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Guest blog: Sue O’Neill-Berest from Cyrenians on food insecurity, cooking and using CFHS development funding to run sessions for young mums

Something to eat, someone to eat with

The Food and Agricultural organisation of the United Nations has suggested that 8.4 million live in food insecure households in the UK. (Taylor, 2016) Some research conducted predominantly out with the UK found no significant positive link between the ability to cook and food security, whilst other studies have highlighted the important part that food literacy may play in ensuring food security. (Gaines et al, 2014) Food literacy defined as the capacity of a person to obtain, interpret and understand basic food and nutrition information as well as the skills to use the information in ways that enhance health. (Kolasa et al, 2001) Cooking skills themselves do not guarantee that meals will be prepared from basic ingredients as they are only 1 component of bringing a meal together. People’s lack of ideas, knowledge and menu planning skills can be just as much a barrier. (Caraher et al, 1999) Further research indicates that meal sharing and meal preparation sharing opportunities may have positive effects on self-efficacy to cook from scratch. Dining with peers is an opportunity to build social ties and increase a sense of belonging. (Glik & Martinez, 2017) In the BBC Radio 4 podcast A culture of Encounter (2017) the value of social eating in creating cohesive societies, where people feel a sense of belonging was addressed. It was stated that sharing a meal was one of 3 ways of encountering and interacting with people who were different and other to us. It utilises a social learning theory approach that prioritizes positive reinforcements delivered through social networks (Bandura, 1977), where new behaviours are acquired by observing and imitating others. It does this in an assets -based approach that promotes positive attitudes and self-efficacy and may assist with intention formation and the development of concrete plans. (NICE 2007)

This research alongside location specific research conducted with community workers drew our attention to the need for food related activities in the Musselburgh area, specifically Whitecraig. 25% of all food parcels distributed in East Lothian go to the Musselburgh East & Carberry ward in which Whitecraig is situated. Activities that would support national strategies aimed at moving beyond emergency food provision towards a more sustainable and dignified system of addressing an increasing societal problem. The East Lothian Poverty Commission Report (2017) specifically highlighted the need to ”Support, develop and co-ordinate current local movements to develop food networks/clubs/projects that increase access to food, cooking skills and facilitate social interactions that are sustainable and reduce reliance on emergency food ”. We were particularly struck by a quote in the report: ”I go around the supermarket looking for food that will fill my bairns up. Instant noodles cost 9p and little to cook. I can feed my family for a week on the price of one packet of grapes” (Dad, Prestonpans) The Musselburgh East & Carberry ward has the highest level of child poverty in East Lothian and we therefore decided to target young mum’s from low income households who were currently engaged with other parenting and community activities as potential participants.

The CFHS Development Fund was identified as a potential source of funding for this activity as it met the criteria of addressing multiple national priorities and would specifically support the aims of the proposed Good Food Nation Bill.

We recruited 6 local mums who decided that a Monday morning would suit them after they had dropped older kids at the primary school next door to the community centre we were using as the venue. The younger children were looked after in an onsite crèche. The kitchen was quite small and so to facilitate opportunities for interaction and chat we set up table top cookers in the hall and used only the oven and washing up facilities in the kitchen. Each session followed the same format: 2 courses were cooked alongside discussions around nutrition; menu planning and budgeting tailored to their specific circumstances. Each session concluded with time to sit and enjoy the food before the younger kids joined us to taste what their mums had made. The mum’s really valued this time as they reported that it was the only time in the week when they were able to sit and enjoy a plate of food alongside some adult conversation. One week we were able to get the older kids released from classes to come and cook alongside their mums, this was a particularly enjoyable session and the mums reported back the following week small behavioural changes in their kids as regards their attitudes towards cooking and healthy eating. These kids also began to look forward to what their mums brought home each week and were eager to know what they would be cooking.

We conducted 6 sessions, each week building on skills learnt in the previous week as well as working towards their REHIS accredited certificates in Introduction to food hygiene and Elementary Cooking Skills. At the conclusion of the 6 week course all the mums reported increased confidence in preparing meals from scratch and a much better understanding of what constitutes a healthy well balanced diet even if it is not always necessarily practiced consistently. Throughout the course most on at least one or more occasions reported trying the recipes at home and getting the older children involved in the meal preparation process. Both recipes and meals were shared with extended family members; friends and neighbours. Almost all self-reported that they were spending less money on their shopping and buying and consuming less ready meals and takeaways. Participants in a focus group at the end of 6 weeks expressed that they ate more fruit and vegetables since the beginning of the class. Thematic analysis of the focus group identified six themes; increase in fruit and vegetables, more meal preparation and using leftovers, increase in cooking skills and practices – confidence, more budgeting, cooking with children/stress and positive cooking class experiences.

We know that very little research has been conducted in to whether such behavioural changes are sustained post participation in a cooking course and so in the final week our community cook club coordinator attended and together they decided to have a community cook club initially monthly on a Friday after school. This timing would allow the kids to be involved in the cooking activities and would we hope help with sustaining behavioural changes. To date 2 community cook clubs have run and once the concept has had time to bed in, we will return to do follow up evaluations around the long term sustainability of behavioural changes as a result of a food literacy intervention.

The project’s success and it’s benefits has been recognised by East Lothian Council, such that they have provided funding for a further 3 programmes that will hopefully result in 4 active community cook clubs in a geographical area with significant pockets of deprivation and food poverty. It will enable many more people in need to move towards a more dignified access to food than currently provided by the food bank model. It will also allow us to evaluate whether cooking classes do in fact play a role in increasing food security and whether behavioural changes they generate are sustained.

Sue O’Neill-Berest, Food Education Manager, Good Food Programme, Cyrenians

Bandura, A. and Walters, R.H., 1977. Social learning theory (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-hall.

BBC Radio 4 A Culture of Encounter aired 26th December 2017 available at:

Caraher, M., Dixon, P., Lang, T. and Carr-Hill, R., 1999. The state of cooking in England: the relationship of cooking skills to food choice. British food journal, 101(8), pp.590-609.

East Lothian Poverty Commission; 2007. Challenging perceptions. Overcoming poverty.
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Gaines, A., Robb, C.A., Knol, L.L. and Sickler, S., 2014. Examining the role of financial factors, resources and skills in predicting food security status among college students. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 38(4), pp.374-384.

Glik, D. and Martinez, S., 2017. College students identify university support for basic needs and life skills as key ingredient in addressing food insecurity on campus. California Agriculture, 71(3), pp.130-138.

Kolasa, K.M., Peery, A., Harris, N.G. and Shovelin, K., 2001. Food Literacy Partners Program: A Strategy To Increase Community Food Literacy. Topics in Clinical Nutrition, 16(4), pp.1-10.

National Institute for Clinical Excellence, 2007. Behaviour Change: the principles for
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Taylor, A. and Loopstra, R., 2016. Too poor to eat. Food insecurity in the UK. London.

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