The government predicts that within 25 years half the UK population will be obese and NHS resources will struggle to cope. Last week staff at Alder Hey in Merseyside, the country’s largest children’s hospital, , said they are already spending too much time and money treating preventable diseases such as obesity. Hilarie Stelfox reports on a small community project in the Colne Valley hoping to help today’s children enjoy a healthier future
JAMIE OLIVER got it wrong. So says grandmother Polly Whitehead who is one of the brains behind a Slaithwaite-based community project teaching children to cook.
Cook-a-doodle-do! is a non profit-making holiday cookery club for eight to 13-year-olds. Polly, a former professional baker, is its chairman.
She said: “Jamie Oliver went into secondary schools to try and change eating habits, but he should have gone into primary schools where the children are still impressionable and will take on board what they’re being told about healthy eating.’’
Polly runs the project with six other women who are all mothers, grandmothers and teachers.
They want to introduce a new generation to the pleasures of creating wholesome food from wholesome ingredients – to steer children away from the quick-fix, unhealthy processed foods many are brought up on.
“The children we work with are from that key age when we can make a difference,” said Polly.
Although Cook-a-doodle-do! is still small in scale, Polly and her team have hopes that one day it will become a full-time cookery school for children and play a part in mainstream education.
“At the moment we only run sessions during school holidays,’’ she said. “We have up to 70 children on our books and we’d like to do more, but we desperately need more helpers.”
Polly, 66, lives in Slaithwaite and is a well-known figure in Huddersfield’s culinary community.
She trained in bakery and confectionery at Leeds Technical College, where she met her husband, John.
They worked as bakers and, more latterly, kept a small hotel in Marsh. Polly was famed for her preserves and pickles which she sold seasonally.
But her retirement gave her the time to start thinking about a new role – teaching children to cook.
“I wanted to give something back,” she said. “I have baked all my life and I love it. I wanted to pass some of this passion on to children.”
The idea came to her when she ran a pensioners’ luncheon club with two friends at a church in Outlane.
“I used to joke that I wanted a red bus to drive around in, teaching cookery to children,’’ said Polly. “One friend said she’d drive and the other would be the washer-up.”
When the luncheon club disbanded, Polly and her friends, Jo Norman and Joan Wood set about making her dream a reality. They held their first meeting in January 2008 and the first class five months later.
Today Cook-a-doodle-do! has a committee of seven. Polly is assisted by Joan and her daughter Catherine Rawson, Margaret Cook, Phil Beevers, Annis Mansaf and Beryl Richardson.
In order to work with children the women have had to have CRB checks, take out insurance, go on first aid courses and conduct risk assessments. “There has been a lot of paperwork,” says Polly.
Grants from a number of sources, including Kirklees Council, the Community Spirit shop in Slaithwaite, Colne Valley Lions, Freemasons and the Common Good Trust have enabled the women to buy equipment, pay for courses, insurance and rent. They use Slaithwaite Community Centre for their courses.
Children are taught in groups of 10 at each session, with parents paying a nominal £6 to meet expenses.
“The classes used to be free but parents said they wanted to pay something and it certainly helps,’’ said Polly. “We are fundraising all the time.’’
When choosing dishes to teach the children, Polly and her team look for things that are balanced and healthy but they also allow the occasional treat.
“The emphasis is on healthy but there’s nothing wrong with a treat now and again,’’ she said. “But only treats made from good quality ingredients.’’
Over Easter the children made everything from root vegetable soup, melon fruit bowl and smoked mackerel pate to gingerbread and Irish soda bread.
“The look on the children’s faces when we bring their things out of the oven is amazing,’’ said Polly. “They absolutely love it and are thrilled to bits.”
The cookery classes, which run every holiday except Christmas, are also used to teach the children about ingredients, kitchen equipment and healthy eating.
Polly said: “We talk about the benefits of things like oily fish, fruits and vegetables and using seasonal produce. I think it’s also really important to teach them not to be wasteful. That’s something I’m very keen on.”
By capturing the childrens’ imaginations, Polly is hoping that parents and carers will also become interested in cooking.
She said: “There are parents who don’t cook who bring their children to the club and we do know that some of them start cooking our recipes with the children at home.
“At the moment we’re only treading water and it’s a small project, but if we had more help we could expand it and get it out to more children.
I’ve got after school clubs and scout groups interested, but we just don’t have enough helpers.
“Our aim is to have our own school so children come to us on a regular basis.”
Polly and her colleagues are not alone in believing that children should be educated to eat wholesome food from an early age.
Research has shown that tastebuds can be primed from an early age to prefer fatty, salty, sugary, processed foods and then it’s much harder to get children to accept healthy home cooking.
“The trouble is we live in a time when so may people work and want fast food at the end of the day,’’ said Polly. “And there are so many ready meals and they’re so cheap.’’
Obesity statistics would suggest that Cook-a-doodle-do! and projects like it have a lot of work in store. But Polly and friends believe that theirs is a movement in the right direction and one worthy of support.
If you have catering experience and would like to volunteer for the Cook-a-doodle-do! project contact Polly Whitehead on 01484 841315.