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Masterclass in cookery

A healthy eating project is bringing communities together in the kitchen

IN THE home economics room at Sanquhar Academy, the sweet smell of baking fills the air. P6 pupils from two primary schools are learning to cook - healthily.

As part of a health awareness project developed by Building Healthy Communities in partnership with the schools cluster, children from the two primaries are being taught healthy cooking skills. The absence of these skills was identified as a major barrier to healthy eating. Upper Nithsdale is a rural, ex-mining area. Health statistics in the area are poor, and there is high unemployment.

The 65 P6s from the two schools have been divided into seven groups, each group is being given four 90-minute healthy cookery lessons on Friday afternoons, learning a range of starters, mains, snacks and desserts.

This week, five boys and four girls - a mix from the primaries, together with mothers, a father, an aunt and four S6 mentors - are baking upside down peach and butterscotch pudding, chocolate sponge and custard.

Other dishes during the 28-week project include vitamin-packed soups, shepherd's pie with leek and cheese topping, chicken supreme with rice and grilled tomato, pasta dishes, bangers 'n' mash, lamb curry, stovies, quiches and scone base pizza. Sweets include scones, apple crumble, Eve's pudding and creamed rice with apricot.

Three cook leaders are demonstrating the cooking: Lynn Forsyth, a classroom assistant at Sanquhar, Jessie Anderson, a retired school cook at Kelloholm, and Mark Houston, a home link worker for the cluster. As part of the project, four S6 girls have been trained as mentors for the children.

The atmosphere is one of merriment, with endless banter and chuckles. But it is not just vocal cords that are being exercised. Some serious whipping is being done, transforming flour, margarine, sugar and eggs into a smooth sponge mix. "We've had a great response," says Mrs Forsyth. "We've had mothers, fathers, grandparents, an aunt. It's so positive: it is bringing the two communities together. It's great to see the parents and kids having time together."

Linda Willison is here with her son John. "They explain everything for the weans," she says. "They're all mixing and it's been a good laugh with all the other mothers. Everything we've made has been really good."

The project is a natural start to the transition process from primary to secondary, since children from the two villages are getting to know each other in advance of going to the academy. It has also been about community education and involvement, educating the parents as well as the pupils.

In addition to healthy eating, it involves physical activity. Children will be given pedometers for the final term, while a Wii Sports games tournament, involving pupils and parents, will harness the enthusiasm of young gamers.

At the finale in June, every child and a parent or guardian will be invited to a feast, and each child given a certificate and recipe book.

Maureen Finch, a community health volunteer for BHC, says the project's success is a testament to partnership working. "If it comes from the community, they've really got ownership of it," she says.

Sanquhar Academy offered its home economics facilities as well as the help of the sixth form mentors. The involvement of parents, says Jacqui McKenzie, the headteacher, has been vital.

Funding has been provided by BHC which contributed pound;1,000, topped up with pound;2,100 from Community Food and Health (Scotland). The BHC workers believe the project's success is due to its bottom-up approach, in contrast to health traditionally being driven from the top down.

In light of the Government's recent announcement that it plans to introduce cookery lessons in English secondary schools to encourage healthy eating, Miss Finch says: "We're a step ahead."

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