Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has made his mark in recent years by trying to get healthy food on the menu in schools, hospitals and – most importantly – in homes. In addition to TV shows and cook books, Oliver is behind the Ministry Of Food outreach program, which brings cooking classes and nutritional advice into select communities. In 2011, Ipswich, Queensland, was one such community and a research team came on board to examine how the program affected participants’ attitudes to healthy eating and cooking confidence. The results showed that structured educational programs like these, including guidance on nutrition, cooking, meal planning and budgeting, have a positive impact on individual eating and, in turn, public health.
Background to the research
Jamie Oliver’s Ministry Of Food programs have been running since 2008 in the UK. The project was brought to Australia by The Good Food Foundation (a not for profit health promotion organisation) to see how the model might benefit Australian communities. Prior research indicated that a lack of cooking confidence and self-sufficiency in the kitchen may be contributing to some people’s reliance on energy dense food of low nutritional value.
In Australia, cooking is no longer taught in all schools and busy families don’t always share basic food preparation skills in the way they once might have. For some people, preparing a balanced meal from basic ingredients seems complicated and time consuming, leaving them reaching for more convenient, less healthy options. The basic cookery and meal planning courses at The Ministry Of Food use adapted recipes from Jamie Oliver’s collections to showcase quick and easy pathways to nutritional meals. The courses are cheap (around $10 per session), friendly and inclusive, potentially giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to change the way they cook and eat.
The researchers looked at Ministry Of Food participation over its first two years in Australia (2011-2013). They gathered data using a questionnaire completed before, during and after participation in the program to monitor participants’ changing attitudes. Questions included how frequently participants ate vegetables with a main meal, how often they cooked meals at home from scratch and how confident they felt about basic cooking skills, like following a simple recipe. Over 1900 people registered for Ministry Of Food programs in Ipswich in this period, and around 31% completed all 3 stages of the research questionnaire.
The results showed that this program significantly increased participants’ cooking confidence across all areas of the basic skills tests, and this increase was sustained at the 6 month mark post-participation (Stage 3 of the questionnaire). Statistically significant increases were also found in the areas of weekly frequency of cooking the main meal from scratch and consumption of vegetables with a main meal. In the final group (6 months after the course) the daily vegetable intake increased by .74 serves per day. This may seem like a small shift, but for some that was an increase from 0. The report reminds us that increasing vegetable intake by just one serve a day has a positive impact on the risk of heart disease and stroke.
The Ministry Of Food model of delivering cooking skills and healthy eating messages in an informal, accessible fashion seems to be proving successful. This research backs up results found in studies of other kinds of community cooking classes, which all show a positive impact, especially in lower socioeconomic areas. Having a well known name attached to the program no doubt helps its popularity, but even without the celebrity endorsement, programs like this are worth considering by governments as part of their overall strategy for improving diet quality.
Anna Flego, Jessica Herbert, et al. (2014) Jamie’s Ministry of Food: Quasi-Experimental Evaluation of Immediate and Sustained Impacts of a Cooking Skills Program in Australia. PloS One, 9 (12), plosone.org.