ABC Cook! is a healthy eating initiative working in partnership with a wide range of local and national organisations and charities and has been awarded by both the Royal Society for Public Health and Wiltshire Council for its delivery of a variety of sessions and longer courses to local community participants of all ages and abilities. Delivered by qualified chef-educator, Catherine Maxwell, sessions provide motivation and support through the delivery of practical skills in cooking, shopping, nutrition, labelling and food safety. Courses are designed to meet the identified needs of each learner with evidence-based content and delivery.
Aims & Objectives
The drive behind this ongoing initiative is to empower learners to make healthy choices by developing a passion for cooking, infusing memories of food and preparation that are positive and fun. I am a fully qualified chef and teacher, and all workshops deliver both in-depth knowledge and practical hands-on experience of the ingredients and methods, covering all aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage and National Curriculum, along with functional skills for adult learners.
The sessions enable individuals to make healthier life choices and equip them to do this through the development of practical skills, preventing the onset of diet-related disease. In an increasingly fast-moving world, the recipes created demonstrate how quick and easy it is to prepare and cook a healthy, economic and balanced meal from the base ingredients. ABC Cook! courses deliver a fun and practical approach to healthy eating and nutrition - providing resources and guidance on the origin of ingredients, constituents of a balanced diet for different family members, effective understanding of food labelling, how to store, prepare and cook food safely and hygienically, how to save money and energy, and how to develop confidence and enjoyment in cooking simple and nutritious meals as a group. The project was also designed to help participants understand the mass of available information on healthy eating, portion size and nutrition that other health professionals have provided them with, and transfer this knowledge into concrete, practical skills within a supportive environment.
If diet, and hence health, is nurtured appropriately then individuals will be less prone to obesity, diabetes, cancers and other preventable diseases in later life - reducing the burden on health services. Since the advent of relatively cheap and readily available convenience and processed food, and the absence until recently of cooking lessons as part of the National Curriculum, generations have left formal education without any skills in this area. ABC Cook! has successfully bridged this knowledge gap for the last five years.
ABC Cook! was formed in 2008 after a number of people sought direct advice from me on how to practically implement health improvement guidance and policy issued at both a national and local level.
Individuals reported that the volume of information, sometimes conflicting, was overwhelming and resulted in them being unable to take positive action. Analysis of the county showed that there were no organisations providing a link between individuals requiring assistance and NHS (and later Public Health) advice on healthy eating. Local and regional statistics on obesity and poor dental health highlighted in the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment and National Child Measurement Program identified specific needs within different areas and communities forming the basis for the development of ABC Cook! The project also recognised demand from Children's centres, schools, charities, intervention services and councils for this service. The impact of delivering cookery skills as a vehicle to improve general health and well-being, including prevention and recovery in areas such as obesity, malnutrition, isolation, family and community cohesion and mental health issues was also a substantial factor to consider in ABC Cook!'s formation.
The leading challenge in establishing the initiative was to ensure that sessions successfully attracted vulnerable and disadvantaged groups who would not normally access support. This was achieved by providing free sessions within targeted communities through partnership working and grant-funding. To date, the project has provided sessions to over ten thousand unique learners at a total implementation and delivery cost of around £50,000 by stripping away the multiple layers of management, administration and poorly targeted advertising normally associated with a health promotion campaign of this magnitude.
Additionally, by delivering the service to individuals of all ages and abilities with an emphasis on behavioural change and promoting the acquisition of positive eating habits from birth onwards, results are not only immediate to the public but will also have a substantial long-term beneficial impact on over-stressed health service budgets and staff.
ABC Cook! accessed funding from a variety of sources dependent on project type and the community group involved. ABC Cook's status as an independent small business, although modelled on a social enterprise has restricted the accessibility of 'charitable' grants and funding. Instead, funding has been wholly realised from partner organisations to date, who have recognised that ABC Cook!'s ethos and methods consistently deliver value-for-money courses reflecting national and local policy within health and education.
Courses are normally run in locations convenient to participants in accessible buildings to ensure inclusivity. Through the development of practical cookery skills, participants are engaged in a positive learning experience, allowing them to make healthier and more informed choices with regard to diet and food for themselves and their families, whilst equipping them with an essential life skill. On completion of the course, learners are empowered to seek further opportunities for personal growth and development.
The structure of the sessions and the promotion of cooking and eating as a social activity leads to support networks forming within the group and increased community cohesion. Communication, literacy and numeracy skills and concepts are presented within the delivery of the course in a practical format that translates directly to real life experience. Learners are also made aware of other National Health campaigns they may not have previously accessed, and can be signposted to other support services as a result of increased confidence and trust developed during courses.
ABC Cook! has forged many partnerships with other organisations that consistently reinforce health promotion and behavioural change messages delivered in sessions; such as Oral Health Promotion, Trading Standards, Public Protection and the Fire Service.
The greatest barriers faced by this initiative are gaining access to funding for larger and more widespread projects. The venture stands on its own merits with the support of the expanding communities and organisations it works with, and the dedication of a handful of committed professionals.
Results and evaluation
Progress and results are monitored continually over the course of workshops and sessions. By offering choices and allowing the learners to take a degree of course and workshop ownership, the recipes, skills and information are more effectively received and readily translate into changes of behaviour in everyday shopping, cooking and eating. Family and community learning promotes regular attendance and supports behaviour change through peer monitoring.
Changes in legislation or policies are relayed to maintain consistency with those of other organisations. A substantial part of my time is spent in continued professional development, using feedback to develop and amend both the sessions, and well-meaning but inconsistent or factually inaccurate professional resources. Sessions are regularly observed by other health and education professionals who help inform evaluation and future improvements.
Progress is measured through written and verbal feedback with participants also completing questionnaires. Other professionals involved with each learner regularly feedback information on whether skills are being utilised. Individual learning goals are set early and monitored and reviewed throughout the courses. Project reports and statistics are regularly produced and reviewed, as are individual evaluations with learners, partners and commissioning organisations.
There are many requests from colleagues, professionals and learners for further and more advanced and accredited courses due to positive feedback and the behavioural changes recorded in learners. Improved attitudes to engagement and future learning are observed with a negligible dropout rate, courses running at full capacity and many learners gaining employment in the catering industry.
Courses have expanded to include early years practitioners, children's centre staff, nursery cooks and teachers, and are valued as a one-stop shop for health and wellbeing advice and interaction with a range of public health and safety professionals. Recipes and skills are being utilised in a wider context with other groups and individuals extending the reach and benefits of the initial project. Wider outcomes are not as readily measured but appear to deliver notable short and longer-term savings in both health and wellbeing.
Key learning points
To have a complete understanding of the individual or group you are working with in order to make the intervention as relevant and meaningful as possible whilst promoting optimum behavioural change Active communication with attendees and potential attendees increases the likelihood of consistent attendance and participation.
To ensure that changes are small and manageable but can accumulate and increase over time for long term benefit.
Understand that what works for one individual may not have the same impact or effect on others, so design a core format that has flexibility within delivery and monitoring and can be differentiated to meet individual requirements and expectations.
Open and active two-way communication ensures both individuals and groups can express what they hope to achieve and what is realistically manageable in the time frame. By offering learners some input into the design and delivery of the courses it promotes ownership, they are more likely to both attend and are increasingly motivated to make small changes in lifestyle, cooking and shopping habits. All learners may experience circumstances that inhibit their ability to make change. Identification and understanding of these barriers to change enables the construction of strategies to overcome this.