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Food Behind Bars: The charity making prison food sustainable

BY Scheenagh Harrington

11th Sep 2023 Food & Drink

3 min read

Food Behind Bars: The charity making prison food sustainable
Food Behind Bars have made it their mission to make the food served in prisons more eco-friendly—and they're transforming inmates' lives in the process
Sustainability is on everyone’s lips these days, whether it’s efforts to reduce, recycle and reuse, the growing number of electric cars on the country’s roads, or seeing more seasonal produce on the supermarket shelves. 
The global effort to minimise our impact on the planet and go green has extended into almost every corner of human life, including some places that might be a surprise.  
UK prisons, for example, probably wouldn’t be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about sustainability, but for Natalia Middleton, the 31-year-old development chef and head of food education at charity Food Behind Bars, it’s a crucial part of her work in more ways than one. 

Growing food from prison

“Some of the prisons that we work with have some form of growing facility, whether it's polytunnels or greenhouses,” Middleton explains. “We work with a women's prison in Kent and they have a fully functioning farm where they grow produce. 
“They have a butchery on site, so they rear the animals, send them off to slaughter, then butcher them, and can give some of their meat to other prisons in the local area. The meat is of amazing quality and they also have access to vegetables. It astounds me that there aren't more prisons able to do this.”
"It astounds me that there aren't more prisons able to do this"
When asked if the people she works with in the prisons are aware of sustainability, she replies: “Those who have been in for shorter times have a lot more of an understanding of sustainability because it is an important part of what we do, we're always showing how they can make a soup from using vegetable peels and scraps or a chicken carcass.
“The thing that they've all been really excited about is how they can regrow spring onions from the root, because it’s something that they can do in their cells. I know that some of them have taken like pepper or tomato seeds and have been trying to grow them.”

Transforming inmates' relationship with food

Inmates chopping and cooking sustainable prison food
The concept of sustainability in prison also extends to making use of cookbooks donated by the public, as well as concerns about how everything is wrapped in plastic. “They don't have metal cutlery, obviously,” she says, “so everything comes in some form of packaging and you can tell that they're frustrated by it too. 
“I think the guys have more of an awareness of sustainability, but the prison system as a whole does not.”
For Natalia, it’s a much deeper issue, linked to family, community and a sense of pride in ourselves. “The sustainability of the people and helping to cook and understand food and grow things, that’s what’s really important to me,” she says. 
“I'm into the environment and we try to be as sustainable as possible in our family home, but for me, these guys being able to cook and look after themselves is crucial. 
“I'll have guys who will learn a couple of recipes with me and they'll say: ‘I can't wait to leave prison and show my kids how to do this, or do it with my daughter, who's two, and she'll love to make cookies with me.’”
"If I can give them a couple of hours where they don't feel like they're in prison then I'm totally happy"
She goes on: “If they've been in prison for a long time they've had to endure—it’s probably the best word—this food for a while. There's a lot of them who only want to eat the fried food because that's all they know and they refuse to touch a vegetable
“I did a class with one of the women's prisons and made a simple tray of roast vegetables with some balsamic vinegar and herbs,” she explains. “They were all saying, ‘oh no, we're not going to eat the courgette, it's disgusting,’ then they tried it and said it was delicious.
“If I can get them to try something new, if I can give them a couple of hours where they don't feel like they're in prison and they've eaten something they've helped to create or created themselves, then I'm totally happy.”

Food beyond bars

Inmate chopping and cooking sustainable prison food
For Natalia and Food Behind Bars, sustainability is all about taking a broader view, and understanding that what people in prison eat has the ability to change their lives. The charity is one of several trying to improve the quality of food in UK prisons, where the current daily budget per person is £2.70, and the positive results speak for themselves. 
As well as improving behaviour and the physical health among populations—therefore reducing the strain on the NHS—knowing how to grow and prepare good quality food can give people a second chance in life. 
"What people in prison eat has the ability to change their lives"
Natalia speaks proudly about a cooking competition, set up by Food Behind Bars founder Lucy Vincent during the pandemic. “One of the guys who won, his dish was put onto a restaurant menu, which was brilliant. I think it was his mum's curry that he had redesigned and it was amazing. 
“Now he’s running a breakfast kitchen and he loves it.”
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