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Edinburgh Community Food – cooking with women in the criminal justice system

This case study looks at Edinburgh Community Food’s cooking course for women who have become involved in the criminal justice system and explores making recipe adaptations for participants who may be facing significant barriers to having a healthy balanced diet.


Edinburgh Community Food is a third sector organisation undertaking a range of food and health work. As well as running and supplying food co-ops across the city, it does a range of development and promotion work, including cooking courses and demonstrations, nutrition workshops, health information sessions and tasting sessions.

Sally Findlay, Food and Health Development Worker, is one of the team delivering cooking courses. Sally said,

“The main thing I’ve learned is that you can’t just teach people to cook from scratch – it is just not always appropriate.”

How the course developed

Sally’s cooking course grew from a partnership with the Willow Project, which originally involved Sally cooking lunches for the groups. Over lunch the group would discuss food and health topics: the nutrition of the meal; how it was prepared; the cost of the meal; could it be frozen; and could it be changed to another dish. From these discussions it was clear that the women had an interest in cooking and health and Sally eventually got ‘fed up’ cooking for and not with the women. Sally sought funding and started a cookery class for the women on a Wednesday afternoon at a kitchen rented from FreshStart

Sally quickly learned that the women faced several barriers to cooking healthy meals for themselves, including severely restricted access to cooking facilities for those who were living in a hostel or hospital at the time.

“Some of the hostels don’t have fridge space so having fresh food is just impossible.”

“They get 10 mins in a microwave in a hostel and this wasn’t something I realised when I started. I did lots of recipe development at home and adapted all my recipes to be microwavable – I thought that was fine. Then I showed one of my adapted recipes to a participant and she said, ‘Oh, I only get 10 mins to use the microwave.’ So that day I went home and wept!”

In light of the limited equipment that was available to some of the participants Sally took a different approach to recipes:

“But now, with that group of women, I work with the Eatwell Guide and the best convenience food they can have. I’ll go over a Lidl carton of soup and say they could maybe add butter beans and a bag of spinach and they could heat it all up.”

“I do a pasta salad which is all Lidl out a jar, peppers, tomatoes, all salady stuff – a bit of cold cooking – I’ll do more of that in the summer.”

Through conversations with the women, Sally hears that some of them recreate the meals outwith the class, but she accepts that others can’t for a number of reasons. In these cases learning new skills during the group is beneficial, as is having a healthy meal to take home and reheat. Again, the need to reheat later influences Sally’s recipe choices:

“We do a lovely wholemeal flatbread pizza – people in our other cooking groups love it – but I tried it and if you take it home in tinfoil and heat it back up, it is not very nice – and I’m not going to set the women up to fail.”

Other adaptations that Sally has made includes changing the length of the course to be much shorter than originally planned, due to the potentially chaotic lifestyles of many of her group participants, and keeping the course flexible so if someone cannot attend they will still be invited back at a later date.

Published: March 23, 2017