Community Kitchen for HIV-positive Women: A program assessment

By Tania Smith, Women’s Community Development Coordinator

Women’s Community Kitchen History
In 2001, members of the Women’s Outreach Network (WON), a monthly gathering of professionals from government, community health and sexual health organizations who work with women, launched a Women’s Community Kitchen (the Kitchen) in response to feelings of isolation expressed by HIV-positive women. The Kitchen was organized and facilitated by a group of community partners including: Voices of Positive Women (VOPW), Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (BCAP), Africans in Partnership Against AIDS (APAA) and the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT). The Kitchen was promoted through the Support Coordinators of each agency and funding was provided by ACTs Women’s Community Development Program.

Twice a month HIV-positive women were invited to cook and socialize from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the kitchen, which was held at Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (a community health centre for immigrant women). An average of 10-15 women attended each Kitchen. The Kitchen was open to all HIV positive women; however, it was attended predominately by women from Africa and the Caribbean. A large portion of the women who attended the Kitchen were members of VOPW and had a strong connection with the Support Coordinator at that agency. In September 2001, the VOPW Support Coordinator went on maternity leave and many of the women stopped attending the Kitchen. At the same time, ACT’s Women’s Community Development Coordinator who coordinated the Kitchen left the agency. An Interim Community Kitchen Coordinator was contracted. However, by October 2001, the Kitchen was poorly attended with an average of 2-3 women attending, with some Kitchen’s were completed unattended.

In light of the poor attendance, the Community Kitchen was put on hold in March 2002 pending restructuring.

Assessment of the Kitchen
Once a new Women’s Community Development Coordinator was hired by ACT in early 2002, plans were put in place to conduct an assessment of the Women’s Community Kitchen to determine if the program was meeting the needs of HIV-positive women. To begin this process, Women’s Health in Women’s Hands was formally invited as a partner in the Community Kitchen program.

All partner agencies met to review the format and content of the original Community Kitchen and brainstormed ideas for its restructure. In light of the demographic of women who predominately attended the Kitchen, the partner agencies agreed that the Kitchen would focus on African and Caribbean HIV-positive women. Committed to an inclusive and participatory approach to project design and implementation, the partner agencies organized a focus group of HIV-positive women to participate in the design of the format and content of the revised Kitchen.

Focus Group
A focus group was organized as a picnic on the Toronto Islands. The informal format and casual setting were selected to increase the likelihood of participation. Each the five partner agencies were responsible for recruiting a minimum of five women to participate in the focus group. Focus group participants would be women who had attended a Kitchen, or women who might want to attend such a program. As the focus group was held during the summer, it was difficult for many agencies to recruit participants (even though each was offered an honorarium as well as transportation and food at the picnic).

A total of five women attended the picnic and participated in the focus group. Two of the women had attended the Community Kitchen in the past.

The following represent highlights of the discussions that took place:

Q. Why did you stop attending the Kitchen?
· It was boring going to the same place every time and cook
· The first and second time was very exciting then it became boring. (Probe: Why?) Once I went three times and knew what happens it wasn’t exciting anymore.

Q. What suggestions do you have for the new Kitchen?
Find different places to go and do different things.
· We can still cook sometimes.
· Maybe you can put everything in a newsletter. You can tell us when we are going to cook.
· Do different things for different seasons.
· Another thing, if we meet once a month it may be more exciting ‘cause some of us go to different agency events.

Q. What kind of different things would you like to do?
· In the summer, we could go on trips. There are a lot of things we don’t even know for fun.
· Some of us don’t even know where swimming pools are…
· We could go to plays or art galleries.
· It is difficult to say what we would like to do because we don’t know the city very well.

Q. Do you want a learning component?
It was agreed there should be some component of learning to the Kitchen: guest speakers on various topics would be useful.

Q. What kind of learning components would you like to see?
· Stress Management, HIV related topics, work skills.
· Women stuff. You know: things about our bodies and our health.

Q. What day of the week or time of time works best?
There was no consensus over a best time to meet; some women liked evenings or weekends, while others preferred it to be in the day time, during the week.

While the number of women who participated in the focus group was small, their comments and suggestions gelled well with those of the staff in the partner agencies involved in collaborative project. As a result of the focus group feedback, the ‘Community Kitchen’ format now includes monthly outings to various restaurants throughout the city, workshops and informational presentations for African and Caribbean HIV positive women.