Focus on Food in Forth Valley Prisons

A Whole Systems Approach to Food in Forth Valley Prisons
By Pamela Murray RD, Public Health Dietitian, Public Health Nutrition Team, NHS Forth Valley. @Murray1Pamela

I work as a Public Health Dietitian within the Public Health Nutrition Team at NHS Forth Valley. I’ve been part of this team for over 22 years and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It is a dynamic team, full of committed staff, who are dedicated to making a difference through supporting and empowering the communities we work with.  We work in partnership to improve health and well being through self management, early intervention and prevention, with a driving focus on reducing inequalities.  It is a team I am proud to be a part of.

Over the years my job role has evolved and I’ve been involved in developing and creating our Choose To Lose and Community Nutrition Websites, numerous nutrition resources, information displays and self monitoring toolkits.  I deliver training, co-ordinate local and national food related campaigns and now work closely with NHS Forth Valley’s Communication Team, sharing key nutrition messages and information digitally through our Social Media Channels.

Around 3 years ago, I was asked if I would like to support the health improvement food and health agenda in our three local prisons.  At first, I felt a bit apprehensive but after some thought; I decided to take up the offer.  Pushing myself outside my comfort zone, felt like an understatement.  But on reflection, I made the right decision.  I could use my knowledge, skills and resources to help support the prisons take forward and develop their health and well-being agenda with a particular focus on nutrition.  

This has given me an opportunity to work with Wendy Handley, NHS Forth Valley’s Community Food Development Worker who has worked in the prison settings for many years.  At the beginning, visiting the prisons felt a bit daunting and scary but Wendy’s support and help has really reassured me. I recall my first visit to HMP Glenochil where Wendy and I were supporting a Scottish Prison Service staff health and well-being event. On arrival  I was reminded of airport security, although this time I wasn’t boarding a plane to go to sunnier climates but off  to the prison gym hall to host a nutrition stand at their Staff health event ‘Spring into Summer’.

I still feel excited and at the same time privileged to be able to use my knowledge and expertise to support staff working with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals, many of whom have experienced traumatic life events and come from areas experiencing high levels of social injustice

Food in the prison setting could be referred to as the nucleus, as it plays a central role in prison life, mealtimes tend to be a focal point adding a routine and structure to the monotonous prison day.  Food could also be classed as a catalyst,  being  an excellent engagement and communication tool helping people in prison connect not only with their families and loved ones, but also with staff and with each other.  It can be as simple as having a conversation about food, through to teaching basic food, nutrition and cooking skills via the life skills programme.  Through the work of our team people in prison are being given opportunities to learn everyday cooking skills and gain basic nutrition knowledge. At the same time they are being awarded with a nationally recognised Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS) qualification which is transferrable into the community and can help lead to increased employment opportunities on release.

The team supports the life skills, food and health and cooking classes, which equip people in prison with new skills and knowledge around food, health, nutrition and cooking.  The cooking classes give an opportunity to gather together, communicate and socialise with each other around the table and talk about food related issues that matter to them.  These food activities enable the development of wider practical and interpersonal skills such as teamwork, communication and social interaction.

I believe prisons are an excellent setting to create, educate and promote a whole systems approach to food and health.  They offer the chance to create health improvement opportunities to train, up-skill and teach staff and residents about the importance of good nutrition and health.  Prisons have a key role to play in supporting and encouraging healthier food choices.  We strive to create an environment that supports and encourages healthier choices.  We use creative and innovative approaches to teach key nutrition messages, such as multimedia campaigns, in-cell videos, interactive quizzes and well-being challenges. These varying approaches add an element of fun into learning and create a competitive edge which we have found increases engagement.

Our Public Health Nutrition Team works with colleagues from NHS Forth Valley Health Promotion Service and in partnership with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), the third sector, the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS) and the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society.  We aim to deliver a whole systems approach creating health improvement opportunities with food and health throughout the 3 local Forth Valley prisons.

This work is focused into 4 areas:-


Using food, cooking and growing activities to engage with people in prison, their families, staff and volunteers to support them and enable them to develop and build on practical and interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and communication.


Providing advice and support to SPS colleagues and improving access to a choice of healthy foods, snacks and drinks to people in prison, visitors and staff. Also investigating innovative ways to promote and market activities that support and encourage healthier eating.


Offering accredited food and health and growing courses and qualifications to SPS staff, NHS staff, Visitors Centre staff, volunteers and peer mentors to help build their capacity and support them to teach people in prison and their families essential food and budgeting skills and a basic understanding of nutrition and health.


Offering accredited REHIS and Caley Horticultural training and cookery classes to people in prison as well as staff, so they can develop their skills and gain a basic understanding and knowledge of nutrition.  Accredited qualifications are awarded on completion with the aim of supporting routes to employment on release.

The Grow, Cook & Learn Project at HMPYOI Polmont illustrates how food can be used to engage with people in prison and improve participants’ confidence, self-esteem, well-being and resilience. As well as, engaging with staff and volunteers and building their capacity by offering them training, advice, support and resources.

Visit our Community Nutrition Website and Choose ‘Case Studies’ webpage then Grow, Cook and Learn.

Special thanks to my colleagues at NHS Forth Valley

Wendy Handley – Community Food Development Officer, Tina Everington – Senior Health Promotion Officer and Rhonda Archibald – Public Health Nutrition Team (Lead) as well as the Scottish Prison Service staff that support our ongoing food and health work.

Contact Information
Pamela Murray, Public Health Dietitian, Public Health Nutrition Team, NHS Forth Valley. Follow on Twitter @Murray1Pamela.

Find out more about our teams work – visit NHS Forth Valley Community Nutrition Website


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