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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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What’s on your plate?

May 04 2015
?Healthy soups ans stews are served at Amurt's street café. © Eddie Ngugi for The Pavement ?Healthy soups ans stews are served at Amurt's street café. © Eddie Ngugi for The Pavement
Is it enough that food is free? What about nutrition?

“We need healthy food, nutritious food. There are a lot of diabetic people who are homeless and they don’t know.” As she looks around Notre Dame soup kitchen in Leicester Square, Katie gestures to her fellow diners, who sit eating sandwiches, hot soup or sipping on hot drinks. “Then with alcohol and smoking – people destroy their health.”

Eating nutritious meals may be low on the priority list if you’re street homeless or on a tight budget. Some at Notre Dame couldn’t care less. “I’m not looking for healthy food,” said Robert, tucking into a sandwich and piece of cake – but most people have a list of food they’d like to see more of. Or less of. Several told us they were just plain sick of sandwiches.

Hot tea and coffee, sandwiches and biscuits are the staples for many soup kitchens – not surprising, given many are restricted by volunteer availability, what food they can get for free or afford to buy, health and safety regulations, cooking facilities and time.

Most do their best with what little they have. Marie, one of the coordinators of the Notre Dame soup kitchen, explains: “The team do try to cater to the needs of their many guests. We did a survey in January and lots of people said they wanted more fruit for dessert.”

"One volunteer who used to give us cakes now brings clementines and bananas. We’d like to provide more but our budget is very low.”

The church is not the only one struggling. In its report ‘Food, Nutrition and Homelessness’, the Queen’s Nursing Institute noted: “When the issue of food is addressed by key workers, a ‘broad brush’ approach may be adopted (such as whether the individual is eating or has access to food) rather than identifying the nutrient quality of a homeless person’s diet. While this may be a realistic approach, it can result in further malnourishment for the individual concerned.”

In other words: eating endless sandwiches may fill a hole, but it won’t necessarily give your body what it needs to stay healthy.

The statistics illustrate the point. Some 70 per cent of long-term homeless people show medical symptoms of malnutrition, according to Shelter Scotland. In its health audit ‘The Unhealthy State of Homelessness’, Homeless Link reported a third of clients do not eat any fruit and vegetables and the same amount regularly eat less than two meals a day.

Why does it matter? Because food affects everything: your health, mood, self-esteem, fitness. In its good food guide, Cyrenians points out healthy eating can prevent obesity, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer, gallstones, bowel disease, tooth decay, lack of energy, constipation and piles, and depression.

So is it possible to eat healthily while homeless? Yes, say the guests at Notre Dame, but it’s not easy. “I always make sure I have carbohydrates, vegetables, protein and fresh fruit. There are a few places where after the meal they give out fresh fruit and yogurt,” says Katie. “But if you stay in one place you don’t get as much variety.”

At Amurt’s Thursday night street café on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it’s not sandwiches but soups and stews that are on the menu – made with vegetables from the wholesale market and served with a box of pitta bread from a Greek baker. They also hand out whatever fruit they can get, usually a box of bananas or apples.

Even for those who have somewhere to cook, it’s still hard. Working out how to spend what small money you have is one of the skills taught on the nine-week and four-week food courses run in Scotland as part of the Cyrenians Good Food programme. “It’s about drip-feeding the healthy food information, the budgeting information – not about overwhelming them in the first week,” says cookery tutor Sue.

“We try to think of strategies for each individual: we’ve had some people who only have a microwave to cook with.”

By the end of the course, participants have learned how to plan their meals for the week ahead and do everything from make soup to cook a three-course meal in the microwave. “It’s just about making those small changes that will hopefully add up to a big change in people’s health.”


Eat yourself well

Not able to sleep at night?
Avoid drinks with caffeine in, such as coffee and tea, in the evening. Milky drinks are especially good. Alcohol is not a good idea because it acts as a stimulant.

Frequent headaches / tension?
Are you drinking enough water? Headaches are sometimes related to dehydration. Too much salt can also cause dehydration, leading to tension / headaches (as well as other health problems).

Are you getting enough fibre? Try to have more fresh fruit. Ask around to see what soup kitchens and runs give our free fruit.

Unable to eat / digest a meal?
Look out for soups made from fresh vegetables and fresh juices.