Personal reflections on Eat Club’s experience with Action on Disability

This article is written from my personal point of view. Although I am not disabled myself, I have a brother with cerebral palsy, and I am eager to learn more about different people’s experiences. However, as someone who does not experience the language of impairment every day, any language I have used is not intended to offend or be dis-respectful. Much like learning about cooking, food and its cultural richness, having an understanding of disability and impairment is a learning journey.
By David Thomson.

In the summer of 2022 Eat Club teamed up with the West London youth charity Action on Disability to deliver a three-week cook and eat programme.

Over the three weeks ten different young people took part and many of the participants returning each day. By the end of the week the young kitchen brigade directed by the Eat Club chefs had prepared and severed 280 portions of food to a (on the whole) very grateful dining room.

But as well as being a very filling and nutritious experience, the sessions revealed the ways food contributes to the wellbeing of young people with disabilities beyond its biological function. In this short article, I’ll share some of the ways I saw food culture – the activities and meanings that surround the making and eating of food – contributing to the participants occupational wellbeing.

Disability occurs when people are not able to perform certain activities and interact with the material and social world around them and this creates exclusion and isolation that negatively affect wellbeing. Occupation – the ability to fulfil meaningful activities – is central to whether people do or do not experience disability and because food is such a big part of daily life, an active relationship with food has a major influence on disabled people’s wellbeing.

Occupational therapists consider food as affective across many occupational domains from one’s biological need to feed oneself (defined as a activity of daily living) to more advanced levels termed instrumental activities of daily living– activities that facilitate life in the home of community and in which we see multiple cross over with food from the care of others, communication, home establishment and religious and spiritual expression. OT’s also recognise the importance of food practises in relation to employment, play, leisure and social participation.

My experiences of delivering the two-week session certainly tallied with the occupational therapy framework. During the cooking sessions the young participants showed great care and attention to the different tasks they were given in the kitchen and reported that carrying out food prep was enjoyable and gave them a sense of fun and independence which they shared among each other and passed on to their families. This positivity extended into the dining room too where the activity of sharing a meal was a really enjoyable social occasion in which the young people I ate with showed care and attention to others, communicated over the food and expressed their different identities.

I found that the young people who took part in the sessions – whether they were making or only eating the food – found occupational meaning in the food work in ways that fit the key assumption of occupational therapy. The participation in food-based cultural activities had a positive effect on their health and wellbeing: it created structure and organised their time, it brought meaning to their life (culturally and personally), and they were able to find individual value in what they were doing.

The sessions with Action on Disability showed how food culture – the activities and meanings that surround the making and eating – can have many positive influences on the occupational wellbeing of young people with disability, on their basic ability to feed themselves but also on their social wellbeing and cultural participation whether that was sharing stories of food memories over the kitchen bench, collaborating to make a dish on time or simply sitting down next to each other to leisurely enjoy a tasty lunch.