An inspiring project in Axminster, Devon is developing self-belief, practical skills and wellbeing amongst a cohort of volunteers in recovery from substance misuse. 

The Old Dairy Kitchen is a wonderful, educational kitchen and community dining space based on Trill Farm in East Devon. Chris Onions (pictured right), is the brilliant, classically trained (and classically named!) chef who runs the kitchen with the belief that chefs must take responsibility for the social and environmental effects their cooking has, both locally and as part of the food system as a whole.

Grow. Cook. Make. Mend, one of the projects running at The Old Dairy Kitchen, is a very special demonstration of this belief in action. It offers a powerful current example of how cooking and the garden can be used for rehabilitation, connection and practical learning.

Running weekly from March to December 2016, this community project enables 12 people in recovery from substance misuse to develop personal, practical and employment skills in a real working and supportive setting, at Trill Farm.

Grow. Cook. Make. Mend

My working role is focused on recovery and reintegration. Empowering people to get back in touch with their communities outside of addiction, and encouraging opportunities into education and employment. As part of this I have been supporting Grow Cook Make Mend as a referral partner into the Devon County Council funded scheme.

I have witnessed tangible social change and transformation here on the farm this past six months, largely thanks to the understanding and encouraging approach of Chris and the other tutors. Horticulturist Naomi Glass mentors the group to build and tend a wildlife friendly vegetable garden from scratch, and the shared sense of wellbeing and joy of growing food from seed is incredible. Especially poignant when you consider a number of the volunteers may not have had such access or opportunity before.

Naomi explains the process; “Social and therapeutic horticulture is the process of working with plants to improve physical and psychological health, and communication and thinking skills. Working together in the small garden we have created from scratch gives participants a safe space in which to focus on a task, to learn and to open up. Connecting to the seasons through what we eat, tending to plants from seed through to harvesting their fruits in the morning and eating them for lunch offers a deep sense of empowerment, appreciation and well-being that can only be attained through experience. I have seen time again how something as seemingly insignificant as a garden can be part of the transformation for an individual in crisis moving towards stability and wellness, rendering a garden space one of the most subtly powerful and egalitarian healing environments around!”

Seasonal Feasts and Practical Skills

The team then use the produce they have grown in the kitchen with Chris, cooking up a seasonal feast for not only themselves, but also the wider farm staff, volunteers and Wwoof-ers.

Everyone gets actively involved in creating really delicious shared meals for 20 plus guests.

True to the farms philosophy and produce, the learning style is also organic, with very practical techniques shared in a manner which allows and encourages people to try new things, make and learn from mistakes. A space where participants can re-gain (or gain) the self belief and confidence that can help them on their way to their next adventure.

On the whole, people enter the project at a time where they have worked hard alongside Addaction RISE to gain some coping strategies and stability – drugs or alcohol are then no longer the main driver or crutch in their lives. A huge achievement, but it’s also pertinent to consider Johann Hari’s view, that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection – and you could say that it is at this point that the hard work truly begins. Forging a new path, and creating new relationships – trying to find your place in the world: daunting steps for us all, and in this case without familiar, albeit destructive methods of escape or release.

These individuals can be hugely lacking in self confidence, hope or belief – which in turn can be significant barriers to both employment, and unlocking that potential. Yet their experiences with Grow. Cook. Make. Mend can unearth some raw skills and previously hidden passions, and can build up the connections they need for a deeper sense of recovery.

Chris is currently planning and developing the scheme into 2017. He says of the project’s ethos, “By offering meaningful work, with a focus on a creative, beautiful and delicious food, we will build not only overall confidence and a re-connection for the participants, but they will have the opportunity to gain vital life skills to take forward into future employment opportunities.”

To keep up to date the Old Dairy Kitchen at Trill, please click here.

You can also follow Chris Onions on his Twitter page.