Boxes of healthy takeaway

Children's health and food

Healthy takeaway and community cooking

6 January 2020
9 min read

We're exploring ways to make our food environments healthier for children and families.

When characterising our approach we often talk about ‘layering’ – supporting several, sometimes very different, interventions in one place to make incremental, lasting change. We have recently launched two projects to support our work on childhood obesity that perfectly embody this layering method: Better Everyday Takeaway, an affordable takeaway service delivering tasty and healthy food in Lambeth and Southwark; and Family Food Club, a space for parents to share recipes and access kitchen equipment, run by members of the local community in Camberwell, Southwark.

Layering initiatives

Though a healthy takeaway and a cooking club are approaching the problem from different angles, the shared objective is clear – reduce the inequality gap that means families on a lower income have fewer healthy food options. By working to understand the day-to-day lived experience of families in urban areas like Lambeth and Southwark we can be creative and diverse in our approach and support a range of projects. Individually, initiatives like a weekly cooking club might make a small positive change to the health of those involved, but by layering a dozen other initiatives in the same place, from healthier takeaways to redesigned convenience stores, we believe those small positive changes can build into something significant and lasting.

As we designed our children’s health and food programme, we used data and mapping to identify key areas of need in our boroughs. This mapping helped us understand the ways areas of high childhood obesity cluster together, forming a kind of heat map for where to prioritise layered interventions.

Key to our layering approach is the effort we put into identifying the specific challenges that we are best placed to tackle. We use research, data and strong partnerships to understand where change is possible, testing viability and sustainability as we go. In the case of Family Food Club this meant understanding the daily obstacles faced by families on a low income, and supporting a practical solution. In the case of Better Everyday Takeaway this meant understanding the value of takeaway food to families with limited space and time, and seeking to disrupt the market, not the behaviour. In both cases it is the environment we seek to change, not the families.

The Family Food Club

The Family Food Club is led by volunteers living in the local area who are trained and supported by Parents and Communities Together (PACT). PACT is a community-led social support project, set up by Citizens UK, to empower parents and improve the health and development outcomes for young children. This empowerment of parents to support one another is key to the Food Club’s success. We know from research and community outreach that parents are generally aware of what is and isn’t healthy, and that beyond education what they really need is space – both physically and psychologically – to prepare and store healthy food for their families. Providing a place with adequate cooking facilities, freezer space and childcare is key, especially for those living in shared accommodation. By facilitating local parents to volunteer and lead these events the Food Club becomes a space for socialising, sharing and learning together.

Carole Coulon, Portfolio Manager for the home strand of our children’s health and food programme says, “One of the most exciting things about the Family Food Club is that parents are able to take meals home to their families; it provides a unique opportunity for nutritious food to reach the home quickly and cheaply. Ultimately, we want families to have access to more healthy and affordable food options, and the project supports this in a number of ways: through the recipe sharing and take-home element; through access to a community freezer; and through access to fresh fruit and veg. PACT is the ideal partner with whom to deliver this project; they are a true anchor for families with young children in the area and they engage some of the most isolated families who don’t normally access health or social services.”

One of the biggest surprises for me has been how much the mums have enjoyed cooking with their children

Layla Meerloo Community Organiser at PACT

As well as affording the time and space to think about nutritious meals, the club is also a distributor of Alexandra Rose vouchers, which provide fresh fruit and veg to local families. We partnered with Alexandra Rose Charity in 2018 to launch the healthy voucher scheme and are now seeing the initiative reach parents across our boroughs, including those engaging with our other projects. The children who attend the cooking club get to try new fruits and vegetables, incentivising parents to use the vouchers on a broader variety of fresh produce.

“One of the biggest surprises for me has been how much the mums have enjoyed cooking with their children” Layla Meerloo, Community Organiser at PACT shares.

“Initially when we discussed the idea of children being involved with cooking most of the mums were very resistant because they thought including children would be too difficult, too messy and they also wanted to have some space to cook themselves. Now the trained volunteer mums are always thinking about how we can get the children more involved, what recipes would work best and how to best organise the cooking around children.”

A Parent Leader cooking with a local child
A Parent Leader cooking with a local child
Volunteers, parents and children enjoying the meal together
Volunteers, parents and children enjoying the meal together

“One of the most impactful things about the cooking club has been seeing how engaged the trained Parent Leaders are with the project. These mums have built up their confidence to share recipes and cook with a whole room of people. They are actively engaged with every element of the Family Food Club; thinking carefully about how to adapt a recipe to be healthier, how to include families in the cooking process and making sure that food hygiene standards are met. They say how proud they are when everyone sits down to eat the meal that they have planned and helped produce. Their involvement in the Family Food Club has resulted in a real shift in the way that they think about and relate to food in their everyday lives, as well as how they feel about themselves.”

