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Confidence to cook: A tool for self-reliance

Director of The Children’s Kitchen, Jo Ingleby, considers the importance of being able to cook a meal from scratch with simple, fresh, affordable ingredients. The significance of this essential skill has been highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis, as dealing with shortages of certain ingredients is – of course – far less stressful when we know how to easily adapt meals.

This is part of a series of blog posts looking at how we can emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with a more resilient food system, each blog introduced by Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator, Joy Carey.

Joy Carey, Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator and Consultant in Sustainable Food Systems Planning:

Resilience is about having the capacity to deal with and recover from unexpected shocks. In my ‘Wake-up call’ blog, the first in this series, I outlined five principles on which to start building a better and more resilient food system. One of these lies at the heart of all the others: knowing how to prepare and cook food – even in the simplest of ways – is fundamental to supporting our own and others’ health and happiness.

Cooking from scratch, using simple, fresh and affordable ingredients is more than just a skill, it’s a tool of self-reliance. We can use that tool to express our love and care when we cook for friends and family; we can use it to reduce our dependency on pre-prepared food, saving packaging waste and usually money, too; and we can use it to adapt meals in uncertain times when some ingredients may be scarce, making basic meals tastier and more enjoyable.

In this blog, we hear from Jo Ingleby, who has pioneered food play with children under five years old – an approach she developed at Redcliffe Children’s Centre and for which she was awarded the BBC Cook of the Year Award in 2015. Jo has thrown open a window on how it is possible to ensure that children can get a really good start to developing their personal confidence with food. Imagine if every single Bristol child had a start like this! The excellent news is that they can – read how Jo and many others are collaborating to make this happen, opening up new opportunities to whole families. Ultimately this is about nurturing our personal resilience, the resilience of our families and, ultimately, that of our city.

We need to support this incredibly important work, which has been accelerated thanks to the pandemic. Let’s celebrate and thank the people who have this wonderful vision, and find ways to enable them to reach as many children and families as possible.

Jo Ingleby, Director of The Children’s Kitchen:

The coronavirus pandemic has brought food into the forefront of everyone’s lives. Suddenly we have had to question what we buy, and where from, and what we can cook. Through my work and anecdotally I’ve seen supermarket and online shopping become difficult or impossible for many, especially the vulnerable, elderly or families with young children. Shopping locally in small shops has become ever more important and has been a lifeline for many, including me and my family. We have relied on a weekly veg trip to the Banana Boat in Totterdown, where we have bought everything for a week of cooking, as well as ingredients that were out of stock elsewhere, such as flour, yeast and pasta. Shopping online through small local producers increased during lockdown, with local vegetable boxes, meat and dairy all seeing increased sales. Never has there been a greater need to provide realistic and sustainable ways for people to access affordable food safely. Being able to cook has become even more necessary as shopping has become more difficult, especially for families with children who struggle with the queuing and restrictions in shops. Never in recent history has the issue of food insecurity, and having enough money to feed the family well been so urgent and in need of addressing by society.

Photo: Eliza Moreland

Bristol has a thriving community of cookery educators working tirelessly across the city, teaching people of all ages to cook. We have all faced challenges and struggles during the pandemic, and much of the face-to-face teaching has had to stop. Many projects such as the Square Food Foundation, Travelling Kitchen, Somali Kitchen and Coexist Community Kitchen have been flat-out cooking food for local vulnerable people and key workers. The Bristol Food Union has brought together restauranteurs and chefs to help cook for NHS workers, the homeless and groups such as care leavers, in closed restaurant kitchens around the city.

The lockdown has meant that traditional face-to-face cookery sessions have had to be put on hold, and we are facing a future where our style of teaching will have to adapt. Cooking from home and cooking from scratch, with the produce that is available in the shops, means being able improvise and be creative in the kitchen. Cooking with different vegetables, flours, missing out or swapping ingredients and cooking in bulk for future meals means that you can cook cheaply, with fewer shopping trips and less waste. Not to mention that food-led (as opposed to recipe-led) cooking is fun, especially if you are coming up with something entirely new! For many, this is way outside their comfort zone, but it is a skill that can be developed quickly when you have the time and the ingredients. In my twenty or so years as a chef and cookery teacher I have worked with all ages and abilities, with people from all kinds of backgrounds, on all sorts of budgets, and I’ve always loved how food is such a great way of being creative and building confidence. Often my job has been to enable people to build their own confidence in the kitchen, rather than teaching them to cook. For the last ten years I have been focused on working with children under five in nursery schools and Early Years settings. This age is such a key time for developing tastes and food behaviours, and is the moment where children, and their parents, are open to new foods and flavours.

