Aisling Kirwan’s Grub Club project won an Innovation Award in 2015. The former maths teacher’s initiative has worked with more than 80 families, helping parents and kids learn kitchen skills and bond with each other over a hot stove. We caught up with her to find out more.
95% of the kids we’ve worked with so far have been on Pupil Premium [additional funding for disadvantaged children]. We let schools target which students to involve, because they know them best. It could be families known to struggle to provide hot meals at home or families that aren’t engaging with the school.
We’re not pointing fingers saying families are doing a bad job. We’re there to support them. The way we pitch it is as an afterschool programme where kids can learn some vital life skills, parents can spend quality time with them and everyone gets some free food out of it.
One student in a school in Oxford, Harry, wasn’t interested at the beginning. He pulled up a stool so he could sit down while peeling carrots, he was always tired, he always needed the loo when there was washing up to do. But by the end of the six-week course he was transformed and ended up coming back to work as my sous chef for the next group. He helped me prep the food, showed new families knife skills and how to use the oven. He even helped them wash up.
The best thing is watching relationships develop. It’s really heart-warming and inspiring. One parent in our first school in Plumstead had a difficult relationship with the school, because her child was challenging. But through the programme she was able to have informal chats with teachers and feel like they were on her side, as well as spending quality time with her child and watching other parents do that too.
The kids decide what we’re going to cook each week. Lasagne and curry are definite favourites. And they always want to make desserts. We do a healthy dessert week at the end of the programme which teaches them how to cook low sugar, fruit-filled alternatives. (Sometimes a vegetable even sneaks in – check out the sweet potato biscuit recipe below)
Prawns are a hard sell. I once had an email from a headmaster telling me the kids really didn’t want to make a prawn curry. I’ve learnt it’s better to talk about the general idea of what we’re going to cook next week rather than specify ingredients. I wait until the day now and the kids are normally fine – it’s the parents who say “they won’t eat that!”. We do a shepherd’s pie with a cauliflower mash. They’re so busy boiling the cauliflower and mashing it, by the time it goes on top they don’t notice. They’re so fixated on learning the skill they forget they’re going to eat it until they’re actually eating it.
I was inspired by my childhood experience. I grew up in a low-income family near Dublin and dinner was always a beige buffet. My parents are amazing and worked really hard for us, they just hadn’t been educated about nutrition. They made sure food was on the table, it just wasn’t the right food.
At the first school I taught in students would have a can of Red Bull and a packet of crisps for breakfast. Then I’d be trying to teach them quadratic equations. I was shocked there was nothing supporting families to feed their children nutritiously, it was history repeating. If kids aren’t eating well, they aren’t going to be able to learn well.
I trained as a chef in 2012, while I was teaching. It was an outlet, like other people play football or go to the gym. I love it and wanted to work with food but not as a traditional chef, because I love seeing people enjoy my food. The more I taught the more I realised so much that impacts a student’s performance happens outside the school gates. I looked at how I could make a difference to families and their attitude to learning and knew I could do that through food.
Without Teach First’s Innovation Unit I’d still be doing this on the side. Now it’s my full-time job and their support has been amazing. I was blown away to get shortlisted for an Innovation Award, let alone win one. The six-month salary and office space that came with that really let me dig deeply into the problem so I could make sure I was coming up with the right solution. I also get great corporate support with mentors from PA Consulting, Bloomberg and Barclays.
My in-house Teach First mentor, Gina, has been like an older sister to me. Her best piece of advice is not to be afraid of failing. If something didn’t work I used to be embarrassed and think people would judge me. But you learn so much more from those experiences than when it goes right and that’s why you pilot a programme.
What next? I want to create hubs across the UK where we’re needed most. We’ve recently expanded into Birmingham so that we can serve the West Midlands, which is a black spot for obesity. I also want to help the kids who are just outside the Pupil Premium bracket, the cut-off is very low to qualify and some still need extra support.
Now for that biscuit recipe:
250g peeled sweet potatoes
450g ground almonds
100g brown sugar
300g pine nuts
- Preheat the oven at 180°C.
- Line a baking tray with baking paper.
- Peel and boil the sweet potatoes until they are soft. Mash with a fork and put in the fridge to cool down.
- Separate the egg whites from their yokes.
- In a large bowl mix together the sugar and ground almonds and two egg yolks. Grate in the zest of the lemon.
- Mix in the cooled sweet potato until well combined.
- Make small spherical balls about 5cm in diameter. You should make about 20-25.
- Whisk together your egg whites in a separate until lightly beaten and aerated (2- 3 minutes manually).
- Roughly chop pine nuts and place in a bowl.
- Dip the biscuits into the egg white and then roll in the crushed pine nuts and place on the baking tray.
- Mix together the remaining egg yolk in a bowl and brush over the biscuits.
- Place in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes or until golden brown.
- Leave to cool on wire rack.