How a cooking program supports women to gain independence

Olivia Killeen, Communication and Social Policy Officer
Olivia Killeen Communication and Social Policy Officer
16 June 2023
Staff member standing in the Bethlehem kitchen preparing a fruit platter

“Before I came to Bethlehem Community, I had not cooked for several years and had forgotten my previous skills and good habits. The cooking program gave me the skills and habits to live a healthy, independent life beyond Bethlehem,” former resident Patricia* says.

Bethlehem Community is a two-year residential program for women who have experienced homelessness and chronic disadvantage.

As part of the service’s role in supporting women to maintain housing and improve their independence, the Bethlehem Cooking Program was devised almost 20 years ago, as a way for residents to improve their nutrition, develop new skills, as well as helping residents to make the most out of their income by pooling their funds together and shopping collectively.

Residents can also influence the meals and recipes with cultural preferences, favourite and traditional dishes and intolerances and other sensitivities.

Bethlehem's recipe book next to a pot with home-made stuw and a piece of cake

Residents are rostered one day a week to set the table and prepare dinner for other residents, prepare and lay out food for lunch, clear away after each meal and stack and empty the dishwasher. Staff support is available for residents as needed.

Residents are encouraged to sit with the Eve, Bethlehem’s Meals Program Coordinator, to influence their rostered menu and recipe and help them to devise a grocery list and shop for the ingredients.

Some residents accompany Eve to visit the supermarkets, particularly when they are ready to move on from Bethlehem Community to deepen nutritional knowledge and experience.

Former resident Patricia who moved on from the Bethlehem Community five years ago says that to this day she still ‘benefits enormously’ from the cooking program.

“I learnt principles and structures of cooking, which has allowed me to confidently invent my own recipes. Principles like how long to cook vegetables, freezing and thawing meat, cooking times and how to check when it’s cooked,” says Patricia. 

“The Bethlehem staff, especially Eve, designed a program that was always interesting and varied, so I gained experience cooking a wide variety of food and the repetition of dishes meant you could perfect methods, instead of stumbling through because it was only done once and forgetting what you had learned. Dishes that are easy to clean up after were always great.”

Patricia could not speak more highly of the long-term benefits of Bethlehem’s cooking program. “I have been taught the parameters of healthy fresh cooking with wholefoods and these were used every week over the time I spent at Bethlehem, so they are deeply ingrained in my memory through direct personal practical experience so won’t be forgotten.”

When reflecting on the program, Bethlehem Program Coordinator Christine Faure says, “staff see the benefits to residents in developing life skills and preparing them for life beyond the community.

“Patricia’s feedback is the ‘proof in the pudding!’”

Patricia makes this so clear: “I am indebted to the cooking program for my happiest independent life!”

We changed the former resident’s name to protect her privacy. Patricia is not her real name.