Eating Well for Mental Health Forum

The Eating Well for Mental Health Forum took place on March 25, 2011 at the generously donated space at the Stop Green Barn. Over 20 program representatives and peer leaders attended from pilot programs from the healthy eating and physical activity phases of the Minding Our Bodies project. This forum served as a conclusion to Phase 2 of the project and brought the pilots who participated in the fall, Eating Well for Mental Health training day, full circle. It was also a great opportunity for previous pilots and other community members to learn from each other’s experiences.

To start the day, forum attendees enjoyed a healthy breakfast of yogurt with Stop made granola and fresh fruit. While participants finished their breakfasts, Jessica Kwik of the Minding Our Bodies team provided a brief summary of the project and offered a preview of the next phase. The Stop Green Barn was the perfect venue for the day as participants were given a tour of the greenhouse and an orientation to the Stop’s community kitchen and programs through the keynote speaker, Rhonda Teitel-Payne, manager of the Green Barn.

Following the keynote, Mandy Ridley and Wei Su presented the Stop’s Shovel and Spoon, a gardening and cooking program for community agencies. With the main goal of reducing social isolation, the Shovel and Spoon program helps to connect participants to nature, their peers and other community supports. Moreover, participants increase their knowledge around healthy eating and food preparation through hands on cooking and gardening in a safe and supportive environment.

Next the York Institute of Health Research Evaluation Team presented the phase two project evaluation report. This included reviewing the resulting case studies that came from the onsite pilot visits and focus groups, as well as, the Minding Our Bodies project as a whole. Following the evaluation presentation, the group enjoyed a healthy and delicious Indonesian Beef stew and vegetarian chickpea and potato curry made in the Stop kitchen with some of the produce from the greenhouse.

After lunch, Nadine Reid of Sound Times Support Services presented an overview of the wellness services provided by this Toronto based consumer/survivor initiative. These services include a marketplace where members of Sound Times can purchase fresh fruits, veggies, eggs and grains at affordable prices, ‘Cookin’ It Up’ a cultural and economic food preparation and education program and ‘Fit 4 Survival’ a physical activity education program that meets twice a week at the YMCA.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent on further discussion on successful approaches, barriers and program sustainability issues. Some of the topics that arose included:

Keeping participants engaged –In an education session, serve food first! That way, participants are not left sitting thinking about an empty stomach. Some groups found having program sign-ups generated a better sense of commitment from participants. It also kept the same group of people coming back to the group resulting in stronger relationships and social inclusion. Having an information session prior to the program helped to generate a buzz and clarified people’s expectations and understanding of commitment levels. Reminder calls and incentives for attending were also good sources of encouragement.

Transportation- Especially in rural areas, transportation can be a real barrier. When possible, groups have partially or fully covered transit costs.

Community garden vandalism – Unfortunately, groups reported that at times their gardens have been vandalized. While putting up fences might seem like a solution it also “cuts off” the garden from the community which is counter-productive for participants who are trying to feel less isolated. Instead, groups have found putting up signage explaining what the garden is for and engaging the community has helped prevent vandalism. Giving the community the opportunity to be involved helps them feel invested and supportive of the gardens. One group was given seeds, plants, soil and other gardening materials by individuals in the community as they wanted to contribute. On the other hand, it is also an opportunity to encourage a sense of resiliency in participants as sometimes “things happen.”

In addition to sharing program successes and barriers, the forum was also an opportunity to document the experiences and opinions of program leaders and participants of healthy eating and/or physical activity program for mental health. Throughout the day, participants were individually taken aside and interviewed on film. We asked program leaders and participants to talk about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity, how these programs promote social inclusion, the role of community partnerships, and the positive effects of healthy living on recovery. The resulting video paints a concise picture around how the Minding Our Bodies project helps to create more opportunities for people with mental illness to be involved in these physical activity and healthy eating programs.

Prior to leaving, participants were asked to complete a quick evaluation. Overall the forum was very well rated as participants liked having a smaller group and a more informal approach for the day. Participants said that at the forum they:

• Made multiple connections that they planned to stay in contact with for future planning, resource sharing and in some cases referrals
• Planned to share the information they learned with their organizations (management and staff) and other community groups they work with
• Valued learning about existing programs like those at the Stop and Sound Times (how they function, successful ideas). This helped them recognize similarities among programs and the importance of learning from each other.

In order to sustain their programs, participants asked for:

• Training for volunteers/staff on physical activity and healthy eating for mental health
• Supports for isolated rural areas
• Continued learning opportunities (most requested through online means- teleconferences and email) about practical and adaptable programs. They would like reports on how known programs are doing and learn about new programs for partnership and contact purposes.

Next time around, the participants would like:
• To learn about and discuss more funding sources
• A roundtable venue to make it easier to dialogue and network

All in all, the day was filled with a lot of great ideas and discussions. Thank you to everyone who participated in the forum.