Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Dishing up a culinary course for the disabled

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Dishing up a culinary course for the disabled with the Annalakshmi Culinary Science Program

A recent video post on Facebook piqued my curiosity. The video showed Mallika Jegasothy, coordinator of Annalakshmi Culinary Science Program in Perth, holding a cooking class for a group of people.
Annalakshmi Culinary Science Program.Indian Link
A cooking class – nothing out of the ordinary, one would think. Except that this group of students was special.
The first clue was the presence of guide dogs lying down near the feet of some of the students. Not something one normally encounters in a cooking class.
Many of us struggle to cook a healthy and tasty dish at home, but how challenging would it be for a group of disabled people to learn cooking? And also, how challenging for the teacher to conduct a class for this group?
I decided to have a chat with Mallika Jegasothy, who heads up the Annalakshmi Culinary Science Program in Perth, to find out more.
Why did she start the culinary science program?
She brings up the vision of her guru and the muse behind Annalakshmi, SMV and TFA, Shantanand Saraswati.
Her guru’s last instructions to her were to, “Setup vegetarian cooking at a university level”.
As she jokingly says, “If the guru were alive, we could debate the logic, but the guru’s last words are more binding than anything.”
To make this vision a reality, she started offering culinary courses in Indian and Asian vegetarian cooking at Annalakshmi.
Her occupational background is in physiotherapy and rehabilitation and she retired from this in 2014.
She spoke about the 35 years that she had put into her job, mainly working in the rehabilitation of young people with brain injuries.
This context of working in rehabilitation makes her passionate about taking her culinary science program to disabled people.
She believes that cooking is a life skill and can help in preventing the weight gain issues that she has seen in her patients over the long term.
What sort of challenges did she face in conducting a cooking course for visually impaired students?
Safety is her number one concern. The layout of the kitchen is kept static as far as possible, because the participants rely on memory to move around safely.
From her history of working in rehabilitation, Mallika believes that the focus for disabled people should be on what they “can” do and to enhance those abilities.
“Listen to the sound of the boiling water, smell the aroma of the cooked spices,” she tells her students.
 Annalakshmi Culinary Science Program.Indian Link
How much does she charge for the program?
Mallika says she charges no fees at all for the 11-week Access course for the disabled. With the help of the Mithra Foundation, Mallika is able to cover the costs of the course and provide it as a free service.
She says that costs exceed what the Mithra Foundation can sponsor, but “we have run it on donations from within our group”.
How do the participants feel about the program?
One of the participants in her program was Shanthi Fielding, a young girl with Down’s syndrome.
Her mother had this to say on the post: “I want to thank Mallika Jegasothy and her wonderful team of volunteers who not only taught Shanthi, but also sourced kitchen aids that would help reduce some of the difficulties faced to enable her to cook independently. She had such a great time and is looking forward to future programs.”
Penny Rogers, one of the visually impaired participants, feels the course is a “great self-esteem builder” and that “(the course) expanded my knowledge about food and trying to cook Indian food authentically (a work in progress). I met wonderful and interesting people – my class mates as well as the instructors and volunteers”.
Would she endorse the course to others who are visually impaired? Penny says she would definitely recommend this course to others, “even those without a disability”.
What is the future for the Access culinary course?
Though Mallika has trained a number of such groups since the inception of the program in 2013, she has now had to suspend the program.
She has lost the venue she had at Mint Street, Perth and is finding it difficult to arrange a site where she can conduct her cooking class in a safe and secure manner.
“I had students registered for the course, and the biggest heartache is that I had to tell my students ‘no’ and turn them down,” she says. One of the applicants who was turned down was an ex-army/navy chef who suffers from visual impairment and is in his seventies.
Mallika is looking for support in her search for a “kitchen space” where she can conduct her culinary sciences program for visually impaired/disabled people.
For the program to be viable, she needs access to the space at no cost and be allowed to store some equipment.
Mallika can be reached at mallika.jegasothy@smv.org.au by anyone who is able to help her in this quest.

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