IIt’s a warm and glorious Thursday afternoon that I find myself at the Wilderness Festival in Oxford, surrounded by revelers decked out in jewels with some of the classiest accents I’ve ever heard. Mary Berry and Sophie Ellis-Bextor mingle in the VIP area of the Veuve Clicquot tent. Delicious moms and greedy dads treat their kids to organic fruit popsicles. I’m sipping a £12.50 Patron tequila cocktail and think it has to be the hippest place I’ve ever been. But away from the almost crushing froufrou of the festival, a most improbable discussion is underway: what is prison? food like?
The question comes from a panel led by Alex Head, the founder of Social Pantry, a London caterer that offers ex-offenders the chance to reintegrate into society. She was joined by Lucy Vincent of Food Behind Bars, a charity that works to improve prison food, and Rob Morrison, a former offender and co-host of the banged up podcast.
We hear Morrison talk about the horror of food during his time in prison; how “hungry” so many men were. Vincent, meanwhile, describes the challenges of providing a menu of nutritional value on a meager budget for hundreds of prisoners. Head recognizes the elephant in the room. “It’s pretty amazing that we’re here at the Wilderness Festival, talking about prison food and prisoners,” she says. “The conversation has come so far.”
While the conversation has indeed evolved for the better, those released from prison still face one hurdle after another. Employment is one of the biggest challenges facing ex-offenders, with official government figures showing that only 17% of ex-offenders manage to find a job within a year of their release. This is despite the fact that the employment of ex-offenders is widely seen as a positive thing. According to the Department of Justice, 81% of Britons believe companies that employ ex-offenders make a positive contribution to society. Eighty-six percent of employers of ex-offenders would rate them as good at their job. Giving ex-offenders the chance to work legally also makes them less likely to re-offend and therefore less likely to end up behind bars.
Social Pantry’s goal is to have “meaningful impact through food and drink.” Founded by Head in 2011, the company has served Rihanna, David Attenborough and Hillary Clinton. It’s safe to say that Head has very high standards for the work that Social Pantry does – and this applies to ensuring that they give ex-offenders the best possible chance of getting out of prison bars at long term.
Head says his passion is providing ex-offenders with a “blank slate” once they get out of prison. “We know they’re behind bars for a reason, but it’s ultimately about giving them an opportunity when they get out,” she explains when we meet during the festival. “If they’re ready to be released back into society, that’s where I come in. There is no judgment on the crime. If they made time, it’s a blank slate in our eyes.
“It’s really about preventing them from going back to prison. Without a job, home or family, you are back at 100%. With at least two of them, they are less likely [to reoffend]. Give them family when they go out, give them an opportunity – it’s up to them to throw if they want. But it’s important to me that we offer it to them.
Before founding Social Pantry, Head trained at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland and worked at London’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant Bibendum. She speaks with the enthusiasm of someone who just got into activism, not someone who’s been doing it for over 10 years. It’s clear that his passion for ex-offenders hasn’t waned one iota.
“People often ask me why [I employ ex-offenders],” she said. “I couldn’t develop an answer other than, why not? Why not hire them?”
It seems like a simple question, but it’s one that some big companies seem keen to avoid. Head says she often approaches these companies with one statement: “If I can do it with a small company and a small HR department, then you can too.” But it’s not enough for a company’s HR manager to “buy into the idea,” she says. It has to come from above, and that’s the hardest part.
“You need people at the top to say, ‘Look, this is what we’re doing,'” she explains. “If you were to bring a few ex-offenders to a big corporation and get them to meet the people in charge, I’m pretty sure they would be inspired to give them opportunities. They have it in their infrastructure to make it as successful as possible. But it is sometimes a challenge to convince them.
When it comes to welcoming ex-offenders into Social Pantry, it’s like opening a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. Some people have been in prison for so long before their release that they don’t know what cell phones are, Head says.
“We had a guy who had been in prison longer than our chef Sarah [Turner] was alive,” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, you have to respect her like we respect you.’ it’s very stimulating, but [some ex-offenders] also fight a lot of things when they go out, so we make sure it’s a very quiet environment. We try to put everything in place to really make the system a success.
One of their most successful hires is Ruben, from south London. After being unemployed before landing behind bars, Ruben was given a job in the prison kitchen. His interest in food and hospitality grew from there, he says. “I had no experience [working in a kitchen] before, the first time was in prison. Then I learned skills and discovered that there were things I could do, and I liked doing them. He credits Social Pantry with giving him his life back. “It gives me purpose and helps keep my mind clear,” he says. “It’s nice to have somewhere to go when I wake up. [Employers should know] that you might need to be patient [with ex-offenders]. But we just need a chance and want to be in a stable position.
Head says between 30 and 40 ex-offenders have come through Social Pantry’s doors since she started hiring them. Some have since evolved within the food industry, while others have moved on to others; others have reoffended again. “You can’t save everyone,” she laments. “What I have recognized is that younger ex-offenders are easier to rehabilitate than older ones. They are less institutionalized and can adapt to change a bit better, and are more willing to stay out of prison.
The company typically ensures that at least 10% of the workforce is made up of ex-offenders, but the pandemic has thrown a wrench in things. “To be totally transparent, it’s been a bit difficult since then,” Head admits. “After Covid, we just got the business back on its feet. We maintained some [ex-offender employment], but we will upgrade it. Now that there is more access to prisons and less lockdowns, we are in a better position to do that.
The idea that the food industry is suitable for ex-offenders is not new. In his memoirs of 2000 Confidential kitchen, the late top chef Anthony Bourdain described the professional kitchen as “a place where people with a bad past can find a new family.” But working in the catering industry also offers the opportunity for people with no prior skills in the hotel industry to train.
“If you can work hard and have a good work ethic, you’ll be successful in the industry, and everything else can be taught to you,” Head says. “That’s why it’s so good. You don’t need to have previous experience, you just need to have the right attitude. That’s how I feel.”
Ultimately, hiring ex-offenders is rewarding for Head and his staff. The best part is when people she’s tried her luck with feel like they’re part of a family with Social Pantry, she says, with the caveat that it sounds “a bit cheesy.”
“When it’s clear that it’s really changed their lives, that’s when it’s the best thing to hear.”