Difference and Diversity : Meeting Dietary Needs in Children’s Homes

By Patson Musumali

Date Posted: Wednesday, 25 June 2008


 Patson Musumali is Zambian. After qualifying as a primary school teacher in Zambia at the Malcolm Moffat Teachers College, he pursued a gift for music and later graduated from the Sir Evelyn Home College as a music teacher. In Zambia Patson taught children from some of the poorest backgrounds in the world. Later, as a senior official of the National Arts and Theatre Association he worked with children at the Murundu Orphanage. One of his most memorable times with the children, was producing Ravossa’s ‘Only love is spoken here’. Since coming to the United Kingdom Patson has worked in children’s homes as a teacher, a residential worker and  as a Care Manager. Patson hopes soon to write about how he uses music in his work with looked after children. He feels that music can be used as a language at those times when unhappy children find it impossible to say in words what they feel.

In this article  Patson considers the issues of difference and diversity which impact on the life of children’s homes by considering how dietary needs are met. In expressing his personal view, Patson demonstrates how even this seemingly straightforward issue raised questions about the consistency of care provided in a children’s home. For some this may be a controversial piece of writing but it brings to light some of potentially unhelpful if unconscious tendencies that can arise in a staff group in its determination to provide the right kind of care for an individual young person. The article was first included ‘goodenoughlife’ and has been visited many times and we are grateful that Patson has allowed us to publish in the goodenoughcaring Journal 


Difference and Diversity in Children’s Homes: meeting the dietary needs of young people in children’s homes may not be as simple as it at first appears.


All societies change and it seems to me in this age of increasing electronic communication that societies are probably changing more quickly than they’ve ever done. The relative homogeneity in ethnicity, culture and religion which existed in the United Kingdom 50 years ago is no longer evident. As a consequence of immigration in the intervening years, many more ethnic, cultural and religious groups co-exist here.  Immigration of course is currently a very sensitive social and political issue. Few would argue that immigration to the United Kingdom has brought with it the development of isolated ethnic, cultural and religious groupings as well as some social interaction such as the marriages of people from these different groupings. Just as these phenomena are reflected in society so they are in the lives of those young people who are looked after in the care system. In my work in the London area as a manager in different children’s homes I have been surprised by the wide spectrum of backgrounds the young people I have looked after come from. In the life of a children’s home this diversity can bring with it advantages and disadvantages. In a positive sense it can bring tolerance that can lead to a healthy understanding and appreciation of different cultures. It can bring about an enriching fusion of cultural mores and attitudes. In a negative sense it can bring with it an intolerance that views culture as static and can lead to racism and sectarianism which sets groups and individuals against each other.

In this article, I want to explore how matters of difference and diversity impact on residential child care by looking at life in a children’s home in the London area where I worked. To give my argument focus I want to consider the issue of difference and diversity through the diet of the children.  For the record I want to say that the cultural backgrounds of the staff in the children’s home quite closely mirrored those of the group of young people resident at the home.

First I’ll introduce you to the six young people between the ages of 13 and 16 years who lived in the children’s home. Three of them were girls and three of them were boys. Two of the girls, Khadija and Faran, were British from an Asian Muslim background, but did not practice their religion.  Kelly, was from an Afro-Caribbean background, was of mixed heritage and in the current terminology was described as black British. (As an aside, I want to say that I would like to write at another time on the vexed issue of how we choose to nominate sets of people from different backgrounds since for me current descriptors raise more questions than answers).   Although from a Christian background Kelly did not practice any religion. Two of the boys, Gerald and Frank, were white British and from a Christian background but did not practice any religion. The third boy, Mohammed, was from Middle-Eastern background. He was Muslim but he was not devout and practiced his religion solely by following a strict Muslim diet.

All the young people were consulted about the menu of the home and were able to choose their favourite dishes, but some had particular preferences when it came to eating meat.  Khadija and Faran did not eat pork or any of its derivative meats but they did not mind eating any other meat which was available. Kelly ate pork and its derivatives and ate any other meat which was provided. Gerald and Frank ate pork and pork products and said they didn’t mind eating halal meat if there was no alternative. Mohammed did not eat pork or pork products and ate only halal meat.

It is important to say here that the only child who was expected by his or her parents to follow their religion and its dietary requirements was Mohammed.  Mohammed’s failure to meet these expectations had a great deal to do with Mohammed’s placement with us. At his statutory review meeting after his admission to the children’s home, Mohammed’s parents felt that Mohammed was not obedient to the values of their culture or Islam and said that they thought him an outcast and seemed to wish to disown him. They did not feel that his strict adherence to a Muslim diet was enough for them to accept him back into the family fold. For them his being in care was a humiliation for the family. It appeared to us, the children’s home staff, that the parents’ intransigence was one of the main causes of Mohammed remaining in care. I would like to make it clear that we understood this intransigence not to be related   to Muslim tradition but more related to how Mohammed’s parents were as individuals.

When he first came to the home Mohammed was silent about his relationship with his parents but as he began to build a relationship with staff and in particular with his keyworker it emerged that Mohammed had been quite a well behaved boy at home and that his troubles had started when he began to meet up and play with Muslim boys who were not so strictly tied to their parents’ religion and he began to develop what his parents believed to be – what for want of a better term  – unacceptable ‘westernised behaviours’ such as arriving home late or swearing.

You may wonder why I have dwelt on Mohammed’s relationship with his parents when I   said I was going to write about diet. Well, it was evident that Mohammed remained emotionally attached to his family, however troubled that attachment might be, and we felt that his links with his family should be encouraged. One way of doing this   appeared to be to ensure that Mohammed followed – as long as he wanted to – his strict Muslim diet. Staff determined that they would work hard to ensure that Mohammed would have all his traditional foods.

When food shopping for the children’s home had to be done, Mohammed’s needs were taken into consideration and pots and pans were labelled so that staff knew which utensils could  be used for cooking pork  and its derivatives and those which could not.

After a period of a few weeks, I started to sense that the wellspring of sympathy which we, the children’s home staff   felt for Mohammed, when we considered his helplessness in the face of his parents’ rejection of him was taking us away from our work with the other young people.  I began to wonder if  in our focusing on the importance of  making sure Mohammed had the right kind of food we were beginning – I am sure unconsciously –  to be more concerned about his food than we were about the food of the other young people whose dietary demands were not so strict. When my colleagues and I reflected on this we acknowledged that there had been a few occasions when other young people had accepted eating halal meat when temporarily nothing else was available. Yet we agreed that had no halal meat been available in the home we would not have tolerated the situation because of our own need to fulfil our determined commitment to meeting Mohammed’s dietary needs.  It occurred to us then that just as we were rightly proactive in ensuring that Mohammed had what he wanted to eat so we ought to have been as conscientious in meeting the individual dietary needs of each of the other young people.

I wondered also if our more dilatory approach to considering the dietary needs of each of the other young reflected a less sympathetic approach to responding to their emotional needs because these were less obvious than Mohammed’s.

In conclusion, we decided as a staff group that we would address our discovery by considering the dietary needs of the each of the young people in the same detail as we did Mohammed’s. Unfortunately matters beyond my control meant that I left the children’s home and I was not able to evaluate the consequences of our new policy. However my point has been to illustrate through the issue of dietary needs that responding sensitively and effectively to matters of  diversity and difference in children’s homes is much more complex than adherence to overly simplistic politically correct measures. It highlights also the importance of ensuring that residential child care workers need training that is sufficiently informative and sophisticated to deal with the ever changing issues of ethnicity, culture and religion as they arise in the work of a children’s home.