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Leading from the kitchen

Clore Social Fellow Tony Wright, Founder and Chief Executive of Forward Assist, a multi-award winning Veterans Charity, writes about the profound impact a healthy diet can have on veterans’ wellbeing.

One of the best aspects of taking part in the Clore Social Leadership’s Cobseo Emerging Leader course in 2018 was the chance to step back from front line delivery services and spend time reading a plethora of leadership books and exploring leadership theories. During that process I was able to identify that I both identified with and fitted the profile of a servant leader. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. I enjoy getting ‘stuck in’ and delivering services alongside our multi-disciplinary team and veteran peer mentors. One of the programmes we have initiated over the last few years in our Veterans Health and Wellbeing Hub is the Veterans Cook2Give project.

The Forward Assist Cook2Give project operates from Salute Café and teaches veterans how to cook healthy nutritious meals for themselves, their families and the wider community. Educating veterans about the importance of a healthy diet is in many ways the most powerful intervention we have. We have found that once Veterans understand the link between diet and wellbeing, they see dramatic improvements in the quality of their lives.

“Attending the healthy eating course taught me how to cook better and make healthier meals. I now enjoy cooking and enjoy exploring new recipes. Because of the healthy eating course I now know what not to eat and how to replace unhealthy food for a healthier alternative. The course also gave me a purpose to get out of the house and meet new people.” - Bob Wilson, Veteran

The course also gave me a purpose to get out of the house and meet new people.
Bob Wilson, Veteran

When you think of a military veterans charity, you may not think it would focus on things like diet, cooking and health. However, Forward Assist – a multi-award-winning military veterans charity based in the North East of England – has discovered that helping military veterans maintain a healthy diet and improve their cooking skills have profound effects on their mental, physical and emotional outcomes.

Far too often, media coverage of military veterans tends to focus narrowly on the lack of services for those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet for the majority of those transitioning from the military the key issues facing veterans are much wider.

There are numerous benefits of a well-balanced diet - from the energy it provides to keep active throughout the day and nutrients for muscle growth and cell repair to the fact healthy eating helps prevent diet-related illnesses such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Once veterans understand the link between diet and wellbeing, we see dramatic improvements in the quality of their lives.

Fresh seasonal vegetables are also grown in the charity’s allotment and herbs are grown in raised beds just outside Salute Café. These are incorporated into meals when available. Horticulture as an outdoor activity has been shown to help reduce social isolation and loneliness whilst improving physical health. Eating well for less is another central aspect. Forward Assist’s eight-week healthy eating course teaches veterans how to eat healthily on a tight budget, as well as learning how not to be an emotional hostage to food. Far too many veterans, especially when stressed, eat a disproportionate amount of takeaway food and more than one has described the novel culinary experience of eating a ‘Pot Noodle Sandwich’. The charity encourages veterans to avoid readymade meals by teaching them how to cook and prepare fruit, vegetables and pulses and it provides veterans with recipe cards to use at home.

Since 2017, the Veterans ‘Cook2Give’ team has cooked over 10,700 meals. In 2020, the charity was awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service, the equivalent of an MBE, in recognition of the volunteers’ dedication and commitment to civic duty after service. At Forward Assist we believe veterans are a community resource and we are proud to give them opportunities to serve their community.

Every year Forward Assist invites Occupational Therapy students to join the team on a work-based placement. One of the initiatives they developed was a ‘how to cook healthy meals on a budget’ and ‘how to be creative with the content of an emergency food parcel’. Asking for a food parcel can be demoralising, but by teaching veterans how to cook we empower them to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The course has been a great success and came into its own during the Covid-19 lockdown when isolated veterans were able to put the theory into practice.

When it comes to leadership there are many styles and as a servant leader I think Social Worker, Joseph Mayo sums it up best when he said;

Leadership is not about making other people poor but making a difference in their lives
Joseph Mayo

Other opportunities to develop the veterans’ health includes their annual Veterans Retreat to France where the charity promotes abstinence from recreational substance misuse and further develops their cooking and healthy food skills with help from a qualified and experienced chef who takes the group shopping every day in local street markets for fresh vegetables and ingredients for the daily meals. Together they learn how to cook and prepare healthy meals.

The simple joy of eating together every day creates a much missed sense of camaraderie as everyone has a role supporting one another during the course of the day. It’s incredible the difference regular meals and abstinence from alcohol can have on the physical and mental wellbeing of participants. However, we know this is a highly controlled environment and it’s not always easy for veterans and their families to maintain this structure and discipline when they are on their own. In light of the Prime Minister’s obesity strategy this charity is calling for more measures to help reduce the bombardment of unhealthy junk food advertising, promotions and availability to help support groups like military veterans maintain a healthy diet away from the cooking course. It is specifically calling for the government to implement all policies in Chapter 2 of the Childhood Obesity Plan published in 2018. The strategy made a number of policy commitments, the vast majority of which are still waiting to be implemented.

When we’re working so hard to make it easier for veterans to maintain a healthy diet, it feels wrong that we put them back into an environment that disproportionately promotes and advertises unhealthy food and drink. We’re doing our bit; the government and food and drinks industry should do theirs too. We welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has recognised that people do actually want the government to help make it easier for us all to eat healthily and be active.

Contact: Tony Wright CEO

Forward Assist www.forward-assist.com

Email: tony@forward-assist.com

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