A few people washing healthy ingredients in a kitchen

Reaching New Aspirations: Food as a Vehicle to Improve the Lives of Adults with Learning Difficulties

By Dr Jordon Lazell, Dr Luke Owen and Dr Lopa Saxena

Since 2014/2015, the proportion of UK adults with a learning disability in paid employment has been in decline. This is a disheartening situation given that employment has clear benefits in enhancing quality of life, improving family and social relationships, mitigating loneliness and isolation, as well as contributing towards a heightened sense of community for this group (The Nuffield Trust, 2022). A number of charities across the UK are undertaking exceptional work to support adults with a learning difficulty. As part of the ‘Ready Healthy Eat’ project, researchers Dr Jordon Lazell, Dr Luke Owen and Dr Lopa Patnaik Saxena took a closer look at how food is being used as a vehicle through which adults with learning difficulties can be supported in leading healthy and independent lives.

A research project to empower the most vulnerable groups in society through the value of food

The Ready Health Eat* project brings together four established community food organisations tackling issues such as food poverty, homelessness and employment opportunities. The project trials different means of improving the food these organisations provide, looking at important issues such as the nutritional value of food, food waste prevention, local policy engagement and different models of income generation. The goal of this work is to improve people’s lives, and the households they are part of, by encouraging changes to people’s diets, greater understanding of where food comes from, and learning new skills in how to grow and cook food. With access to healthy and affordable food positioned as the cornerstone to wider individual and community wellbeing (Dimbleby, 2021), this project aims to empower the most vulnerable groups in society through greater recognition of the value of food.

The impact of nutritionally poor food is affecting the most vulnerable the most. Children in poorer areas are almost twice as likely to be obese as their counterparts in more affluent areas. – NHS Survey on children’s health (NHS, 2017)

In September 2022, the research team visited The NOW Group located in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to further understand their work. Of the four partner organisations participating in the Ready Health Eat project, the NOW Group are the only one specifically working with adults with learning difficulties. Operating since 2001, The NOW group is a multi-award winning social enterprise whose purpose is to provide a range of services that help people realise their potential, helping to prepare people with learning difficulties with the tools they need to make well-informed decisions about their future. The ultimate goal is to help people gain independence and reach new life aspirations through teaching important life skills. With regards to employment, beneficiaries are supported in identifying a career path with further progression, achieving qualifications, attaining work experience through placements and developing resilience in terms of how to sustain a position of employment.

The NOW Group performance
The NOW Group has been hugely impactful in supporting into paid jobs people with learning difficulties and autism

Gaining food knowledge enhances life skills and employment opportunities

Food plays a central role in the work of the NOW Group. During our visit, we saw first-hand how beneficiaries are supported in learning important catering and hospitality skills. For example, training is provided on the importance of food safety, hygiene and allergies. Food also forms an important part of the life skills programme, with beneficiaries learning about how to make healthy food choices, what appropriate portion sizes are, and how to cook simple but nutritious, healthy dishes. Through undertaking several focus group exercises with a range of beneficiaries, we heard how increased awareness, knowledge, and cooking skills acquired by the beneficiaries at NOW were appreciated by their families; in some cases, encouraging households to try out novel meal ideas that push the boundaries of traditional Northern Ireland cuisine.

The NOW Group also run The Loaf Café and the Bobbin Coffee Shop in two prominent and popular locations in the city. In addition to generating income to support charitable operations, they serve as sites where beneficiaries are trained and undertake work placements, thus giving them valuable experience in the pathway towards paid employment. Beneficiaries described learning skills in the preparation and serving of food as a worthwhile career path. Also, by offering a catering service, the Loaf Cafe enjoys the strong support of a range of organisations across Belfast who seek to back NOW’s mission as a social enterprise benefiting people with learning difficulties and autism.

The Bobbin Coffee Shop
The Bobbin Coffee Shop is located in City Hall, Belfast

Research partners revise their approach to nutrition by working in partnership

In terms of the impact of the Ready Healthy Eat project, the NOW Group acknowledged how useful it was for them to have their attention directed to the nutritional aspect of food and wellbeing, and described how this has revised how they approach the services they offer.

The biggest legacy from this project is what we have learnt on nutrition, it has been an eye opener in terms of what the value of food is and the nutritional value of food and we need to be teaching people. – The NOW Group staff member

Making a transition towards healthy and sustainable diets is now a core part of NOW Group’s life skills learning programme. Further to this, they highly appreciated the value of networking in partnership with the project partners despite not being located in the same area. For example, the NOW Group have taken considerable guidance from the other partners to advance how they can best react to community needs, specifically the physical needs of beneficiaries rather than just their emotional needs. Overall being able to approach and ask for guidance from another organisation was a key learning outcome.

As the cost-of-living crisis worsens, the services offered by community organisations will become increasingly vital for people across the UK. This research highlights the need to recognise the importance of the work of organisations like the NOW group and the need for more support to not only enable this work to continue but expand their operations to other towns and cities.

The Ready Healthy Eat project comes to a close in May 2023. The research findings will be showcased at the third ‘Future of Food Symposium’ event on the 24th and 25th of May 2023, held at Coventry University.

*The Ready Healthy Eat project is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. It includes the following partner organisations: The Real Farming Trust, Cyrenians (Edinburgh), The Brighton & Hove Food Partnership, The Hornbeam Community Café (Walthamstow, London), and the Now Group (Northern Ireland), supported by researchers at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience as well as the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University.


Dimbleby, H. (2021), National Food Strategy Independent Review: The Plan. [online] Available from <The National Food Strategy – The Plan>

NHS (2017), Health Survey for England 2016: Children’s Health. [online] Available from < HSE2016-Child-health.pdf (hscic.gov.uk)>

Nuffield Trust (2022), Supporting people in Employment. [online] Available from <https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/supporting-people-in-employment#background>

Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.