Food Behind Bars: In Conversation with Lucy Vincent

'Good food in a prison is important because it alone can do something to improve morale and thus make troubles and riots less likely' - William Whitelaw 1989

The provision of food in prisons has always been a thorny issue. The line between sustenance; the fuel we need to exist contrasts sharply against the food we eat for enjoyment. Life on the inside removes any consideration of choice or autonomy, something that over the past two years the campaigner and journalist Lucy Vincent, Founder of the nationwide campaign Food Behind Bars, has become all too aware of.

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After stumbling across the subject of prison food in an official report by HM Inspectorate of Prison, titled Life In Prison: Food, Lucy was moved to create Food Behind Bars to reform the way Britain feeds its inmates. Speaking to those on the inside exposed her to the bleak reality of what food in prison is really like. Reduced budgets, little or no concern for dietary requirements and sub-standard food was a common occurrence and brought to light the psychological and societal impact of the current standards.

Beyond the simple act of eating, food plays a key role in our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Humans are accustomed to the social interaction that goes hand in hand with sitting around the table with others. Our choice and control over the food we consume is also a reflection of our personal identities.

For those serving prison sentences, mealtimes are often a focal point of the day, which is why Lucy is so passionate about ensuring that not only are standards of prison food improved but that meals are nutritious and healthy, given the strong links between a balanced diet and mental wellbeing.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Lucy about why she was moved to create Food Behind Bars, the issues that matter to her as a journalist and why food continues to be a divisive issue often determined by opportunity, education and class.

Why was the main inspiration behind establishing Food Behind Bars?

It all started with an official report that was released by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in 2016. I stumbled across it by chance after spotting it in the news. It assessed food standards across public prisons in the UK. The report essentially addressed the question of whether the food served in prisons was nutritionally adequate and, if not, was poor diet contributing to some of the daily issues that affect prison life?

I read the whole thing cover to cover. The report concluded that there was a potential link between diet and behaviour and an improvement in food could leave to an improvement in the way prisons operated. I thought the least I could do was start talking about this issue and come to my own conclusion. Quite soon after I wrote a feature on what women ate in UK prisons and after it was published, it was actually my friends who told me to launch a campaign. Like most decisions in my life I put very little thought into it and instead just got on with it, and that was how Food Behind Bars started.

What was it about the subject matter that spoke to you as a journalist? Why this cause in particular?

If I’m honest, the subject touched upon two topics I’ve always been passionate about - one being food and the other being marginalized groups in society. It brought the two issues together in a way that chimed with my own personal belief that food has the power to change lives, or, if neglected, could further impact the lives of these already vulnerable individuals.

The journalist in me also relished the fact that no one was talking about this subject. There was literally a smattering of information on the internet - much of it from the US - and very few personal accounts that weren’t sensationalized. I felt there was an opportunity to expose some true stories, highlight an important subject and reinforce the idea that food isn’t purely fuel - this is something that can impact our behaviour, our mental health, our relationships and our quality of life, for better or for worse.

Design by  Jack Bedford

Design by Jack Bedford

You have spoken a great deal about the impact that food can have on individuals and on society, what are some of your earliest memories of food and what has been the impact of these formative experiences?

I’d say it wasn’t so much my earliest memories of food that have had the biggest impact on my relationship with food today, but there was definitely a significant turning point in my childhood that changed my attitude towards the way I ate. My parents split up when I was 13 and budget suddenly started to play a huge part in what was in the fridge. I helped ease the pressure that my mum was facing by offering to make dinner most nights and this is where I really learnt to cook. I’d obsessively watch episodes of Come Dine With Me, study Jamie Oliver’s every move and sit and do the online Tesco shop with her every week.

On the one hand, there was something so liberating about being giving free reign in the kitchen every night. I remember lots of disaster dishes during that period. On the other hand, money was a major issue so I had to be super restrictive. Our favourite dish at this time was tomato soup pasta bake - pasta in a sauce of Heinz tomato soup and tuna with cheese on top, baked in the oven. So delicious. I still make it today. Learning to eat a healthy, balanced diet on a shoestring and knowing how to cook was possibly the best lesson I learnt and one that remains ingrained in me.

What are some of your worst food experiences from the time you have spent researching in prisons?

The first individual I ever spoke to about prison food was a woman called Sophie and her story really stuck with me. She put on a considerable amount of weight during her time in prison, simply due to the carb-heavy diet, lack of fresh fruit and veg, lots of time spent in her cell, minimal exercise and supplementing her diet with sugary convenience food so she didn’t go hungry.

This is a pretty standard picture of prison diet. Gaining around 3 stone left her self esteem at a low point, despite already having a low opinion of herself for being in prison in the first place and being separated from her children. She was convinced that the food she was eating was not just having a physical effect, but impacting her mental health too. She’d work in the prison garden growing vegetables, only for them to be sent out to a local restaurant to be used instead.

This might seem like small thing, but in an intense environment like prison everything is magnified. The first thing she did when she was released was head to the supermarket to make herself up a chicken salad to eat on the train home. It shouldn’t be the case that people are left to rebuild their health (both mental and physical) after release - surely rehabilitation is about doing the opposite?

