The Forth Valley Sensory Centre in Falkirk has been running popular cooking courses for people with visual loss. The classes began last year, led by the Centre’s Café Cook – David Black, who is blind himself. This case study looks at what he achieved and what challenges he had to overcome.
Background on the Forth Valley Sensory Centre and the cooking courses
Forth Valley Sensory Centre has been helping people with a visual or hearing loss in Forth Valley live as independently as possible for over 12 years. There are a wide range of partner organisations within the Centre, including RNIB Scotland, Blind Veterans UK and Living Well Falkirk. As well as supporting people with sensory loss, the Centre also provides support and advice to carers and family members as needed.
A wide range of groups and classes are on offer each day. The Centre has a community café, which carries the healthyliving award certification, a sensory garden and a sensory room. HRH The Princess Royal also recently opened a new Kitchen Garden, designed to help children understand more about their senses as well as promoting healthy eating. Much of the organic produce from the garden is used in the café.
David has been working in the café for over 13 years. He began as a volunteer, making sandwiches but quickly progressed to soups and now makes a soup and special each day from scratch.
Keen to use his skills and experience to teach other people with visual or other sensory loss how to develop their cooking skills, he worked with, and was supported by NHS Forth Valley community food workers to become the first blind person to deliver the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS) Elementary Cooking Skills course. David ran his first course in 2017.
About the cooking skills courses
Who attends the courses?
The Sensory Centre encouraged existing service users to sign up for courses and asked partners such as Falkirk Council Sensory Services team to promote these or refer people. Now, with word of mouth too, the courses are so successful there is a waiting list to take part.
A range of people have completed the courses so far, but the majority were visually impaired, others included people with hearing loss, autism, learning disabilities or mental health issues. Some of the course participants had lost their sight in later life and hoped to regain their confidence to safely cook again.
How the course is run
Each course lasts for five, two-hour sessions. The class covers the REHIS Elementary Cooking Skills course requirements to be able to make a starter, main dish and a dessert. David also includes a fifth session where course participants can make a meal of their choice, or revisit something they had learnt on the course. Several have chosen to share their creations with family and David hopes to have a sit down dinner event at the Centre in the near future.
Only two participants at a time attend each course so that David can support each person safely. David also has a sighted volunteer to assist; making sure that everyone stays safe, but ultimately has responsibility for instructing the class.
David begins by demonstrating how to navigate the kitchen using a clock reference system –e.g. ‘the oven is at noon, you are standing at 1’oclock’. He also asks participants about their kitchen experience and assesses their skills, particularly to make sure they know how to use a knife and other equipment safely.
Chopping skills are taught using the ‘claw’ and ‘bridge’ techniques. David uses hand-over-hand to both teach and assess people’s knife skills. Each course is adapted to the needs of each individual throughout each session.
Typical recipes include making tomato soup and then learning how to use the soup base for a bolognaise sauce, followed by a fruit crumble recipe for dessert. David teaches recipes that meet the healthyliving award criteria. Sometimes participants suggest recipes they would like to make, so David adapts these to make them ‘healthier’ if needed.
Course participants learn about nutrition informally by discussing the health benefits of different ingredients and David provides tips, such how to drain off the fat in a mince dish. Other topics include ideas about food budgeting and using ingredients that make more than one meal in order to save time, money and reduce food waste. At the end of each session, each person takes their food home with them. The Centre makes recipes available in braille or large print so participants can take them away and practise at home.
A blind person teaching other people who are blind or with visual loss to develop cooking skills has its challenges. However, David’s ethos is to get people to think ‘can do’ rather than ‘cannie do’ and support people to be as independent as possible.
Key to being safe is to have a very tidy and organised kitchen and know where everything is. Being able to orientate around the kitchen is essential. Using bowls to place food waste in or to catch drips from pots of liquid being moved is not just used to promote ‘clean as you go’ but also reduces the risk of accidents.
Course participants are introduced to a few useful pieces of equipment or techniques depending on their needs. For example, cut resistant gloves allow the user to hold food in place with a gloved hand, whilst using the knife in the ungloved hand. Other useful equipment includes speaking scales and measuring jugs. However, sometimes it may be simpler (and cheaper) to use cups or spoons for measuring (although ensuring these provide accurate measurement for each recipe can be difficult). If people have smart phones, they are shown apps that can read labels.
David provides some challenges for participants so they can practice these in the safe environment of a supervised kitchen. For example, this might involve teaching a recipe that uses dry frying or grilling, so that people develop their confidence and awareness of how to do this safely and ensure adequate ventilation.
Achievements and learning
The Sensory Centre asks people for feedback from the courses so they can continue to improve these and find out their impact. All attendees so far have reported: increased confidence; knowledge of healthy eating and how to reduce food waste. Course participants particularly enjoyed receiving the REHIS certificate – for some people, this might be the first qualification they have received and can be a real boost to confidence.
As people who attended the cooking course often attend other activities or services at the Centre (and might be transported by families and friends) there are opportunities to ask participants and their families for their feedback and stories:
‘One lady shocked her husband when he came home to find her in the kitchen happily cutting up carrots for the first time in over a decade. He was initially very concerned but realised that David had shown a safe way to cut and use a knife. One of the key reasons for not cooking was a lack of confidence following recipes because of their sight loss. This lady got her confidence in the kitchen back and went from not cooking at all to making meals once a week.’
Another participant (registered blind) commented; “It’s given me more confidence, realising how easy it is putting meals together and working from scratch.”
Funding and what’s next?
The course has minimal costs: David and his helper run the course on a voluntary basis and there is no venue hire costs as these are covered by Forth Valley Sensory Centre. The main costs are ingredients, REHIS certificates and any specialist equipment that is needed. The courses were initially funded by the CFHS development fund and the Centre will apply for the small amount of ongoing funding required elsewhere. They hope to continue the courses on a no fee basis, as many of the people that attend are managing on low incomes because of their disabilities. Any charge might discourage attendance.
For anyone interested in finding out more about cooking without sight, there is a video of David working in the kitchen as part of his main role as Centre Cook. He is shown with one of his assistants, Peter, and the videos are available online here: