Due to data protection regulations, people could not be photographed and identified.
What does good food mean to you? This is a question I think many times daily. Perhaps it means… taste? variety? plant-based? locally sourced? whether or not it’s organic?
Most of us have the liberty to make choices over what we would consider good for us to eat. However, many people do not have the means and freedom to choose what they eat. More often than not, people around us are struck by unfavourable circumstances such as displacement, economic circumstances as shown in pockets of food poverty in even so-called ‘developed’ countries, and social circumstances, such as isolation and mental illnesses – many of which tend to overlap – driving them into despair.
Over the past year, I have been teaching food practicals at a local adult community college. My first audience was LLDD learners which you can read about it here, and more recently, another group of users – most of them identified with some kind of mental issue such as depression and obsessive compulsive disorder – at a Hestia home in Kingston upon Thames.
Comprised mostly of adult middle-aged men, I was told by a fellow tutor that this group is particularly challenging to teach. Some of them live at the house in a private room provided to them by the council, and others live independently.
The sessions always begin with their offer of making tea for everyone. Then I would start with a brief introduction (many users are utterly eager to even before I finish saying hello) and demonstrations, followed by the division of tasks, them carrying out the various duties whilst I would oversee the whole process (and occasionally stepping). The sessions culminate with a sit-down together to enjoy the fruit of their labour afterwards before washing and drying up.
We would cook pasta bakes, stir-fries, green chicken curry, lamb mince wrap, mini pancakes, muffins and more. These are quick recipes that I sometimes have to adapt in case certain ingredients are missing. I also had to be careful working in the ill-equipped kitchen with the broken doors and missing utensils as redecoration plans are underway.
There’s never a dull moment at our food sessions. A couple of them are always up for a good old chat, so in the midst of assigning kitchen duties and making sure they work safely, I enjoy all the conversations we have. From the weather, football to their favourite food… Some of them have family who live close by who may pop round over the week, but others yet, may not be surrounded by any kin, so there needs to be a great deal of sensitivity around people’s circumstances.
For many of the users, food means basic sustenance to fill their hunger. So they have reported meat pies, Chinese takeaways and sweet drinks as their key go-to options. Although council support is available, they simply did not have the means and confidence to prepare healthy meals for themselves. Our weekly encounters may be the only time they have a meal cooked from scratch, and a time for them to eat together as a group.
As I recall… Simon, a bubbly chap in his 40s, would tell me how he recently lost his front tooth as he ate a biscuit a few days before. Leo, a quiet man in his 50s, often work do most of the cooking work and wolf down two large portions of food. Occasionally an argument may take place because so and so are in so and so’s way, but Helen, a lady in her 50s, is always helpful in mediating the conflict. Joseph, a young guy in his 20’s, may dip in and out but always joins in the big feast in the end.
Having worked in the world of nutrition for nearly 15 years, most of the conversations around food and nourishment concern how we look… from having the perfect skin, hair to the ideal body shape… and how we discern our health… so stock up these supplements!
But nutrition is much more. It’s about our culture and our social environment – how food nourishes us and other people is fascinating to explore. My experience with these users have shown me the messy world of food but it is in these everyday food practices that we can fully appreciate the joy cooking and eating brings to our lives.