A year ago, a group of colleagues from Feeding Bristol, Bristol Early Years and FareShare South West travelled to Manchester to see how their FOOD (Food on Our Doorsteps) Clubs operate within children’s centres in the city. FOOD Clubs were set up in 2018, and are run by Family Action. They are located within Early Years settings, community centres and play venues. They aim to provide food for families with young children under five for a year, with members paying £3.50 for a weekly bag of FareShare food including meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables, and store cupboard ingredients. This payment not only removes the stigma around food being a ‘handout’, but also means that the project is sustainable after a few years. Linked to the Clubs are food demos, cookery courses and support from Family Services on wellbeing, budgeting, and family support. We returned to Bristol inspired with a vision of how this could work in Bristol Early Years settings, and quickly appointed two skilled and experienced leaders, Pete Godden and Simon Green, to run the FOOD Clubs for Family Action in children’s centres in areas of the city with the highest risk of food insecurity. We started in Southmead and soon opened clubs in Hartcliffe, Inns Court and Lockleaze, this last time in an adventure playground rather than a children’s centre. This is partnership working at its best, with everyone working to a common goal and helping to build a new system to provide food to families who are facing the greatest challenges.

This January, I launched The Children’s Kitchen with Feeding Bristol, which works within nursery schools with children under five, in the areas of the city where families are most at risk of food insecurity. The settings I work in are also FOOD Club venues or are close to one. The project builds children’s familiarity with fresh, healthy food by exploring in a multi-sensory way, rather than following recipes, and part of the programme is growing fresh fruit and vegetables onsite. The Children’s Kitchen is focused on establishing partnership work across the city between food charities and organisations and Early Years settings. Partners include Incredible Edible Bristol, 91 Ways, the Square Food Foundation and The Travelling Kitchen, who each bring expert knowledge and experience to young children and their families, and help develop the food skills of practitioners to build on what children learn about food and growing. The Children’s Kitchen and the FOOD Clubs deliberately complement each other by allowing the children to explore in the kitchen the same fresh produce that the families take home from FOOD Club. A child is much more likely to eat cabbage if they have already poked, sniffed, chopped, and cooked it at nursery, and they will often show their parents how to cook it too.

By January 2020, we had opened five smoothly running clubs, each with around 40 families a week. The Children’s Kitchen was working in eight nurseries with hundreds of children. Cookery courses were being run alongside the clubs, with demos and tasters cooked by volunteers and chefs using the FOOD Club produce being sampled by members.

And then the COVID-19 crisis happened. 

Almost overnight the FOOD Clubs grew in scale thanks to the huge efforts of Family Action, Feeding Bristol, FareShare and the Family Services teams. We went from five to thirteen clubs in three months, each providing food for up to 40 families. With nurseries restricted, The Children’s Kitchen’s hands-on work with children has paused for now, and I have been working full time with the FOOD Clubs setting up new clubs in areas where there is the greatest need. This rapid growth is vital, as we are seeing increasing numbers of families in real need of food and support. Often they are coping with changes in employment and income due to COVID-19, and may have several children under 10 in cramped housing. Helping to relieve the pressure by making food accessible and affordable really helps. Often the visit to FOOD Club is a chance for families to touch base with Family Support workers and see a familiar face from nursery. We talk to every member, often about food and what they have been cooking, or what challenges they are facing during lockdown. We have also been able to distribute Scrapstore Activity Bags and new books, which have been just what many families need with small children at home all day. 

We have had families trying new foods for the first time and cooking with ingredients they normally walk past in the shops, changing the way they cook so that meals are based on what is in the bag rather than what they regularly buy. Throughout the last few months, I have been staggered by people’s kindness and willingness to help. We have had donations of fresh fruit and vegetables from Fox and West, fridge freezers, colourful bags and toiletry packs as well as endless cardboard boxes, which mean we can transfer food with less of a risk to our members.

We are working to provide a sustainable source of food for FOOD Club members during this crisis, and we are building a vision of how this network of Clubs can develop when the nurseries reopen and the lockdown ends. Our hope is that we can return to the FOOD Clubs being a supportive and inspiring place for young families to come to choose their food, cook and eat together. FOOD Clubs can also give families access to outdoor growing spaces, and support them to learn about how to grow and cook food. This support is something that we can extend during the summer holidays, especially this year when play schemes and holiday activities will not be able to run.

Feeding Bristol will be working strategically to support children over the summer. With school meal vouchers provided and the increased quantity of food coming through FareShare South West, this work will focus on supporting health and wellbeing rather than providing lunch. This is an opportunity to bring together recipes, ingredients and skills for children to learn to cook for themselves at home. Food brings us together and doing this at a distance is hard. We can no longer do demos or run courses, but we can give people the ingredients they need to cook healthy meals for their families at home, and to work together to build a positive future across the city for when we are able to cook and eat together again. A resilient food city is one in which we can all of us have the confidence to cook, building self-reliance and empowerment.

Read the first blog in this series about a post-covid sustainable food future: Going for Gold Coordinator Joy Carey proposes five core principles on which to start building a better and more resilient food system.

The second blog post in the series is by Sara Venn of Incredible Edible Bristol and is about how the city can keep the momentum going to upscale and increase urban food production.

Lead image credit: Eliza Moreland.