Ministry of Food

It was one of Chef Jamie Oliver’s most high-profile campaigns but now researchers at the University of Leeds have found that his ‘Ministry of Food’ cooking courses can actually improve people’s food choices.

The team from the Nutritional Epidemiology Group at the School of Food Science and Nutrition found that people who attended the eight-week back to basics cooking course showed significant improvements in their eating habits.

In fact, the participants greatly increased their reported intake of fruit and vegetables, halved the amount of snacks they ate and became much more confident about their cooking skills.

Improving diets

In recent years a number of healthy eating initiatives have been developed in the UK in order to encourage people to make healthier choices but these initiatives have been found to have had little impact, therefore, the team at the University of Leeds wanted to see if teaching people to cook their own healthy meals would improve their diets over time. 

The Ministry of Food programme involves small groups learning to cook over a 4-10 week period with the aim being to help people make better food choices. In order to carry out the research the team surveyed 800 participants before and after attending a Ministry of Food programme in Leeds, and again six months after their course ended and they found the participants reported positive changes to their diets. In addition, 40 participants were interviewed to obtain details of their experiences of the course.

“These positive changes emerged immediately following the course and had increased further by six months after the course,” said researcher Janet Cade, Professor of Nutritional Epidemiology at the University’s School of Food Science and Nutrition.

“This suggests that the MoF programme may encourage short-term changes in dietary behaviour which can be maintained and improve over longer periods of time.”

Increased confidence

“When we analysed the results by sex we found that men – who previous studies have shown tend to have less confidence in cooking than women - actually reported a greater growth in confidence than the women who took part,” according to Professor Cade.

As well as changing participant's eating habits the researchers also found that participants increased their confidence in cooking, with most rating their confidence as very high after going to the Ministry of Food. Respondents told researchers that the course had improved their knife skills, use of seasoning and aspects of food hygiene as well as other core cooking skills.

For participants from deprived areas of Leeds the most valuable aspect of the course seemed to be learning new recipes and ways to cook from scratch using basic ingredients, with most participants from these areas learning healthier ways to cook including using less oil and fat, while just under half gained knowledge about the value of fresh ingredients. In fact all but one participant living in deprived areas of Leeds claimed to have made healthy changes to their diet, with the remaining claiming to eat and cook more healthily. Participants even reported eating less frozen, processed and takeaway foods high in fat.

Social benefits

A key benefit for participants of the course was not to do with their cooking abilities but the fact that they were socialising with others on the course - for example, some participants with disabilities or living in deprived areas saw a clear decrease in social isolation:

“Before the Ministry of Food I wouldn’t really start conversations with people because I’m really shy. But by going there I learnt how to speak for myself and now I socialise more.” (Male aged 20–64 years, deprived Leeds area, learning difficulties and mental health problems).

“It got me out of the flat. I’m disabled so that was always a fear and I’d just stay in before.” (Female aged 20–64 years, deprived Leeds area, physical impairment and mental health problems).

Commenting on the research Jamie Oliver said: “Ministry of Food, for me, has always been about empowering people and giving them the knowledge and the confidence to feed themselves and their families better.

“The beauty of it is that it's all about local people helping other local people to create delicious, fresh, nutritious food that doesn't cost a fortune.

“If only more towns and cities had Ministry of Food Centres.”