For a nation that thinks so highly of itself, our relationship with food is lamentable. While we enthusiasts are enveloped in clouds of gin mist, supping fermented grouse foam and foraging for our bowl of morning grains, most of the nation is suffering from a deeply dysfunctional experience of eating and cooking.
I’ve been working with the prison service in Northern Ireland for the last year, looking at how food can transform the lives of young offenders. It’s been a salutary experience, forcing me to rethink some of the assumptions I make about cooking and eating but also reinforcing my view that what and how we eat as children has a measurable impact on our life chances.
This is not to say that all poor people eat badly or indeed that all people who eat badly go on to commit crimes. But there is quite clearly a correlation between food, body and brain. In the most simplistic terms, it is hardly surprising that if a body is not absorbing the critical amino acids it requires to fuel neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, the metabolism will not function fully. In children this quickly leads to behavioural problems, mostly manifested in depression and aggression, usually both. Just look at your kids after a sugary cup-cake and multiply it by the square root of poverty and you will have a fairly accurate picture of what the lives of many serial young offenders are like.
But I’ve been lucky enough to be collaborating with a great leadership team in Belfast, who recognise that what and how the young people eat does have an impact on their behaviour. And most importantly they think it’s worth exploring how that could change. Their recent goal has been to transform the prison into a college: a place where these young people can get a better start and learn to be fully functioning adults, with aspirations and ambition. My task has been to explore the way they are fed, look at what they eat and identify the opportunities for growing produce and the potential of training and outreach within a culture of healthy eating. The experience of prison shouldn’t be a punishment, it should be where you can turn your life around.
Last year, we started a scheme where inmates can invite their families to Sunday lunch and sit round a table together. Local elderly come into the prison every week for a lunch and share a table with the young people they have come to fear. I have seen these boys working proudly to produce a lunch they would never normally eat for families who describe the transformative experience of eating together around a table for the first time.
This month I am running a two week pop-up on the prison campus at Hydebank Wood. We started planning last year and I’ve been running healthy eating classes with potential participants. I know that there is a gym in the prison, so decided that getting them to think about fitness was a quick way into their mindset. Getting them to understand healthy eating isn’t easy but I wanted them to see what we all take for granted, that it takes effort to eat well. A few weeks ago we washed, chopped and sautéed spring greens and fried mackerel. Every one of them relished it. They were the most polite, gentlemanly, attentive class I’ve ever taught.
Since January we’ve already started growing some of the produce in polytunnels and during the pop-up, we’ll be serving fresh, nourishing dishes within the prison as a pilot for a permanent social enterprise creating a community of food and cooking. Eleven tough looking but imaginative and committed young lads are involved in every aspect of the business. They have been marketing and branding the project and will be preparing, cooking and serving the food from breakfast to dinner, for staff, family, the local community, stakeholders, other inmates and the Northern Ireland food industry.
I love the rarefied world of hunting down the most interesting ingredients and look forward to being fed at the most virtuosic restaurants. But these experiences, where you can see clearly, how food can change peoples’ lives, throws all of that into relief.
It’s easy to pick on the bankers and blame their lack of care for the poorest people in our society. But are we really any better, if all we do is sate our desire for more food, without sharing the bonus? It’s not just cooking, though that is an act of physical creativity, it’s eating well that makes you feel good. And there just aren’t enough people in our society getting the benefit from that simple pleasure.