Free cooking classes in Whitley ‘let food be thy medicine’

Sandra Robinson at New Directions in Whitley

I turned a quiet corner at the refurbished New Directions adult education centre in Whitley on their open day last week only to hear a clear friendly voice say “please do come in and have a look around.”

I followed and found Sandra Robinson of the charity food4families in a smart apron standing in a modern and airy kitchen and classroom facility. On the table in front of her were various colourful and beautiful vegetables worthy of an old master still-life painting. I thought I would find out a bit more for our readers and Sandra kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

What do you do in this lovely kitchen?
The main thing we do is community gardens; getting people to grow their own fresh fruit and veg. We also do cooking courses down here at New Directions on Friday mornings. We run a six week course open to everybody which is free at the moment, No experience is necessary; I show people how to cook a meal from scratch with good fresh ingredients and they take the dish home every Friday.

Aren’t the NHS thinking of sending folk to people like you?
That would be great if they would. We would welcome that.

Do you think there is a general ignorance of cooking skills ?
A lot of people haven’t been taught to cook and don’t have the confidence to learn. I do feel confidence is key and just coming along and finding that its actually quite easy is a revelation to many. We have had some real successes with folk who only usually eat takeaways, packets and tins being introduced to new recipes and techniques and they are soon able to do these things at home with fresh fruit and veg, which is so motivating, healthy and rewarding.

Do you think cooking and eating together is important ?
Bringing people together to cook and eat communally, especially round a table, is not only culturally important; it’s a definite boost to people’s happiness, social worth and to family cohesion. At the end of every six week course everyone is quite sad to leave as the cooking course creates such a well bonded, friendly group. People make new friends here.

Where are you based and how are you funded?
We are funded by the big lottery and we are part of RISC at London Road. We work on various community gardens including the Whitley Growallot at Meavy Gardens. The vegetable garden at New Directions is a base where we grow plants for other gardens, and students from the John Madejski Academy come in and do some gardening and cooking.

After talking to Sandra I can’t help reflect that Hippocrates could have elaborated on his “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” edict and added “for body, mind and soul”. Sandra did briefly test my knowledge of various vegetables, but as I am a bit of a salad dodger with rudimentary cooking skills, I did think the fennel looked like a robot’s heart, and the bright yellow squash looked like a kind of custard hand grenade – not to mention my prickly cucumber/courgette confusion. Maybe I should sign up myself.

New Directions South Reading is at 330 Northumberland Avenue, Reading RG2 8DH. They can also be found online, emailed at or phoned on 0345 842 0012.

Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.

  1. Mayor Rose Williams opens refurbished New Directions in Whitley
  2. Food4Families
  3. New Directions
  4. Whitley GrowAllot

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