A recipe for success: reflections on a cooking project to support year one student transitions to university.
Queen Margaret University and Cyrenians held an event on 5th March 2019 to mark the final cookery class of our Widening participation and student retention (Wiser) funded project- A recipe for success: cookery classes for year 1 students transitioning to university. This collaborative intervention responds to recent evidence that UK students may be at risk of food insecurity. Food insecurity is ‘the inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or uncertainty that one will be able to do so’ (Dowler 2003, pp140-159). Food insecurity can lead to poor mental and physical wellbeing and impact on students’ academic abilities.
Some students find it challenging to source and prepare a healthy, nutritious diet, especially during stressful periods such as examination time. Many students worry about having enough money to avoid hunger. Concerning findings from a survey of over 800 UK students indicated that a third of respondents had gone without eating for a day or more to mitigate against living costs and some reported to use food banks (Gurney-Read 2016). In addition, male students appear to be less knowledgeable about food preparation and express less intention to consume a healthy diet than female students.
Food preparation and eating together also have important social benefits. Often transition to university means relocation away from support networks such as family and friends. Activities such as our cooking classes can help to promote the development of new social networks and enhance a sense of belonging which can support ‘successful’ transition to university where students flourish socially and academically.
Our extra-curricular project involved the design, delivery and evaluation of two programmes of fun and interactive cooking classes for students in their first year of study at QMU. In order to provide multiple opportunities for students to engage with each other in preparing, cooking and sharing food together we involved peer facilitators, many of whom were students from nursing undergraduate and post graduate programmes, who had experience of volunteering or had participated in a pilot cookery project in 2017-18. We actively promoted the classes to male students through the use of inclusive images on the promotional posters and recruited male peer facilitators within the classes.
For the final class of the semester ‘entertaining on a budget’ the participants were challenged to invite another person to come along and share the food they had cooked and learn about the experiences of the cooking classes. It was at this event on 5th March that I paused to look down the table and take in the event as it unfolded.
The students had planned and created a glorious feast together. No take out deliveries or ready meals tonight! In response to a request from some of our international participants two splendid haggis lasagnas accompanied the more usual plant based and meat varieties. We also had robust chicken curries, rice and curry salads which were being devoured! As it was Pancake Day we were treated to a pile of delicious apple pancakes and decadent lime cheesecake style desserts- well it was a treat! The food was delightful and plentiful but as I raised my head to look around I noticed the atmosphere we had created; the laughter and the hum of animated conversation which accompanied the scoffing. New friendships were being made and cemented over the food.
Amongst the invited guests were flat mates who had enjoyed the meals produced by class participants throughout the semester and who told me that they felt as if they had been on the course too. There were students from other local universities who wistfully asked if we had thought about ‘doing this kind of thing’ where they were studying. Students from health sciences courses mixed with those from arts, social science and media. People originating from many countries sat and talked together. I also realized that we had attracted a large number of male guests which had been one of the key goals of the project. It was truly an inclusive and interdisciplinary event, creating a culture of encounter and generating table talk.
There were very little left overs- but nothing went to waste. Take away boxes were made up with the unused ingredients destined for student flats and residences to be eaten another day. Eventually the last dish was washed and everything cleared away (another team working success!). At 9pm as Sue and I pushed the trolley of equipment crates back out to the car park and we laughed about having aching muscles from the long day. Indeed, our feet and backs were a bit painful but we also remarked on something else- our faces were sore too – this time from smiling!
The project team are Caroline Gibson (Senior Lecturer QMU), Sue O’Neill- Berest (Food Education manager, Cyrenians) and Professor Jan Dewing (Head of the Person Centred Practice Research Centre, QMU).
DOWLER, E. 2003. Food and poverty in Britain: Rights and responsibilities. In Dowler E, Finer Jones, C eds The welfare of food, rights and responsibilities in a changing world. Oxford: Blackwell publishing
GURNEY-READ, J., 2016. Students ‘going without food’ to meat costs of university. Telegraph [online] [viewed 27 March 2019] Available from: