5 Minutes with Lucy Vincent from Food Behind Bars

Where are you based?

North London!

What causes are you most passionate about?

I’ve always been passionate about injustices in our society - whether that’s distribution of wealth, housing, crime, poverty. Society should be fair and equal for all, regardless of our background, race, religion or gender. I’m a big believer in a fairer and more rehabilitative criminal justice system as well - the current system is broken and it only leads to more problems within society. I hope it changes in my lifetime.

Lucy Vincent Food Behind Bars

Tell us about Food Behind Bars, and what inspired you to start it?

I founded Food Behind Bars back in 2016 as the UK’s national campaign to improve prison food. In July this year, we became a registered charity working with prisons on the subject of food, to positively impact the health and wellbeing of prisoners, improve their quality of life and make prisons safer and more positive places. Back in 2016, I never intended for Food Behind Bars to become a fully-fledged organisation. I was working as a journalist at the time and I came across a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons called “Life in Prison: Food”. It assessed food standards in prisons around the country and ultimately concluded that the poor quality of the food being served was having a detrimental effect on the people eating it and overall prison life. 

I love food, love cooking and worked in restaurants for a long time so the subject really resonated with me. After doing some initial research and speaking to some ex-offenders about their experience of prison food, I realised it was a far bigger issue than I originally thought and no one was talking about it - let alone doing anything about it. I wrote a few articles about the topic, went on TV and radio to speak about it, got my brother to build a website and inadvertently made myself a voice for prison food and the people affected by it. I haven’t looked back since.

What has been the most challenging aspect so far?

Even though I’ve now been running Food Behind Bars for 4 years and we are recognised as an official charity, I still struggle with imposter syndrome. Early on, I’d never met anyone who’d been to prison and had certainly never stepped foot in one. So the first few prison visits were a huge learning curve for me. I had zero track record and no real experience in the industry, but I was just hugely passionate about the subject and determined to do something about it. Luckily there were a couple of prison governors at the start who recognised that in me and opened up their doors so I could immerse myself in the issue, and more importantly, educate myself. It goes without saying that prison is a challenging environment and it was - and still is - a lot to take in. You are dealing with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals who are wrestling with a huge range of problems. That side of things can be intimidating, but it’s also been the one aspect that motivates me to continue doing what I’m doing. There’s also a great deal of humanity and kindness in prison. It’s a very humbling experience and has changed my outlook on my own life.

What response have you received so far and who has been your biggest supporter?

On the whole, I’ve always been lucky to have an overwhelmingly positive response towards our work. It can be seen as a controversial subject - some people don’t understand why any time or effort should be made to improve the diet of prisoners. I’ve been open and welcoming of criticism from day one - my job is to help change that individual’s mind and make them see why it does matter. At the end of the day, the job of prison is to make sure that person comes out a better person than when they entered the system, minimising the risk of them causing more harm to society. I don’t see how this is possible if an individual’s health and wellbeing is being compromised during their time in prison.

One of my trustees, Missy Flynn, has been a huge support over the years. The minute I decided to set up as a charity I knew I wanted her on my board. I used to work for her at Hackney restaurant Rita’s and she’s been a bit of an unofficial mentor of mine. It’s amazing to now be working with her at Food Behind Bars, especially since we’re at the early, exciting stages of our growth.

Whose actions have inspired you during this time?

In the last year, I have built up a really close relationship with HMP Brixton and their catering manager, Felix. Felix came highly recommended to me as the best prison catering manager in the country, so I knew I had to get in touch with him and see for myself. Since then, I have spent a lot of time with Felix, working alongside the prisoners in his kitchen, helping cook his delicious food and seeing what makes his kitchen so different to every other prison kitchen I’d visited. Ultimately, Felix treats everyone with a huge amount of respect. He’s a firm believer that anyone can end up in prison and he treats people in line with this belief. His kitchen runs like clockwork and he cares deeply about the way the food tastes, looks and is made. It helps that he’s an amazing chef and just a generally wonderful person too. I’m still in awe that he gets 3 healthy, tasty and varied meals out for £2.10 per head everyday - he is a constant source of inspiration for me and I’ve used his work at Brixton as a blueprint for other prisons.

What are your tips for someone who is just starting to create a more sustainable wardrobe?

For me, it has and will always be all about second hand. My wardrobe is made up of about 80% second hand and vintage clothing - sourcing it is perhaps my biggest hobby and I’m a self-confessed charity shop addict. Buying second hand can be time-consuming and I know most people don’t treat it as such a labour of love (ahem, obsession) as I do. But saying that, the internet and social media have completely transformed the way we shop for second hand clothing. I recommend seeking out and following a few sellers on Instagram, Ebay and Depop who share a similar style aesthetic. Personal recommendations are always great too. If I meet someone who’s style I love, I always ask them what vintage and thrift stores they shop at and I immediately write them down on my iPhone notes! I love fashion and can be quite impulsive, so as I’ve got older I’ve trained myself to only purchase things I completely adore. If you’re not 100% feeling it, walk away.

Lucy Vincent Food Behind Bars

How would you describe your day to day style?

My daily style is one big mish mash of colours, patterns and textures! I’m a very instinctive dresser and I like to think I don’t follow trends too much. I tend to fall back on the same core styles again and again. I love a tailored jacket - anything Princess Diana-esque with statement shoulders and buttons is a win for me. Vintage suits, embroidered shirts, velvet trousers - they’re all wardrobe favourites of mine. In the warmer months, I pretty much only wear dresses and if I had my way I’d be in a linen, puff-sleeved, A-line dress all year long...

What's been your best secondhand find?

Gah! There have been so many head-over-heels second hand moments. My favourite ever piece is a fitted 1970s purple silk jumpsuit I bought from Mel at Somewhere in Hackney. It’s very disco and I call it my Quality Street jumpsuit because I look like the giant purple-wrapped chocolate when I’m wearing it.

What vintage stores or markets do you visit again and again?

I moved to Highgate recently and I have to be honest, the best thing about living here is the charity shops. Highgate High Street, Muswell Hill and Crouch End have the most amazing charity shops - they’re full of gems. An exciting weekend for my boyfriend and I would be hitting them all in one go - I think I’ve reached a time in my life where I’ve swapped pub crawls for charity shop crawls and I’m fully embracing it.

Finally what is next for Food Behind Bars?

Lots of exciting stuff! In the next couple of months we’ll be launching a big fundraising campaign, releasing a prison food podcast and rolling out our prison recipe competitions across the UK. Watch this space...