Skip to primary content
Skip to main menu
Skip to section menu (if applicable)

Food for Thought

Network, Spring/Summer 2006

On a busy street in west Toronto sits an unassuming storefront. But rather than hardware or hairdressers, this building houses a community-based service that offers the hope of a productive and fulfilling future to young people who have experienced a first episode of psychosis.

The letters on the window read “LEARN,” for Learning Employment Advocacy and Recreation Network. An innovative component of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s first-episode psychosis program, LEARN is designed to help young people re-integrate into school and work as recovery allows.

Inside the front door, the lighting levels are subdued — track lights, rather than fluorescent fixtures, are used. The walls are painted in earth tones, the layout is casual. Together, these features bring a sense of calm and comfort. Within this setting, through a range of programs, LEARN provides a holistic approach to recovery and reintegration, recognizing that the whole person — body and mind — must work together in order to maintain health and reduce the risk of additional psychotic episodes.

Towards the back of the space, a large, open kitchen is the home of LEAN, the Learning Essentials about Active lifestyle and Nutrition program. Initiated in September 2004, it is both a food security and healthy lifestyle program that enables participants to acquire and consolidate the skills to plan, budget, shop and cook in a health-conscious, budget-savvy way. LEAN also promotes the importance of regular physical activity. It runs for 20 weekly sessions and is geared to those who are living independently, or who plan to. Some people attend more than one series of sessions.

“Most of the LEAN groups involve shopping and cooking,” explains Tara Laing, the occupational therapist who co-leads the program. “But we’re trying, too, to have a mini-lesson, often based on some of the things we’ve identified as learning needs in previous weeks. So if something comes up that we need to go over, we’ll review that in the beginning. Like some of the safety things, for example.”

“This is basically a community kitchen idea, where the participants take the food home with them,” Tara continues. “We say it’s okay if they want to sample it before they go, but we’re not sitting down here and having a meal. We’re making a meal that they will take away.”

Outside of LEAN, it’s not unusual for some of the young cooks to share their meals with others. As Tara notes, “One of the neat things that’s come out of LEAN is that some of the folks will make dinner for their families on the days that they bring it home from here. And that’s been a really great feeling for them, to feel ‘I made the dinner and everybody loved it.’ It can be a really positive experience.”

Goals include learning to prepare an entire meal, not just contributing one piece to a group project, emphasizes Tara. “This isn’t a group where we all come in and make one dish together and I cut the onion so that’s what I learned today. People are either making their own meals or making them in pairs, and we really leave it up to them. We try to do this group with our hands tied behind our backs. We’re here for questions and suggestions. But people are actually cooking for themselves and surprising themselves with how much they can do. Some are going on to do more and more.”

Many of those attending LEAN are learning about nutrition, food safety and cooking skills for the first time. And all of them seem to like it. Sean, for one, thinks, “It’s great. It’s good for strategies for living on my own and cooking good, healthy food for cheap.” He likes learning about how to make different foods, and he appreciates the variety of recipes offered by The Basic Shelf Cookbook that LEAN uses. Others agree that the recipes are very useful at home.

Beyond basic skills, the program helps participants to think critically about food choices and view their own actions within a larger social context. Mark Dwyer, recreation therapist and co-leader with Tara, comments, “We have outings such as going to an organic greenhouse.” And Tara adds, “We spent a session watching Supersize Me [a documentary film about the health effects of eating from the McDonald’s menu] and discussed why we were showing it — because so many young people live on fast food.”

In another session, continues Tara, “We did a contest where people had to get the most out of the money they were given. We found out the items that were most lacking at the food bank, and everybody had to go out and get as much as they could of the needed items — which forced them to bargain shop and economize — and then as a group we went to the food bank and made a donation, which was pretty neat. I think they felt good about doing that and also learned a few things.” These sessions also help to strengthen their community connections.

Staff are well aware of the risks of obesity and related issues that challenge the LEAN population. “A lot of our clients have experienced weight gain,” says Tara. “We have a new dietician coming in, and we’d like her to specifically address these sorts of issues. We thought we might have people fill out anonymous questions, on things like obesity, heart disease or diabetes, that she could answer.”

“One of the things we’ve struggled with,” admits Tara, “is how to make more exercise happen because we think it’s very important.” Mark adds that “LEAN actually started out as a two-day program, with cooking on the first day and doing exercise on the second day. But it became difficult logistically, and also everyone was showing up to eat, but people weren’t showing up to exercise. Because if people aren’t motivated to do that, it’s difficult to get them going.” It remains a challenge.

While learning about nutrition and fitness are the main focus for LEAN, the experience is about so much more. Preetha, another LEAN participant, shares her story:

“I was diagnosed with psychosis just over a year ago. I was doing my fourth year of computer engineering at the University of Toronto. And in November I had the illness and I was told to take some time off school. Being an engineering student I was used to being under stress and having something to do. Having absolutely nothing to do was very hard on me. So I started coming to LEAN and started cooking. I’d never really cooked before and wasn’t good at it.”

“But coming to LEAN is not just about the cooking, it’s also being a part of LEARN and being in touch with staff who are really, really, really great people. First of all, it gives you something to do and it also allows you to mingle with other people. Following the illness, when you’re off school, you tend to feel isolated and alone. So it’s nice to see that there are other people who are going through what you’re going through. It’s nice to have people to socialize with who know where you’re coming from.”

James, also a LEAN participant, agrees: “I get to meet people and get to experience cooking and it challenges me to use my mind and use my communication skills. It teaches me patience and how to get along with people. It’s just good experience.”

And another adds, “I’m coming here and meeting new people and seeing new faces. It’s really nice. And old faces too. And everyone’s always really nice and together. And it’s weird because not only do you see these people once a week but you see the miraculous changes that they go through. Like just bettering themselves from being in the program.”

At LEAN, clients meet each other, shop and cook and learn together. They do real things in a community setting. And through this integrated approach, LEAN promotes recovery and provides the tools for prevention that will enable clients to realize and maintain good health.

The benefits of LEAN extend well beyond the kitchen. Mark suggests that clients are empowered by the approach. “People just feel better about themselves — more confident. We get a lot of people who, when they first step in the door, find it difficult to make eye contact or talk about themselves. But when we do a group like this and put the power in their hands to take control over making something and seeing the product from start to finish, it feels as though they’ve accomplished something.”