They say good food has a way of bringing people together, and a partnership between Providence Care, Loving Spoonful, Queen’s University, the Table in Perth and Kingston Community Health Centres is doing just that for people living with mental illness and/or substance use challenges.
Cooking Connections is a community program which runs in Kingston, Napanee and Perth. In Kingston, the program runs every Friday at the Rideau Heights Community Centre. Using cooking workshops and conversation over a meal, the program’s focus is to teach wellness and recovery strategies, reduce social isolation and address food insecurity, all while building confidence.
Providence Care’s Kelsey Tucker is an Occupational Therapist and is the mental health facilitator for the program. She is responsible for participant recruitment, providing individualized support, and for six months following the program, ensuring participants utilize their individualized social inclusion plan.
“The biggest joy for me is the moments of connection and seeing people engage in meaningful activities,” says Kelsey. “We see friendships form; people are broadening their networks and re-engaging in the world around them in ways that maybe felt inaccessible to them until recently. It is so inspiring. The joy in the environment while we are in the kitchen, helps people forge connections that they can take outside of the kitchen as well.”
The program is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which celebrated a $750,000 grant to Loving Spoonful to support staffing and other costs associated with the Cooking Connections program through a recent recognition event. Partners at Queen’s University take the lead on evaluation and data.
“The folks at the Loving Spoonful are doing amazing work in our community. I’m such a huge supporter and it’s such a pleasure for me to get to be a part of this project,” explains Kelsey.
Meeting every Friday, the group of participants convene over breakfast, conversing and enjoying one another’s company before heading to the kitchen. Tibrata Gilles is the manager of Community Kitchens at Loving Spoonful and is a Red Seal certified chef with professional cooking experience, overseeing the Cooking Connections program. Tibrata plays a key role in facilitating the cooking portion of the program. Recipes for the program are developed to create wholesome, nutritious meals that are known to boost moods. Seasonal produce is heavily relied upon and is graciously donated and also purchased from farmers in the area.
“We want people to experience something novel yet affordable, things that they haven’t heard of before with different flavours. It’s also important that they can make these meals happen at home in the comfort of their own kitchen. Participants get to take home the leftovers and raw ingredients as well which is wonderful, especially for those facing food insecurity,” says Kelsey.
Kelsey describes every recipe as “absolutely fabulous.” Some of her favorite recipes are a Turkish fish dish, tomato soup and grilled cheese and homemade pizza. The cooking portion of the program focuses on teaching food literacy and inclusion.
“There have been participants who were terrified to come to the program for the first time. One person told me they hadn’t left their house in two years. But they made it and they benefitted so much from it. Hearing these kinds of stories are meaningful. It is such a pleasure meeting and getting to learn from everyone. These heart-rendering moments of common humanity are so validating. Everyone should have opportunities for social enjoyment, play and connecting with others,” says Kelsey. Tibrata agrees fully with the benefits of the program.
A past participant in the group says “This program has filled my heart and soul with a purpose and a reason. As a woman living with schizophrenia, I flourish in meeting people with obstacles similar to mine, bringing me to a brave place of truth and authenticity that I express each day in the group.”
The second portion of each weeks workshop provides educational opportunities and is facilitated by two Peer Facilitators who have lived experience with mental illness. They have completed the program and undergone Peer Facilitator training. Topics of learning include internal stigma, stigma in the workplace, mental health and recovery, legal rights and advocacy and much more.
“The Peer Facilitators who lead the workshops have so much wisdom and so many amazing experiences they can use to relate to people in the program who are at different places in their recovery. I’m there for support if the conversation activates anybody and they need to take a break. It’s a very supportive environment.” explains Kelsey.
Participants are encouraged to share their experiences and converse with the others in the group. By the time the educational component of the program is finished, the meal that has been cooking, under the watchful eye of volunteers and Community Kitchen Facilitator staff, is ready for participants to come together and enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Recently, 45 past attendees of the Cooking Connections program joined together for a social inclusion lunch to celebrate the groups learning, cooking, new-found friendships and new skills. Kelsey says, the energy in the room gave her goosebumps and many people shared their own recovery work and progress about how the program benefitted them and most importantly, how included it made them feel.
Those who run Cooking Connections stress that success isn’t perfection. Moving outside of one’s comfort zone is an accurate measure of success within the program. The space for participants is welcoming, supportive and encourages people to try new things. Within this space alongside trained and dedicated professionals, those living with mental health or substance use challenges have a safe space to learn new skills to utilize in their day-to-day lives.
“I’m always looking for new participants. You don’t have to be a Providence Care client to participate – anyone who self-identifies as either having a mental illness or a substance use disorder can join us,” explains Kelsey.
If you, or a client you support is interested in taking part in the Cooking Connections program please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to start the intake process today.
Help make good food available and build a sustainable food-secure community by donating to the Loving Spoonful today: https://www.lovingspoonful.org/