Food

'This is still just the beginning': How Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food changed a nation

At The Storehouse in Bradford, young lives are being given a confidence-building boost in specially tailored cookery classes

Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo / Exposure Photo Agency

In 2009, Jamie Oliver surveyed the British government’s provision of food education and found it severely lacking. In response, he set up the Ministry of Food to provide lessons on cooking, nutrition and sustainability in Bradford, Rotherham, Leeds, Newcastle and Stratford, East London. 

Fifteen years later, the Ministry of Food is still going strong, with 74 sites across the UK and 18 more planned for this year, which will deliver Oliver’s mission to reach 40,000 more people from underserved communities. It is now a certified B Corp, recognised for its positive impact on people and the environment. 

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In Bradford, Oliver’s work continues at The Storehouse, where local organisation Inn Churches supports and empowers people experiencing homelessness, poverty and other forms of marginalisation – including through food provision. 

“We reclaim tonnes and tonnes of food on an annual basis,” says welfare manager Soraya Overend, “and we’ve been buying food, which comes from government funding, and distributing it to food banks. We’ve also been visiting some community centres and churches to look at their pantry models and cook whatever they’ve got on display that day.” 

They also teach Oliver’s recipes and nutritional tips to children, parents and young people. The Big Issue’s visit aligns with a weekly session with post-16 students from High Park School, a specialist institution that supports disabled and neurodiverse children and young people with complex needs. Those in attendance are autistic. Many are non-verbal and struggle with sensory overload and unfamiliar environments – but at The Storehouse, they thrive. 

Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

“It’s great, because they can try different things,” says teacher Allison. “They experience different textures and sounds.” She singles out one student. “He only eats rice at school. He came here, and he ended up eating beans on toast, curry, all sorts – it was a massive step.” 

The students, she adds, “look forward to coming here. Being able to meet new people is a massive thing, because a lot of them might not be able to go out with their families.” 

Today, they are cooking chicken chow mein – but not before they try some new fruits. “Does anyone know what these are?” asks catering assistant Julie Turner, holding up a lychee. She passes a bowl around the room and the students experiment with the texture. 

Turner shows the students how to remove the shells and extract the stones, and they follow her lead with varying levels of support from staff. Without any pressure, Turner invites them to taste it, and many, despite anxiety around new sensory experiences, choose to do so.

The students spend three and a half hours at the Ministry of Food class every Thursday. Those extended sessions, Allison says, allow them the processing time they need to flourish – “when they’re rushing, they’re not actually learning as quickly as they could do.” 

Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

Turner guides the class through the process of preparing vegetables. One student uses an Easi-Grip knife. “We’d been having to give him quite a lot of help to hold it,” Turner says, “and we wondered about position. The first week I brought this one, he grabbed it and started chopping straight away.” 

“It makes a massive difference,” Allison says of the flexibility with which the Ministry of Food staff approach the students, meeting their needs but also catering to their strengths. 

As Turner guides the students through Oliver’s recipe, she provides the students with frequent opportunities to contribute. “Do you remember how we chopped the pepper?” she asks a student. “Can you show Allison, please?” They return to recipes and cooking techniques periodically, allowing students to benefit from the comfort of familiar activities and embedding their understanding of the skills required. 

While other classes at The Storehouse are more regimented – staff follow recipes exactly and place greater emphasis on the Eatwell Guide to nutrition – the classes with the High Park students take a more informal approach. Turner often offers students two choices – chop or tear mushrooms, chop or peel courgettes. 

Choosing recipes that require a variety of skills has the benefit of “improving students’ fine motor skills”, says Allison. Social skills also develop. “We have a big push at school on our students socialising outside their classrooms,” she says. “Even though they may be non-verbal, they’re very aware.” The students who attend Inn Churches are from three different classrooms, and two of them, who are in different classes at school, have become particularly close, communicating via touch. 

“Students for whom routine’s really important might not experience going out. By giving them experience of being around different people, the idea is that eventually, we’ll be able to take them to a supermarket to buy their food.” 

High Park School places high value on offering participants the ability to make independent choices and to communicate their needs and desires. These are values shared by the Ministry of Food. 

During the course of the session, they decide that they will cook a pasta dish next week as the students recently enjoyed cooking pasta at school. 

They also embrace different styles of learning and expression. While some enjoy responding to questions, others learn better by touch, and Turner explains the process of cooking to one student by allowing him to compare the sensation of raw and boiled noodles. 

Since their involvement with the Ministry of Food, the students have made significant gains in independence. One of them might even participate in public demonstrations. 

Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

The Ministry of Food provides lesson plans, talking points and recipes, but ultimately, the Inn Churches staff and High Park teachers and students shape the sessions. “The working relationship we’ve got with Jamie’s team is really good,” Overend says. 

The recipes have changed over the last 15 years to place increasing emphasis on health, but also on taste – salt, sugar and oils are replaced with herbs and spices. The students try coriander, ginger and pepper – and go back for seconds and thirds. 

“Celebrating 15 years of my Ministry of Food programme has to be one of my proudest achievements, and this is still just the beginning,” Jamie Oliver told Big Issue. 

“We’ve set ourselves the ambitious target of teaching one million people to cook by 2030, and we are ramping up our programmes in secondary schools and in even more communities around the country. 

“Knowing how to cook from scratch is one of the most important skills you can learn – it will set you up to feed yourself and your loved ones for life. So, if you know of a school or community group that would love to join the Ministry of Food programme, get in touch!”  

Find out more about The Storehouse here

For more about Jamies Ministry of Food click here

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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