The Wholesome Collective

The Wholesome Collective has been selected as an ABA100® Winner for Community Contribution in The Australian Business Awards 2020. The Australian Business Award for Community Contribution [CCA] recognises organisations that implement initiatives that have a positive impact on the community and generate outcomes that have a long term benefit.

The Wholesome Collective (TWC) is a unique social enterprise addressing the complex and pressing social issue of poor dietary intakes, and a lack of home cooking in our most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. The kitchen is the hub of the home, no matter what a person’s situation. For some it is the place where cooking, a meal, a conversation and education is shared. For many it is a place of verbal abuse, violence, torture, deprivation and starvation. This is the case for many of the people who TWC work with. TWC offer fun, informative and social cooking experiences that have a nutrition and life skills focus. They use effective, practical education to enable disadvantaged community members to self-manage, by optimising their nutrition knowledge and cooking skills, and overcoming social, medical and financial barriers to cooking and eating well. This ultimately improves the physical and mental health of everyone who engages with TWC services. TWC founders, Mary Wills and Kerryn Boogaard met in 2009 working at Wyong and Gosford Hospitals as a dietitian assistant and a dietitian. They knew that they could do more in the area of nutrition education to improve the health of the community they were engaging with. They wanted to work together to educate people around food, nutrition and cooking in a practical way, versus handing over a piece of paper and hoping that they could make sense of it and change. They identified an obvious need in the community for this type of education, and a gap in government service. They wanted to combine their skills in nutrition and culinary education (with Mary being a home economist), and harness their tenacity and enthusiasm to make change. TWC is a mobile nutrition and cooking education service, targeting the Sydney, Central Coast, Newcastle and Hunter Valley areas. TWC will be five years old in July 2020, and has provided practical education in the form of hands on programs and presentations to over 3000 disadvantaged and vulnerable community members, to date. They have worked with youth, Aboriginal, elderly, mental health, disability, socially isolated and young parent groups. They have taken their education to rural and remote, drought affected areas as part of Federal government funding.

TWC aims to work with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of the community to create social change through empowerment and enablement. Within these communities, the social issue of poor dietary intake is complex and pressing. A lack of cooking skills, confidence and limited food, nutrition and budgeting knowledge is obvious. Low incomes, low education levels, mental health problems and limited social support are all additional barriers to eating well and cooking that they witness every day. They aim to help them overcome these barriers. TWC has a highly professional team with the ability to combine culinary skills and education with their expertise in nutrition, diabetes management, general health, chronic disease prevention and management and exercise science. All TWC staff have the latest food safety/food handling qualifications and there is always a food safety supervisor present for each program. As part of their strategic plan, TWC hope that hundreds of disadvantaged community members can take part in this education (that they otherwise do not have access to) in order to improve their overall health and wellbeing.

TWC founders have written and published their own nutrition and cookbook that is used as part of their programs. This book is written in an easy to understand format to provide ongoing education and inspiration for participants. This has proven to be a very effective resource, as participants are able to take the education home, and educate and empower their social support networks. The book contains nutrition information, meal and snack ideas, advice on how to stock a pantry, a food budgeting tool, a seasonal food guide and 78 recipes for good health and enjoyment. Recipes provide further information about the nutritional content and advice around how to adapt the recipes to manage chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes (when relevant).

The intention of TWC founders was to create a social enterprise that offered practical nutrition and cooking education that addressed the identified barriers to eating well and cooking in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. Practical education assists with knowledge retention, engagement and behaviour change. The program is designed to improve people’s nutrition knowledge, develop cooking skills and their ability to utilise available cooking equipment. It also promotes the confidence of participants in the kitchen as well as provide opportunity for social interaction through cooking and sharing a meal together. The overall goal of the enterprise is to improve the nutrition intake and increase the cooking frequency of the communities most disadvantaged and vulnerable members, to improve their mental and physical health and wellbeing.

When considering nutrition and cooking education available within the Sydney, Central Coast, Newcastle and Hunter Valley areas, TWC founders verified that this service fills a gap in community education. In regard to general nutrition and cooking education, there are some programs and school interventions aimed at kinder to year 12 students. However, there are limited programs for adolescents and transitioning to adulthood and adults. They found there was no nutrition and cooking education targeting low socioeconomic groups within these geographical areas. However, TWC aimed to provide nutrition education, combined with a hands-on cooking experience to show participants how to prepare nutritious meals on a tight budget. TWC founders designed their four-session nutrition and cooking program to fill this identified gap in community education. This program remains a core part of their education and business. It is designed to offer very targeted education for a small group of participants, so they can effectively learn in a relaxed and non-threatening environment. This concept is unique as it works in partnership with a coordinator within a community service who is best placed to identify community members in need of support. The current community-based cooking programs that attract some media attention utilise expensive equipment and ingredients, making it an irrelevant learning experience to disadvantaged community members. TWC wanted a service to exist that used inexpensive, readily available equipment and ingredients. The TWC programs are centred around cooking in an electric frypan. This is an intentional design to ensure that all participants, no matter their living conditions, can replicate what was learnt during the program and continue to cook and care for themselves. The program involves collaborating with a community service provider such as a youth service or rehabilitation centre. It also gives participants the opportunity to communicate with a program coordinator to identify community members most in need of the education. This is achieved by the screening of participants to determine their health status, nutrition requirements and social situation. The program is four, 2-3 hour education sessions delivered over four consecutive weeks, with each session involving a group discussion to determine the groups needs and discuss a relevant health/nutrition topic to the group. This discussion is aimed at people engaging, asking their specific questions around food, cooking and nutrition. After, the program consists of cooking a two-course, budget-friendly meal that translates the topic. Cooking is a great bonding session as the participants follow the recipes, giving them something to discuss, skills to share, questions to ask and helping each other. The activity of delivering a completed dish to share with everyone instils pride and completion of a task. After, the group share the meal over a set table that participants set. This provides an opportunity for social interaction and sparks meaningful conversation and the ability for participants to connect with like-minded people and form new friendships. Lastly, individual nutrition advice is provided from a dietitian. TWC staff develop trust with each participant to help them feel safe, whether that is using certain utensils or equipment that conjure bad memories or the anxiety of having the courage to enter a kitchen. This makes participants feel safe in a kitchen, empowering them to overcome barriers to cooking and eating well.

The development of this four-session program started toward the end of 2015 and continued throughout 2016. They trialled and evaluated their approach with a series of programs for clients engaging with the aged care service provider, ADSSI in-home Support. By evaluating and re-evaluating the program, TWC founders were able to develop a program that had a positive impact in regards to diet and cooking frequency of this target group. From there, TWC was approached by various community service providers to deliver this four-session nutrition and cooking program to a range of community members.

As the individuals within the target groups cannot afford to directly access these vital services, TWC collaborate with community service providers to reach the people that need this help the most. With significant funding, they deliver numerous four-session nutrition and cooking programs within one community, and where relevant, provide staff training to care-providers, program coordinators and teachers, and implement the TWC food provision guide. This process helps to engage the participants who require the help, create environmental change, ensure long-term behavior change and provide opportunity for the education to organically filter through the entire community that they are working with.

TWC have developed measures that clearly demonstrate the positive impact that nutrition and cooking education offers all Australians. The business is growing and evolving, and they have successfully scaled since inception. They are reaching new target groups across new regions (including rural and remote areas) while successfully maintaining and evolving current programs and collaborations.

For information about The Wholesome Collective visit thewholesomeco.com.au