Josephine Namusisi-Riley, Project Manager, PACT
Jun 12, 2018
PACT (Parents and Communities Together) is a project by Citizens UK in Camberwell and Walworth. It aims to improve health by focusing on early intervention, using community organising as a powerful lever.
We have developed a transformative partnership between our communities and local statutory services in these two disadvantaged areas in Southwark. The collaboration puts local parents in the lead to improve their and their children’s health and developmental outcomes.
For many parents, challenges were mainly related to social and financial hardship, modern and urban lifestyles and cultural conflicts.
After first funding it as a start-up in 2015, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity commissioned us in 2017 to carry out a listening campaign to find out from local communities what issues they face around childhood obesity.
I had not long been appointed as Project Manager for the project and this was to be my first listening campaign. Our task was to speak to school leaders, relevant professionals, faith and community leaders as well as parents and children. We held 17 focus groups and over 20 meetings, and engaged with more than 230 people.
The most interesting thing was that almost everyone we spoke to, including children themselves, understood the principles around healthy lifestyles and the causes of obesity. Unlike many other health conditions, there was very little lacking in terms of knowledge across the board. For many parents, challenges were mainly related to social and financial hardship, modern and urban lifestyles and cultural conflicts. By cultural conflict I mean some parents from outside the UK told us they found it difficult to make different choices from what was their cultural norm around food, for example reduce portion sizes or cut back on unhealthy ingredients such as palm oil or sugar.
One child told us ‘my mum tells me to get breakfast on the way to school. I buy crisps.’
Other parents, who typically held down two or three jobs, shared they struggled with cooking as they were “too tired”. They told us they found sports clubs “unaffordable” and, while they felt they had a lot of support from statutory services when their children were younger, it dropped significantly as they grew older.
Children’s contributions told us a great deal too. One child told us ‘my mum tells me to get breakfast on the way to school. I buy crisps.’
They showed a good ability to tell healthy and unhealthy behaviours apart (“I like playing on my computer and watching TV when I should be playing in Burgess Park”) as well as some of the reasons keeping them consuming unhealthy products (“I like eating sweets and crisps, vegetables taste boring”).
Faith leaders showed great concern about the physical health of their congregations. Although traditionally health may be considered to be outside the remit of churches or mosques, we saw a clear shift towards a holistic approach to looking after both the spiritual and physical. The “excesses of modern society” and the “slavery of material things” came through strongly as detrimental to family and community life.
Professionals close to our communities told us how they saw employment and shift work having a big impact on family habits and meals. In some areas, children spent a lot of time in cafes and hairdresser shops – where their parents worked late into the evening – not eating well and not getting any exercise as a result.
As we went through the exercise, some groups were more willing to speak to us than others. Engaging schools was a challenge. As one head teacher said, ‘‘Whilst schools are a very significant tool in driving change, I am cautious here because schools can’t do everything and we certainly don’t need more pressure!” While they saw a role in helping tackle child obesity, resources where a big concern, as was connecting with ‘hard to reach’ parents and ensuring that the benefit of balanced school meals was not undone at home.
At the end of the listening campaign we held a co-production workshop where all the participants from the listening campaign were invited to work on a solution. In partnership with Early Years Community Dietetic Service at Guys and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, PACT already runs ‘Cook and Eat’ programmes in community venues.
The listening exercise gave us a richer understanding of the choices, behaviours, attitudes, opportunities and constrains facing each of the different people with a role in driving change in child health.
We now want to expand this initiative into a ‘Cook, Eat and Takeaway’ project involving diverse groups of families. We’re still shaping it, but the idea is to create a local space where families would get help to adapt recipes from their cultures into healthier ones, teach each other to prepare good wholesome meals, eat together and provide a couple of meals for families to take away.
The listening exercise gave us a richer understanding of the choices, behaviours, attitudes, opportunities and constrains facing each of the different people with a role in driving change in child health – from parents to school teachers to faith leaders. As a community organising project, knowledge like this is incredibly powerful. Our commitment is to continue listening and building solutions with everyone.
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