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Blog 6 – What does it mean to support ‘vulnerable’ people on your cooking skills course?

Our cooking skills study group are running their cooking skills courses for ‘vulnerable people’ and/or ‘parents (or carers)’ living on a ‘low-income’. As we’ll be gathering collective evaluation information, we had to agree on how we define these categories.

Defining ‘vulnerable’ wasn’t easy. It can include many people, from a recently widowed older man to someone experiencing a range of challenges at the same time, such as mental health problems, homelessness and addiction. Different agencies define vulnerability differently, so we made up our own definition that suited our group. Guidance on ‘Health Inequalities Impact Assessments’ provided some useful information. We also included ‘people likely to be affected by discrimination’ as well as ‘vulnerable’ in our final list.

Our choice was also pragmatic – many of the practitioners in our study group recruit participants via referral agencies such as social services. As these agencies may have already identified their participants as ‘vulnerable’, it was easy for us to include ‘referred participants’ in our definition. This also helps practitioners avoid having to ask people intrusive questions.

What is it like to run a cooking skills course for ‘vulnerable’ people? Lots of community food initiatives are doing this every week. Some might run a course for a particular group (e.g. a mental health support group) or they might run more mixed groups. Practitioners’ may not always receive all the details about participants’ needs ahead of the course.

In the last few months we have visited our cooking study skills group members. This has helped us better understand the challenges that practitioners face when trying to ensure they meet the needs of a range of individuals, while creating a relaxed atmosphere and enjoyable cooking session where each person feels valued and respected. Some issues discussed included:

  • Participants may attend with their support worker. This can be really helpful: they can support the participant both during and in-between sessions. But they may have limited cooking skills or not understand the aims of the course, or a different support worker attends each session making it difficult to provide consistent support.
  • Practitioners may need to ‘tailor’ recipes or adapt equipment for individuals with physical or learning disabilities whilst ensuring the course is still being run at a suitable pace for others.
  • Some participants may be less comfortable in a group setting and prefer not to engage with others. This can be a challenge if a course aim is eating together at the end or tasting each other’s food.
  • Participants with a negative experience of learning may need more time to get to know the practitioner and feel ready to benefit from learning.
  • The practitioner to participant ratio is too low to support the tailored learning that participants need and ensure a safe environment.

We plan to go into some of these challenges in more detail in later blogs.

Kim Newstead

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