Persons in recovery from serious mental illness often struggle to maintain healthy lifestyles. Many have health conditions related to smoking and other substance abuse, excessive weight, low physical activity, and poor eating choices. For many, these problems are compounded by low income and competing interest for their few dollars. Nutrition is sometimes a low priority for persons in recovery, who use their limited funds on low quality, convenience and “fast” foods. This is even more true for those recovering independently in the community; without the structure of a group home or other institution, persons in recovery have to rely on themselves and their own decisions.
In an effort to help our consumers make better food-related choices, Interact’s Community Supported Recovery Program began a Recovery Kitchen in 2011. Typical program activities include learning to shop for and make healthy and nutritious food at an affordable cost. As an incentive, Program Members earn free food for participating in the activities. Program Members also learn how food and nutrition affects mental health and recovery. The formal Recovery Kitchen typically meets three days a week; participants average six to eight hours a week in activities ranging from preparing food to serving at an event.
The Recovery Kitchen grew out of the organic needs of people in recovery to experience community and fulfillment in the most basic sense. According to the Mental Health Foundation UK, recent evidence suggests that good nutrition is essential for our mental health and that a number of mental health conditions may be influenced by dietary factors. Other studies have shown high comorbidity of serious mental illness with diseases related to poor nutritional choices, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The Recovery Kitchen is a creative healing community that addresses trauma, adversity, and mental health by providing organic opportunities for individuals to be a part of a team, learn problem solving, share, practice emotion regulation, learn basic safety and cooking, skills and fill their bodies with nutrients and love. Program Members learn skills and techniques for nourishing themselves and improving their overall wellness.
Interact’s Recovery Kitchen combines food preparation, nutrition education, budgeting, and other life skills with recovery principles. Our program is unique to this region in that we primarily work with persons recovering from serious mental illness in community settings. We have a program implementation and evaluation plan that could be adopted by other organizations. Through a grant from the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health (DBH), we were able to create a teaching kitchen for our program. Other organizations could partner with teaching facilities, religious groups, or community centers to gain access to appropriate kitchen facilities. We employ a professional chef as our part-time coordinator. Our Program Members have actively advocated for their program by catering various meetings, both internally and for other agencies. Agency staff regularly speak on the benefits of the Recovery Kitchen at conferences, meetings, and networking events in the region, state, and nationwide.
The Recovery Kitchen is currently program funded by DBH as part of the greater Community Supported Recovery Program. Program members run regular fundraisers to help underwrite transportation and other activities through an effort called “Carriage House Caterers”. These fundraisers include monthly lunch sales as well as sales of muffins, quiches, and chili. The program hopes to grow its member population, thus increasing the amount of fund raising and catering events. Carriage House Caterers has the potential to be a Program Member-run business with more interested members. Interact also seeks funding through donations and corporate and private grants. Over time the program should be able to sustain itself using profits from these events to fund cooking classes, special events and on-going education/training for members.
The Recovery Kitchen can be replicated with access to a large kitchen and a community that is interested in food and nutrition. Interact has created a program implementation and evaluation plan that can be adopted by other community recovery programs. This program can use existing curricula, such as “Food Education for People with Serious Psychiatric Disabilities: An Evidence-Based Recovery Curriculum” published by Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, or create and adapt other appropriate tools and resources.
Initial outcomes include Program Members reporting fewer experiences of hunger due to lack of funds; increased knowledge of healthy food choices; improved attitudes about healthy eating; improved skill in selection and preparation of healthy food; and, increased awareness & knowledge of benefits of eating healthy. Other short term outcomes included ability to identify food programs & benefit assistance; describe how/where to apply for food assistance programs; practice good personal hygiene and healthy food handling practices; and, increase knowledge of food preparation & serving. Initial outcomes are based on monthly and quarterly surveys submitted by Program Members. Intermediate outcomes include better monthly budgeting, increased at-home food preparation, and more engagement in Carriage House Caterers events and fundraisers. Long-term outcomes include better overall wellness, including reduced incidence of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Another long-term outcome is Program Members graduating out of the program and finding employment in the food industry