Do you think enough has changed in the prison system as far as access to healthy meals and prisoner wellbeing is concerned?

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface! It’s a monumental task and one that could take a lifetime to change. I feel as though we are edging closer to a complete rethink as to how prisons are run in the UK, and this comes from the fact they're in such crisis right now. I’m hopeful for future prison reform in this country and I’m also hopeful that prisoner wellbeing will be central to it.

Are there any moments during your researching of prison food that have stood out, or that you have affected you?

Helping serve lunch in one of the first prisons I visited. I was in the kitchen as the team showed me how they get 1500 meals served during the lunchtime period. Coming down to one of the wings to help out, I could see just how important mealtimes were, regardless of the quality of the food. Food is one of the very few things in life that naturally brings people together, and in an environment where the hours stretch ahead of you, the simple prospect of lunch is an integral part of the day. One individual in prison explained this to me by saying that even though they knew the chips served every Friday would be soggy and disappointing, everyone still got excited at the prospect of ‘chips on Friday’. It made me realise what an impact could be made if more focus was placed on food in prison.

In your line of work what challenges have you faced and have you been able to overcome them?

Two words: time and money. Up until a couple of months I was working full time and I’m still doing four days a week. I have to work to support myself but if I don’t make the time to put the work into Food Behind Bars it’ll never progress in the way I want it to. It’s a constant juggling act. Going down to four days a week has been a massive turning point for me. Fridays are now Food Behind Bars days and hustling to secure that day in the week has made me determined to make the most of it!

On a personal level, why is good nutrition important to you? Where does this stem from?

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it stems from, although I know that my love of cooking comes from being a greedy person in general and enjoying eating so much, ha! I cook to eat and I don’t believe in punishing myself through food. It’s there to be enjoyed and I can safely say I enjoy every mouthful of whatever it is I’ve spent my Sunday afternoon labouring over. Saying that, our health is the single most important thing in life and diet is one way we can take charge of it. We are so educated these days about the potential risks of a poor diet that I really believe there’s no excuse not to place it at utmost importance.

Unfortunately there’s still a huge class divide when it comes to nutrition and this boils down to education and opportunity. This is really visible in prison where the majority of individuals come from poor backgrounds and simply haven’t been equipped with the skills, information or opportunity to learn how to eat well. If it’s never played a part in their lives before, why should it now? This is something I’m determined to change and I actually see prison as an amazing opportunity to impact people’s eating habits in a way that will leave a legacy after release.

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As a journalist, what other causes and projects do you feel passionate about, or would like to learn more about?

Social issues in general probably get me the most fired up, especially those highlighting an injustice of some sort. Poverty, housing, gentrification - I’ve lived in Hackney for 5 years and those issues all feel particularly (and literally) close to home for me. I’ve probably got quite a naive view of how society should run (ha), but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

I was brought up liberal and non-judgmental and will remain that way. Other issues I care about include (but are not exclusive to): the price of flat whites, the price of train travel, posh pubs, pubs closing down, high-cut bikinis, Old Street tube station…I could go on.

How important is social media for translating, furthering your message? Do you see any drawbacks with these mediums for young woman?

Although I definitely wouldn’t say I’m anti-social media, I do have a conflicting relationship with it and I hate the unrealistic expectations it sets. Sometimes when I’m having a slow period with Food Behind Bars, it’s just not useful seeing other people seemingly ‘smashing it’ or ‘hustling’ or ‘girl bossing’. Likewise, I’ve had people come up to me congratulating me on all of my successes with the campaign and it makes me feel uncomfortable, especially if it’s during one of those said slow periods. I think we all know social media can elevate our stature, and this can be a blessing or a curse.

Nevertheless, I’m generally pretty at peace with social media and I can’t deny it’s been incredibly useful for Food Behind Bars. Most of my press appearances and features have all come through a social platform of some sort, and it’s been integral to getting in touch with ex-offenders, families of offenders and other important people. I’ve even attended prison visits through connecting with a prison governor on Twitter. I still forgot to update my Instagram often enough though…

What one thing would you like Food Behind Bars to be known for or to accomplish in the long term?

I’d like it to be know for highlighting the importance of food in prison and for taking steps to improve it. Mostly, I’d like it to be known for having a lasting impact on the individuals in prison.

Talk to us about Noshtalgia, your Instagram page dedicated to the food and recipes of yesteryear, what motivated you create this?

Noshtalgia is a total side project and one that indulges my love for dodgy 1970’s cookery. When I first started going out with my boyfriend, we became mildly obsessed with trawling North London charity shops on the lookout for vintage recipe books.

The weirder the book, the better. We ended up with a bulging collection of books that included pink rabbit-shaped mousses, Spam salads, stuffed boiled eggs and lots of Ainsley Harriott in Hawaiian shirts. Our friends are trying to get us to host a Noshtalgia-themed dinner party. Watch this space.

Can you describe yourself in three words?

Always Having Lols.