When Jane Clarke was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of West London for her work supporting the vulnerable, she used her acceptance speech as a rallying cry to improve access to good nutrition and appetising food for everyone facing a health challenge. Read her words and join our campaign to put nourishment back on the menu in our hospitals, care settings and homes.
Thank you to Victoria Tischler, Professor of Arts and Health and Head of the Dementia Care Centre, for introducing me and for my nomination for this award. It’s a huge honour to receive this Honorary Doctorate from the University of West London and to be recognised for my work nourishing the vulnerable and supporting those that care for them.
'It is through disappointment that I must learn to never accept defeat, but to always come up with a brand new plan and find a solution' Eleesha
That’s a quote from the writer Eleesha, which I first heard a few weeks ago. It’s a message that struck home for me as my teenage years were difficult. I spent many months very ill in hospital, wondering how I was going to pull through and on the receiving end of care that, later on, made me vow never, ever to treat my patients in such a way. I experienced the isolation of being in that setting and the unappetising food that was served on the ward. But my parents, who are here today, were courageous and supportive. My illness meant I lost big chunks of my life as a teenager and young adult, which put a stop to my dreams at the time. But it meant the dreams I set myself at 25, when I was at last well enough, were even bigger and more rewarding to achieve. Realising there must be a better way to care for people was my emotional drive to become a dietitian with a difference.
I almost dedicated my first book to my old university professor – because if she hadn’t tried so hard to get me to toe the line, dampen my spirits and do things as they had always been done in the dietetic profession, I would never have crafted the career I’ve had to date. Fighting against this kind of dogma meant, when Jamie Oliver asked me to join him in his School Meals Campaign, with the aim of bringing about societal change through people power, I was ready and willing to get involved. As one of our Nourish supporters, the Eden Communities, states: ‘Ordinary people bring about phenomenal change’.
It’s why I set up the very first private dietetic clinic in the UK with the aim of supporting those struggling with the nourishment and eating challenges caused by illness (I had to take out an overdraft to do it; my parents didn’t know I slept on the floor of my practice for a few months as rents were so high). And it’s why I’ve launched my online community Nourish by Jane Clarke, to provide recipes and inspiration for anyone facing barriers to nourishment, whether that’s swallowing difficulties caused by dementia, or loss of appetite and taste changes during chemotherapy. Ultimately, I want to create a place where people can be respected, heard and nurtured.
As you can probably detect, I have never been interested in sitting on a government committee talking about hydration or designing another monitoring tool (my fear about these so-called tools is that we negate our personal responsibility to stop, listen and look at what, how and why we eat what we do). I’d much rather write a newspaper column that stirs up the hornet’s nest and campaigns for tangible, people-can-feel-it change.
I remember the first article I wrote as a health columnist for The Daily Mail (having previously cut my columnist teeth in the The Observer and The Times), which was all about the joys of eating white bread. Well, the furore which came out from the muesli brigade of nutritionists and dietitians, saying ‘How could I do such a thing? We’re all meant to be wolfing up wholemeal…’ I simply replied, ‘Did you actually read the article? Did you see that I was talking about older and more vulnerable people who need something easy to eat when they have difficulty swallowing, which won’t fill them full of fibre so they don’t have the appetite for some soft fruit or piece of tender fish or soft cheese? Many of my patients living with cancer have guts traumatised by cancer treatment but a soft slice of thinly sliced white sourdough toast settles their nausea and means they can eat other nourishing foods to help their bodies fight the disease.
Too many people young and old die of malnutrition, not from the cancer itself. Too many patients are told by their oncologists that there’s no point worrying about what they are eating, as all it is doing is feeding the cancer. Too many people are struggling to swallow when dementia cruelly meddles with their ability to eat. Too many caring friends and relatives don’t know how to look after someone with dignity, who is choking and can’t manage the meals they once enjoyed.
In the 21st century, it’s not acceptable that people in hospital, in our care homes, in our individual households, are dying of malnutrition. And it’s not acceptable that the old formula of take a normal meal, bung it in a liquidiser and serve as a brown mush – which is what I was taught at university and is still practised today – is presented as the only solution when someone has a challenge swallowing. The daughter of a patient of mine was arrested recently for breaking into the kitchen of a top London hospital at night. She had wanted to find some ice cream or sorbet for her mother, who has a swallowing difficulty due to a degenerative neurological condition, which has affected her throat muscles. Her mum had been served a degrading bowl of mush which, unsurprisingly, she couldn’t bear to eat, and so was ravenous and wanted to be treated with dignity – hence her daughter’s desperate action. I said, ‘Fantastic, I’ll be a witness for you!’
So, if there is one thing I will use this very graciously received honorary doctorate to do, it is to raise awareness of my Nourish campaign. I hope it will help us shout even louder – just as we did for our young children in schools – of the need to champion our vulnerable and those isolated in illness. Because not enough is being done to connect them to food they can nourish themselves with. As my dear friend and patron of Nourish (and fellow honouree) Prue Leith said at the launch of our campaign: ‘If we can combine good food, good nutrition and good company, we can make at least a moment in everybody’s day an interval of pleasure’.
Thank you all for inviting me today. I hope that together we can, as ordinary people, bring about extraordinary change.
Jane with her parents after receiving her Honorary Doctorate from UWL