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Inside Contract Catering: Prisons

19 October 2006

Alan Tuckwood has the challenging task of feeding the country's prison population. Mark Lewis found him to have a thoroughly positive outlook

The recent furore over the Rotherham mums who passed pies and burgers through school gates showed just how high emotions can run around the issue of how the nation eats. "Sinner ladies sell kids junk food," screamed the Sun. "Protesting mums supply meals-on-wheels junk food for children," ranted the Daily Mirror.

Are the red tops ever likely to muster such moral outrage over prison catering? Probably not. Depressingly, large portions of the public still believe that we indulge criminals by offering them education, television, exercise and decent food.

Enlightened view

As one would expect, Alan Tuckwood, head of prison catering and physical education services at HM Prison Service, takes a more enlightened view.

Tuckwood joined the prison service as a discipline officer in 1983. When he took on his current role, in 1997, the catering provision was in danger of being outsourced from the service. But since then he has introduced a series of modernising reforms and has managed the switch-over to devolved budgets, the arrival of Government auditing and the implementation of new catering guidelines.

This year's National Audit Report into prison catering, Serving Time, acknowledged the progress that Tuckwood has made. It pointed to an improved quality of service and to financial savings of some £2.5m a year from food expenditure and £1.7m a year on catering staff, all since 2003-04. "Prisoners are offered a variety of foods," it said, "and different dietary requirements are catered for."

Tuckwood admits: "There are no votes for Tony Blair in well or badly looked-after prisoners, but my people care for people. Our job is to put three meals on a plate for prisoners on an average budget of £1.87 per prisoner per day. But we aspire to excellence: the food we produce must be acceptable, with choice for everyone sitting behind the walls. After all, they haven't got Auntie Jane turning up with McDonald's burgers and fries."

This is a view born as much out of pragmatism as of hospitality. In Serving Time, one prison governor named food as "one of the four things you must get right if you like having a roof on your prison". Certainly, poor food was one of the contributory factors behind the Strangeways riots of 1990, when more than 200 prisoners staged a rooftop protest that lasted for almost four weeks. Tuckwood is adamant that no member of his staff will be hurt "because of a bad meal".

Despite catering for a captive clientele, his approach remains customer-centred. His clients have no choice but to come back, but Tuckwood wants them to actually want to come back.

"Customer service is the bedrock of my team's work," he says. "The food service industry, with its fawning, insincere waiters, advertises that it cares for you, but it just wants your money. Other parts of the industry get it wrong, too. They say, ‘Stay at our hotel, we'll look after you,' but they offer a crap service. [Gordon] Ramsay has got it right: nothing leaves his hotplate unless it's perfect. He wants customers to come back."

The prison catering service's duty of customer care extends beyond filling hungry bellies three times a day, and Tuckwood's tenure as head of the service has seen the introduction of initiatives to improve the training opportunities available to inmates, who can now study for catering NVQs, making them better qualified to find work on release.

Care and respect

The theme of respect crops up a lot in our conversation - it's telling that Tuckwood refers to meal times, not feeding times. "The catering service should be about care, decency, respect - not punishment," he says. "If a prisoner asks, ‘Is that halal?' the answer must be, ‘Yes, I will not offend you.'"

To this end, great care is taken to canvass inmates' preferences before menus are redrawn every six months.

"You should ask consumers what their favourite meals are, and then incorporate their preferences, balanced against budget," Tuckwood says. "It cannot be a question of saying, ‘Buckle under and follow the rules.' The key is providing plates of food people will eat. That way, the menu becomes acceptable to the consumer.

"There are comments books on the wing, but surveys at the point of service are the best method."

One quirky upshot of this consultative approach is that prison service menus reflect a continuing North-South divide. "The days of fish and chips across the board have gone," says Tuckwood. "We offer mushy peas in the North and jellied eels in the South."

Consultation also means taking into account the changing eating patterns developing outside the prison walls. "Traditionally, we have offered three cooked meals," he says. "But we have to reflect modern eating habits. People eat on the hoof now."

Mindful of the agendas of the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency, Tuckwood has reduced salt in meal specifications, and is working towards supplying five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. But he remains sceptical of nutritionists.

"Ologists can create nutritionally balanced menus, but they've never put a meal on a plate," he says. "They say, ‘How dare you serve marge? They'll die!' But we do it because consumers like it."

That said, an ongoing nutritional training process - posters, leaflets under cell doors - ensures that inmates are able to make more informed decisions about their diet.

Tuckwood oversees 129 public-sector prisons, housing 69,000 prisoners. Serving this vast customer base are 1,050 chefs, supported by about 3,500 prisoners in the kitchen and as many again front of house. Given the hard, and sometimes thankless, work involved, one might expect staff turnover to be high. In fact, it's at an enviable 6%. Tuckwood puts this down to effective communication.

"How do I motivate my staff? I talk to them," he says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. But he's no soft touch, as you would expect of a man who spends summer weekends umpiring local league cricket matches. He describes his approach to HACCP as "stringent and draconian", and he insists on high levels of discipline.

Passion and energy

Clearly, though, the passion and energy that earned Tuckwood the Apetito-sponsored Public Sector Caterer of the Year Award at this year's Cateys rubs off on his teams. Of course, it helps that he has some of the best kitchens in the country (the current asset-replacement contract is with Aga, in partnership with Rational and Winterhalter). "We're not the best payer in the world," Tuckwood says, "but our kitchens are modern and overspecced, as we can't afford not to serve a meal."

The warning this week from Charles Bushell, head of the Prison Governors Association, that jail conditions have reached "bursting point", reminds us that our overcrowded prisons are never far from a flashpoint.

But Tuckwood needs no reminding that he cannot afford to become complacent. "You're only as good as your last meal," he acknowledges. "Does that sound twee?"

Management the Tuckwood way

  • Rapport leads to better morale - so speak to your staff.

  • Don't pay lip service to customer care.

  • Insist on extreme cleanliness and communicate your standards to your team.

  • If you start with good products, it takes real effort to make bad food.

  • You're only as good as your last meal.

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