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.

image1I’ve been working with the prison service in Northern Ireland for the last 2 years, looking at how rethinking food systems 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.

After some months of planning, I walked through the gates of Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Prison and met my team of 10 young men. Starting from scratch with no previous experience, we set up, launched and ran a staff cafe for 2 weeks to such success that they are now keeping it open permanently. We never discussed their crimes, some more serious than others, but they included a more or less predictable range of violence, drugs and delinquency. I judged them purely on their work with me. Every one of them was punctual, hard-working, resourceful, enthusiastic and respectful. From learning to cook, making coffee, serving tables, cleaning floors they applied themselves without complaint or dissent. They knew the biggest obstacle to our project was getting staff to support them and persuading them to eat in a place run by inmates. And they tackled that with pride, good-humour and maturity.

People always react to how they are treated and in this case to how they are fed. Healthy, nourishing food is so often absent from the places it is most needed: hospitals, schools, prisons, care homes. I don’t accept that we can’t afford to do so. People get better, learn better, behave better and feel better when they are properly fed. Good food isn’t more expensive, but bad cooking is.

Food is all about nurture and the basis of the Cabin Cafe project has been that by taking a new approach to food and cooking in all its aspects, you can change the dynamic of a prison. In an establishment where everyone is under huge stress, you can actually put a price on the increased physical well-being and flourishing of emotional intelligence that comes from the experience of growing stuff you can eat, cooking decent food, feeding people, eating well and sharing that experience. If the ten young men coming through my project don’t reoffend after serving their time and the teams looking after them are happy in their jobs, those savings to society can be measured in hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Simple home cooking can easily be made for large numbers of people, you just have to care about the people you are feeding. And good food has a transformative power; to change how you feel, how you behave and how you think. I’ve seen many times first-hand what happens when people experience that in restaurants, and now in a prison. It’s not been an easy journey but I’m more convinced than ever that food can have crucial role in the rehabilitation of offenders and just as importantly in many ways, in making prisons better places to live and work.

I have recently launched FoodUnlocked as a social enterprise, aimed at supporting the rehabilitation of young people by helping them develop new food systems within their communities.