The Herald, 9th March 2020
There is nothing more important to social entrepreneur Sylvie Douglas than encouraging women who face adversity to believe in themselves, perhaps for the first time ever.
She knows, through personal experience, that confidence leads to increased mental and physical wellbeing, which then leads to better outcomes for families.
Since 2014, Ms Douglas has worked with women from Glasgow to “support female empowerment” through her community interest company, MsMissMrs, which helped more than 250 women last year access workshops in health, wellbeing and self-care.
Now she has added a new arm to her already thriving social enterprise – a purpose-built kitchen facility in the north of Glasgow where long-time friend and chef Fiona Mackenzie will teach women on low incomes how to batch cook, budget and save.
The Femfoods programme will run six-week courses where women commit to saving half the money they would usually spend on food and contribute £20 each week towards the cost of fresh ingredients they will cook on site before taking home to fill their freezers and feed their families.
Ms Douglas said: “Lots of people are talking about child poverty but it’s a family issue and it brings so much shame. “There’s a real stigma and lots of women who might need to access support will be too frightened to. Poverty and neglect are often mixed up.”
At the end of a six-week pilot last year, one mother of two boys on a zero-hours contract who spent almost half of her £210 weekly wage on food found she had a freezer full of food and had saved £190, and extra money to spend on time with her sons.
The six women who participated in the pilot saved £1,500, collectively, with the Glasgow Credit Union over the course of six weeks – a “life-changing” amount.
Ms Mackenzie, 40, who toured the world as a chef with some of the biggest names in the music business before settling back home in Glasgow to study counselling, will work closely with participants to understand how they eat and will set up personalised menus with healthy alternatives to family favourites.
Women can self refer to the scheme, buying their own slot, and can return up to four times a year, which is helpful, Ms Douglas and Ms Mackenzie say, in the run-up to Christmas, school trips and family holidays.
Many will be signposted to the service through the self-care hub run by Ms Douglas or benefit from a pay-it-forward scheme where £20 places are funded by anonymous donors and a card denoting the value is gifted to a woman in need by social workers, health visitors or community organisations.
As a mother of two daughters, one aged 25 and the other 18 months, and as someone brought up in care, Ms Douglas knows only too well the difficulty of raising a family on limited income while unpicking the past after having her first child at 16 and going to university as a mature student.
That’s why she has dedicated her recent working life to empowering women through education, peer support and community building.
She said: “Asking for what you need, setting boundaries, that builds your self worth and then what we expect changes and what we ask for become something very different.”
Ms Douglas and Ms Mackenzie hope to foster a sense of community, where women can be open about their struggles and share their experiences. Those who might need extra support could access the MsMissMrs hub or be signposted to other services.
Ms Mackenzie said: “We want to cultivate an environment where people can be honest and authentic and be themselves without fear of judgement.
“I passionately believe that we don’t all get a fair chance but I believe that if we give people the right space, they can become what they’re meant to be.”
There are no barriers to accessing the Femfoods programme, no matter the circumstances, with funds ring-fenced to buy freezers, provide transport and contribute to electricity bills.
The gleaming kitchen with its industrial ovens, Belfast sinks and generous wooden workbenches will eventually accommodate 10 women once a week on up to four cook days. It is estimated that those 40 women per week could cook up to 40,000 meals per year, or 22 tonnes of food.
MsMissMrs also runs a creche where children can be looked after on cooking days for no charge.
It is evident that the scheme is about so much more than just food, although it is at its heart.
“It’s about food, but it’s also about nutrition, it’s about saving, it’s about economic empowerment, it’s about mental wellbeing,” said Ms Douglas.
“Food is love. When you’re feeding your babies and you’re feeding your family or friends, you’re feeding them because there’s a connection and, if you’re not able to do that, you feel like you’re failing.”