Both Babergh and West Suffolk Councils have a strategic partnership with Abbeycroft Leisure to run outdoor activities and cooking sessions in local parks and green spaces during the pandemic.
The scheme has worked so well the programme is going to continue as it is seen as crucial to reducing health inequalities.
Cooking in the outdoors
Abbeycroft Leisure is one of two providers commissioned by Babergh and West Suffolk. As well as running leisure centres, it takes health and wellbeing out into the community, running sessions in a range of different locations. When the pandemic hit the team immediately started working on a scheme to promote health lifestyles in the outdoors.
This led on to the launch of the Family Park Cooking scheme in July 2020 along with a series of adventure days. The events were branded as Explore Outdoor. The cooking sessions were launched in collaboration with a local chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant and funded through the Department for Education’s Holiday Activities and Food Programme.
Families in receipt of free school meals along with those who were in care or had special education needs have been invited to attend. Staff from Abbeycroft Leisure work with the families to cook meals from scratch and at the end supply the families with food boxes and recipes for five more meals.
The meals are designed with the idea of being cheap, but healthy so included homemade burgers, beef lasagne, sausage and vegetable traybake and creamy mushroom and broccoli pasta. They have proved incredibly popular – over the past year 1,000 families have been supplied with family food boxes.
Alongside the cooking sessions, Abbeycroft Leisure also organises a series of adventure days for children aged eight to 12 to run alongside them. They last six hours and involve activities such as archery, geocaching, catapult-building and shelter-building.
Abbeycroft Leisure Sports and Outdoor Activity Officer Frank Carn-Pryor said: “We made sure they were about spending time together as a family, getting out of the house after what had been a difficult few months.
“We know the benefits of doing activity outside and some of the families had never been to the parks and green spaces we used before, so this was a great combination.
“We made the sessions really fun, providing a range of alternative activities for children to socialise and play together at a time when there were so many restrictions on their everyday lives. Many of the young people excelled in the outdoor environment and we saw them visibly grow in confidence.”
‘Huge help to families like us’
Those who have taken part are full of praise. One parent, Rebecca (not her real name), said: “My children thoroughly enjoyed themselves, they enjoyed learning how to a light a fire and cooking over a campfire. We were particularly impressed with the food we got to take home with us – such a huge help to families like us. The recipe cards are fab. Simple ingredients and easy to follow.”
Another parent added: “It gave the children more insight into health eating and was much more than a cooking day. It was an amazing bonding experience with them and a great opportunity to get outdoors and interact with other children.”
The two councils, which have a joint team of officers, were so pleased with the programme that they have now started funding Abbeycroft Leisure to run more sessions along with West Suffolk District Council. The government funding only covers sessions during the main holidays so the councils have provided enough investment to allow them to be run during the half-term holidays too.
Babergh and West Suffolk Leisure, Sport and Wellbeing Assistant Manager Richard Baldwin said: “It has been a fantastic programme. The Explore Outdoor programme has multiple benefits from getting people using the outdoors to encouraging healthy eating. The way we see it leisure and sport is the new health service, while the NHS is the ill-health service.”
But as well as promoting healthy lifestyles, Mr Baldwin said the councils also believe the programme has a wider potential. “We now see it as a great route to supporting people with the cost of living crisis and rising fuel bills. We want to start addressing that going forward, providing help and advice about what can be done to reduce costs and keep warm.”
Richard Baldwin, Leisure, Sport and Wellbeing Assistant Manager, Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils firstname.lastname@example.org