The community aspect of the club – families cooking together and eating together – is a huge draw for those who attend. It is clear from speaking to the parents that having other mums and dads to talk to is as important as the access to facilities.

It really is like its name, a family food club. It has such a family feeling, not just a group where you learn how to cook healthy food but whilst doing that you meet people that make you feel you are part of a family

Helen Hailu Volunteer and local mum

Helen also said: “Personally I have been able to try new dishes that I have never tried before, it has also made me more interested in making food from scratch, searching the web for healthy food recipes that I can make for my family. My kids are more involved in the kitchen now than before. From the conversations I’ve had with the other mums, they are enjoying the process of cooking together and the delicious meals afterwards.”

Better Everyday Takeaway

The continued focus on the ways inequality impacts families was also key to the development of Better Everyday Takeaway. The UK takeaway market has seen sales increase by 34% since 2009 and there are 1200 fast-food outlets in Southwark alone. We know that low-income neighbourhoods have significantly more takeaway outlets than more affluent local areas, and that they often market heavily to school children.

Families in Lambeth and Southwark have been involved in the design and testing of all aspects of Better Everyday Takeaway, from recipes to branding. Shift, the organisation we have partnered with to lead the project, designs products for social change, and key to their approach is extensive research alongside local businesses, as well as with the communities they’re working to support.

“We’ve learnt so much already from designing and launching the takeaway, not least about the culture of working in a food business,” says Patrick Bek, Venture Lead at Shift.

“A busy shift means happy staff, so while the takeaway has been gaining traction we’ve had to be creative with our time. Alongside preparing orders, our chef channels energy and creativity into menu development and experimenting with making food that could work for different access points.”

“We’re also learning just how significant the operational challenges are of running a food business in such a competitive landscape. Costs are high, especially in London and given that we pay our staff fairly. Whilst driving takeaway sales is our primary focus, we’re very quickly putting a lot of effort into developing alternative revenue streams or subsidies – like volume catering, incorporating food waste into our supply chain, and even renting out kitchen space. We’re excited to be unearthing lots of opportunities but there’s still so much to learn about what will work best for this business and the audiences we want to reach.”

Review of Medley's, a healthier takeaway

More about Better Everyday Takeaway in the Observer

In 2020, Killian Fox wrote about our Better Everyday Takeaway project for the Observer's restaurant section.

"The takeaway that wants to be healthy by stealth"

The average takeaway meal contains 68% of a person’s recommended daily calorie intake so the challenge is to reduce this significantly while maintaining taste and affordability. Feedback so far from customers has been positive, though there have been significant barriers to maintaining low production costs. One of these has been sourcing affordable commercial kitchen space, an issue it seems for businesses as well as local residents.

“We knew from our Healthy Returns research that kitchen space was an issue, but this project has brought it home to me,” says Matt Towner, our Portfolio Manager leading on the project.

“The lack of affordable and reliable space has been a real challenge for Shift, and points towards something we and other actors in impact investing may look to address.”

As well as measuring potential impact on families and urban health more generally this project sees us move into a commercial sector where disrupting the market is notoriously challenging.

“We’re reimagining what a takeaway should and could do – a midweek meal that’s wholesome and yet still meets the need for convenience and bringing the family together” continues Matt.

“This is a high-risk, but potentially high-reward endeavour. If we are successful we can prove that it is possible to provide a viable commercial alternative to unhealthy takeaway options, which could have huge impact. It may also create an opportunity for a financially successful business. If that happens, our grant will convert into an ownership stake in that business, ensuring we can reinvest that money into our charitable objectives.”

We’re reimagining what a takeaway should and could do - a midweek meal that’s wholesome and yet still meets the need for convenience and bringing the family together

Matt Towner
Matt Towner Portfolio Manager

As with our partnership with PACT, working with Shift has helped us reach a range of audiences, and afforded us access to both behavioural and market insights.

“Shift is great at moving quickly and testing things to see what works”, Matt adds.

“They’ve also formed a good partnership with food ordering platform Just Eat which will boost brand recognition locally. They leverage partnerships with commercial organisations interested in the social objectives of what we’re trying to do, bringing in resource that could otherwise be expensive.”

With each new project we add another healthy option to the homes, schools and streets of those most affected by health inequality. Our aim is to stem the flow of unhealthy food options until children on a low income have the opportunities to be healthy, no matter where they live.


Update August 2021: Since we started this work, our healthy takeaway was covered on ITV Tonight and has since expanded. Find out more from our partner, Shift, about how the healthy takeaway developed during and responded to the pandemic.