By Nigel Denby RD and Noah Lattanzi
They say that the best way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but I've found recently that food has more than just romantic and nutrition powers.
A couple of months ago I was approached, as a Dietitian, by a Children's Nursery in Hillingdon, West London. McMillan Early Childhood Centre (MECC) were aware that there were a vast number of families in the area who had 'fallen off the social service's radar'. They pointed out that in the ten years between 2001 and 2011 their BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] population had doubled in contrast to the UK population in general showing just a 13% growth in the period.
And they also found that within that BAME population there are a number of 'under the radar' groups, notably Farsi, Somali, Traveller, Russian, Lithuanian and Albanian families. These families didn't have good use of English, struggled to contact other families from their background and often slip under the radar of many of the support agencies who refer families to the Children's Centre. Hard to reach families tend not to be registered with any health or social support agencies- essentially those most in need are hardest to locate.
So how to reach them and put them in touch with likeminded parents and the local social services who could provide a range of care and support? Yes, you guessed it - through food!
I, and my colleagues at Grub4Life.com created a Lunch Club. We offered them a free hot lunch, contact with other similar families, and for advice and support with their social needs.
I don't know whether you know but the next time you pass a Children's Centre - take a closer look. They're not just nurseries as Centres like MECC offer a wide range of help of help. As well as childcare there are Family Support teams offering counselling and emotional support. Families can also get help in accessing benefits and managing their budgets; there are support groups for parents who don't speak English and a range of health clinics."
I spoke to Ludmila Morris, the MECC Head Teacher and she told me, "We've known for some time that there are hundreds of families in Hillingdon who need our help and support, but they've just been lost in the system and never come under our radar. As a result they're on their own and struggling to cope. As a Children's Centre we're uniquely placed to be able to act as an informal meeting point - within a relaxed and friendly environment. We're here for the whole family and support any family in need with a child under five. Many of our families have faced challenges like domestic violence, addictions, and family breakdown as well as isolation because of cultural or religious issues.
So the lunch club has become a simple way for families to come into the Centre, connect with one of their team and [literally] get a taste of what's on offer. As I mentioned, we created it with the MECC but couldn't have done it without the support of a Big Lottery award.
The Lunch Club opened its doors this month and was well attended by many families. I talked to one Farsi mother who told me that she knows there are many other families from Afghanistan in the area and the only time these families would ordinarily come together would be at their Mosque. "But", she said "they no longer feel safe to attend the mosque due to divisions within the Muslim community" So these families are now more isolated than ever. Now that she has been coming to McMillan she says that she is beginning to make friends and build a new life.
A couple of other parents, Gervina and Rebecca said: - "the Lunch Club makes you feel very comfortable... it's a safe place. I find that here women talk about things that affect many of the others. There have been so many instances where they talk about things that you've been worrying about but were afraid to ask about. Rebecca said, "My Son sufferers from Autism. I met another Mum with an Autistic son today and she's been telling me about a special play event for children with disabilities. I wouldn't have known about it!"
So, the next time you pass your local Children's Centre - think of it as the core of your community! It's welcoming, it's got lots of resources available, it's a place where parents can come and know that they're going to be supported.
And, please remember, the community that eats together solve more problems than just hunger!