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Food and mental health wellbeing: volunteers feed the bodies and minds of older people

Almost 100 years ago the famous Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli said: ‘eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.’

I think she got how we feel about food and eating pretty spot on - if only it were that simple to eat well and feel well. In my capacity as Specialist Older People’s Clore Social Fellow (funded by Tudor Trust and John Ellerman Foundation) I’ve taken up the mantle of raising awareness around the rising tide of poor food access, poor nutrition, malnutrition and dehydration among our older population, in addition to chairing Scotland’s first Malnutrition Summit and speaking recently in Parliament to the Cross Party Group on Food about malnutrition. Food definitely feeds the mind as well as the body, but what if you’re not able to get out to shop, what if cooking is difficult, what if poor health means you’ve little interest in eating, and what if most meals are eaten alone?

One of the most obvious, yet under-recognised factors in mental health is the role of nutrition. The body of evidence linking diet and mental health is growing at a rapid pace. As well as its impact on short and long-term mental health, the evidence indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.

At Food Train, our volunteers have been helping older people to access food and eat better for over 20 years with simple solutions to everyday problems. Our weekly shopping volunteers collect shopping lists, offer help with what’s in the shops and then deliver the groceries, making sure our customers get the food they like and need. Our befriending service incorporates food and drink in all activities; the friendship clubs have group lunches, the trips include a great lunch out venue and one-to-one visits always need a cuppa or two.

Our meal sharing service matches local volunteer cooks to older people in need of lovingly home cooked meals. These volunteer cooks visit their matched diner regularly to share extra portions of meals from their own kitchens. Across Scotland today our volunteers are helping feed the bodies and minds of over 2,000 older people, giving joy to their life, contributing to their goodwill with happy companionship and hopefully bringing a welcome boost to their mental wellbeing too.

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