster of chefs and food writers who have donated recipes to the kitchens at a women’s prison in Surrey—part of an effort by Food Behind Bars campaigner Lucy Vincent to radically transform both the reputation and the reality of prison food.
When Lucy first started campaigning to improve the quality of prison food, she’d never even been in a prison. Like so many of us, she had a sense that prison food might not be great, but she hadn’t yet been mobilised to really care about these shortcomings, let alone campaign to make things better.
We are, as a society, partial to stories where there are clear victims and clear villains: narratives like the one that helped Jamie Oliver overhaul school food, highlighting the plight of innocent schoolchildren in the face of underfunding and poor policy. The food budget in hospitals, meanwhile, is on average about five times that of prisons (although much work remains to be done). But when prisoners—often with complex histories and uncertain futures—complain about the quality of the food they’re served, these stories are seldom heard.
It took a 2016 Prison Inspectorate report on food in prisons to spur Lucy into action. In it, prisoners recalled “vegetables boiled to death” and “too much salt”. Others talked about being left hungry after meals, not sustained either emotionally or physically by the small portions and poor quality of the food they received. “I read about this food that was not doing enough to nourish prisoners,” Lucy told me, “and was even damaging their health.”
She set up Food Behind Bars with a simple aim: improve the variety, taste and nutritional value of prison food, and—hopefully—see the health and happiness prisoners improve in turn. The process hasn’t been easy. The budget that she must work to is a little over £2.00 per person per day, and government contracts set tight limits on the kinds of foods she can source, and the suppliers she can use. But where there are boundaries, creativity thrives.
Elly Curshen, AKA Elly Pear and the author of four cookbooks expounding the joys of healthy, home-cooked food, has offered a recipe for a spiced red lentil soup with cheesy spring onion pittas. Chef and school food campaigner Nicole Pisani has shared her Moroccan-style chicken with turmeric rice and lemon yoghurt. I’ve donated a recipe for a coconutty fish curry spiked with sour tamarind, while chef Andrew Clarke has devised a Mexican-style verde chicken dish.
The recipes are being trialled at an inner London prison soon. If they do well, they’ll move to the kitchens of the women’s prison in Surrey, with prisoners and staff taught how to cook and serve the new menu. For the first time in a long time, people there are excited about prison food. Those of us outside the prison system should be, too.
“We think of prisons as separate,” Lucy told me, “but I see every person in prison as someone who was, and will be, part of the community. That affects every one of us.”
There’s more focus now than ever on the ethics of what we eat. But Lucy’s project has shown me that as well as looking back down the production chain – to farming, fair trading and provenance – we also need to turn our focus forward to who is nourished by that food (and who isn’t).
Ethical food is as much about the mouths it feeds as it is about the food itself. That means you, me, prisoners, school kids, people in hospitals, city dwellers and rural farmers alike. We all share this big, troublesome food system. Let’s at least make it taste good.