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Promoting a healthier lifestyle in Cape Town’s underprivileged areas

Projects Abroad Nutrition volunteers sit with a group of young girls at their placement in Cape Town, South Africa

After much planning and preparation, the Nutrition project in South Africa welcomed its first volunteers in January this year.

Julie McDonald, who recently completed an MA in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sydney, was one of the first volunteers at the project. "I joined the Nutrition project to help educate and empower the community when it came to their health and well-being. I didn't realise how much I would gain from this experience, from the fun memories to gaining more confidence in teaching others. It's an experience I will never forget."

In poverty-stricken townships, rife with violence and disease, nutritious eating and exercise are not seen as priorities. Project Manager Deborah Talbot says: "The impact of the Nutrition Project is magnified as volunteers are working within the actual community and increasing the access to healthcare for those people who may otherwise seldom see any healthcare professionals.”

Volunteers at the Nutrition project work together with other Cape Town-based Projects Abroad placements to improve the health and lifestyle of those dealing with the harsh realities of living in a township.

Harry Kent, Deputy Director of Projects Abroad South Africa said: “Over the years, we have seen that children at our Cape Town projects receive very little food from home and, as a result, struggle to concentrate during lessons. With our improved efforts at the Care placements with the Care Management Plan initiative, we needed to find a way to put a stop to this.”

Projects Abroad Nutrition volunteers sit with children from the Surfing project in Cape Town, South Africa

Volunteers at the Nutrition project are working to educate staff at our projects on the importance of good nutrition for the young children in their care. Volunteers purchase vegetables from a partner organisation and educate caregivers on how to prepare a healthy meal. With the necessary ingredients and guidance, these children can benefit from a healthy meal every day, while under the care of Projects Abroad staff and volunteers.

Nutrition volunteers have also started work to improve the health of children who attend our Surfing project twice a week. These children are often either overweight or malnourished, so volunteers help to prepare a healthy meal for them and run nutrition-based activities with the children to educate them on the benefits of healthy eating.

Volunteers also assess and advise community members suffering from diseases such as HIV and TB, which require specific diet plans that can drastically improve their lives.  Each member receives a health evaluation and volunteers work with them to create an improved diet plan and to encourage them to start vegetable gardening.

British volunteer Naomi Smith says of her experience: ‘It's almost impossible to find this kind of opportunity elsewhere; to get such hands on experience and get so involved in the community. Your work is valued so much more, and working with people makes you have to think on your feet!"

A Projects Abroad Nutrition volunteer sits with a community member during a Nutrition outreach programme in Cape Town, South Africa

Although the Nutrition project is in its early days, Projects Abroad is well-established in Cape Town and has a strong understanding of the needs of the communities in which we work. “So far we have conducted baseline surveys to find out the specific needs of the community. The most common issues have been obesity in women and a serious lack of people growing their own food,” says Kent.

As the only project in Cape Town that focuses 100% on community nutrition, he is confident that Projects Abroad can make a meaningful impact. “Our hope is that this pioneering project will be recognised and, along with many more volunteers, will have the capacity to spread to many other communities in need.”

Through promoting a healthy lifestyle at a range of different projects and groups, volunteers on the Nutrition project are able to offer support and advice to disadvantaged communities who would otherwise not have access to such information. This support also enables the different placements to continue with their own work, be it surfing, care or counselling, in a more productive, healthy and sustainable manner.

Public Health graduate, Ruby Burchfield from the US, found her time volunteering to be a valuable learning curve: “My experience…has been rewarding as well as eye opening. I feel that I'm learning so much about the people, the culture, the science of nutrition and about myself."

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