Can’t cook will cook: Cook-Start scheme in Calderdale

A scheme in Yorkshire is reaching out into a deprived community to engage families in healthy eating, using mentoring and one of the UK's top kitchens. Tina Walsh reports

A scheme in Yorkshire is reaching out into a deprived community to engage families in healthy eating, using mentoring and one of the UK’s top kitchens. Tina Walsh reports

(Picture: Cook-Start client Dawn Smith, right, cooking with mentor Carol Ingram. Credit Bruce Rollinson/Ross Parry Agency)

Project details

Project name: Cook-Start

Aims and objectives: To help families from deprived backgrounds learn how to cook healthy and nutritious meals on a budget

Number of service users: 40 families

Cost of project: £10,000

The gleaming state-of-the-art kitchen at the Dean Clough cookery school in Halifax has seen many a celebrity chef through its doors, but all Louise Brown wants to learn is how to make blueberry muffins for her children.

Louise, 22, is one of a number of women taking part in a scheme called Cook-Start, which helps “forgotten families” in the Calderdale area of Yorkshire and teaches them how to cook healthy, nutritious meals on a budget.

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Many of the families are from deprived backgrounds, often lacking in basic cooking skills and struggling to make ends meet.

“I never learned how to cook from my mum,” says Louise, 22, who is bringing up two children on her own and has been a victim of domestic violence.

The Home-Start charity was set up in 1973 to recruit and train volunteers to act as mentors for parents with at least one child under the age of five in their own homes. It teamed up with the Dean Clough cookery school in 2009 after a National Lottery grant provided the charity with money to pay for cooking lessons for parents.

“Our volunteers try to develop a positive attitude in the home but the parents often lack motivation,” says Anita Cormac, the school’s director.

“With access to the resources at The Cooking School and a professional chef on site, the families can learn new skills, new recipes and new enthusiasm that the mentors can continue during their weekly support visits.”

“It’s not hard to teach people, who might not know, about nutrition and the benefits of eating healthy food if it’s done in a practical, hands-on way”, adds Cormac, who used to be a home economics teacher in a secondary school.

The partnership aims to send 40 low income families back into their kitchens to start cooking nutritious meals, mostly from scratch. A £10,000 grant from the lottery’s Awards for Families project was only enough for four courses, however, and the cookery classes will come to an end in November 2010.

Each family is assigned a volunteer, who acts as a non-judgemental “friend”, cooks alongside them and spends two to three hours a week visiting their homes and going food shopping with them.

“Modern family life often means people turn to convenience food, and some ­children have no understanding at all of where food comes from,” says Linda Crowther, senior co-ordinator at Home-Start Calderdale.

“One little boy, for example, didn’t know that milk came from a cow or that mashed potato came from a potato – he thought it came out of a packet.”

She points to case studies such as Dawn Smith, 30, who has three children and a husband with Parkinson’s disease and was initially wary about the cookery course. She had never bought fresh food or cooked at home. Since the course she has made stews, burgers and pizzas from scratch and baked a cake for her son’s eighth birthday.

“It’s not rocket science, it’s about making people see how a healthy lifestyle can fit with their own. It might come down to something as simple as making potato wedges in the oven rather than frying chips. Many people are surprised that it can actually be cheaper to buy fresh food,” says Crowther.

Thanks to media coverage such as the Five a Day and Change for Life campaigns more people are aware of the basics of healthy eating but there is still a long way to go.

However, Crowther admits that the project is expensive and doubts remain about its sustainability. “Dean Clough is a fabulous place to learn and families become very enthused even though their own kitchen may be poorly equipped. But if only half of those families we’ve already seen on the course start eating healthily we will have succeeded.”

Tips for clients

● Buy from your local market – fresh fruit and veg is often cheaper than that in the supermarket because there is no costly packaging.

● Keep a supply of frozen fruit and vegetables in the freezer. They still count towards your five-a-day. Plus you can use them when you want which cuts down on wastage.

● Eat tinned food. Tinned oily fish like sardines and salmon can be cheaper than buying fresh fish. They still contain heart-friendly omega 3 fats, are simple to prepare and have a long shelf life. Opt for ones in spring water to keep the salt to a minimum.

● Stock up on store cupboard staples such as canned tomatoes, pasta and beans. Beans on toast make a healthy lunch, but try to choose ones with less sugar and salt.

● Leftovers can be turned into homemade vegetable soups or fruit salads. Over-ripe soft fruits are also great combined with frozen berries to make delicious smoothies.

● Size matters. Keep an eye on your portion sizes and try not to cook more than you need. Measure out foods like pasta and rice before you cook rather than guessing portions.

● Timescale: Seven months

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