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Lewisham celebrate history of Caribbean food

PICTURED: Rose Sinclair speaking to community members

AFTER THE financial crash in 2008, Catford local Barbara Gray was made redundant from her role at Lewisham Council, a job that placed her at the heart of community regeneration. Gray says: “I was involved in really immersing myself in those communities and finding gateways into them. I did that for most of my time in Lewisham, most of which I loved and I was able to say I want to do this for myself.”

In 2015, this revelation gave birth to Urban Dandelion, a social enterprise dedicated to “inspiring communities to bring about the change they want to see.”

She says: “I am looking at the area, looking at the people who live there and the kind of businesses there. Then I can say, ‘this is what people say they need from surveys and this is what is on offer to them. How are we going to meet the gaps?’”

Health in the African Caribbean community

Through Urban Dandelion, Gray offers a consultancy service where she works with various community groups. With support from a special group of people that she refers to as ‘community champions’, Urban Dandelion has supervised the initiation of a local artists’ trail (featuring Gray’s photographic work) and a reminiscence group, offering days out for elderly citizens in Catford. Within this enterprise stands the Healthy Habits initiative.

Outlining her motivations for the Healthy Habits initiatives which offers talks, healthy activities and information to locals, Gray says: “Health in the African Caribbean communities is dire. It’s really bad. Black people who live in Lewisham are worse off than black people who live in most other places. They are living with obesity, prostate cancer – you name it. We’re not doing good.”

Food of African Caribbean origin

According to a study conducted by Lewisham's NHS Clinical Commissioning Group, "over 30,000 people are estimated to have undiagnosed and therefore untreated high blood pressure". Additionally, it was found that "46.5% of Lewisham's population is BME (Black and Minority Ethnicities) and at greater risk of diabetes, hypertension and stroke."

Gray continues: “I’ve been self-employed for about two years. It’s just great to be able to mobilise people. We’re in a growing climate of social action. How we can use that to get the best benefits for our community and for ourselves, particularly among the black community? I am desperate to help people.”

Diet and heritage

While setting up Healthy Habits, Gray discovered that “the regular knowledge we have is phenomenal”. To this end, she supports the development and dissemination of knowledge in the African Caribbean community. In her latest adventure, Healthy Habits hosted an event in partnership with Goldsmiths design lecturer and PhD researcher Rose Sinclair.

As part of the 30th Black History Month celebrations, Black Cake & Gizzada looked into the history of African Caribbean food through a number of informative talks and engaging stories. Gray and Sinclair unpicked myths, shared facts and encouraged guests to consider their diet and heritage, while considering healthier options.

Rose Sinclair and Barbara Gray speaking to the audience

Sinclair, who is also a textiles practitioner says: “The work has evolved from my PhD research which is focused around black women in the UK, their textiles and crafting practices‎.” During research interviews, the topic of food kept coming up, so Sinclair started looking into stories of food heritage and “how some of our key cakes and sweet recipes have evolved”. In a particularly interesting discovery, Sinclair discovered that gizzada, a popular Caribbean pastry filled with coconut originated from Portugal.

Habits don’t change overnight

In an evening of presentations, Black Cake and Gizzada challenged perceptions about popular Caribbean dishes and their calorie value, creating the opportunity for a laughter and debate. It came as a surprise to many that a typical patty, often eaten as a side dish, accounted for 400 calories of your daily allowance. Gray says: “We give people the information so that they can make different choices. Usually, they’re quite shocked and something changes, even if it’s just a small change.” A key thing to remember: “Habits don’t change overnight! They take time.” Healthy Habits facilitates community members with follow-up information, e-newsletter and free fitness sessions.

According to Lewisham Council and NHS Lewisham CCG’s Market Position Statement, “the largest black and minority ethnic (BME) groups are Black African and Black Caribbean.” Furthermore, “black ethnic groups are estimated to comprise 30% of the total population of Lewisham.” The Statement also confirmed, “the premature mortality rate for Lewisham is significantly higher than that of London.”

“There’s an acceptance by us – I’m generalising – that we have poor health. I grew up thinking: ‘Half of my family have diabetes. It’s one of those things! I will get diabetes.’ I never stopped one moment to think it was one of those things I could prevent. I just accepted it,” Gray admits. “You just have to stay active and watch what you eat. Just live as full as you can. If I’m not well, my daughter has to look after me and I’m too young!”, she laughs.

Barbara Gray is leader of the BAME Health Sub Group, part of the LBME Network (Lewisham Black and Minority Ethnicities), an initiative aimed at building bridges between Lewisham's BAME groups and NHS health professionals. To get involved, email

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