Feeding the homeless heart healthy meals

By June Shannon Nutrition News   |   15th Nov 2019

The Dublin Simon Community Treatment Service will receive an award at the Irish Heart Foundation’s Happy Hearts Healthy Eating Awards next week. With teamwork and clever budgeting, the service has  ditched the deep fat fryer and transformed the diets of residents and staff.

The Dublin Simon Community Treatment Service in Usher’s Island in Dublin 8, is made up of three separate residential units; the residential alcohol/benzodiazepine detox unit which has 11 beds, the blood borne virus unit which cares for people with conditions such as HIV and Hepatitis C as a result of drug use and a clinical step up step down intermediate care centre with 12 beds that provides short-term semi-acute healthcare interventions, treatment, and investigations for people who are homeless.

Along with 34 residents across the three units, staff, nursing/medical teams and volunteers, cooks Mark Buckley and Ruth Brady are responsible for feeding up to 60 people a day.

In the past 12 months together with Niall Murtagh, Operations Manager in treatment services and Health and Wellbeing Supervisor JT Treanor, Mark and Ruth have worked hard to adopt healthier cooking practices and provide healthier food choices across the service.

Vulnerable group

All the residents at Ushers Island treatment services are homeless and many are suffering from alcohol and or drug addiction. They are therefore a hugely vulnerable group for whom a nutritious home cooked meal is sadly a rare occurrence.

It is known that there is a disproportionate level of illness and addiction among people experiencing homelessness and for many who are struggling with alcohol and or drug addiction, eating well is a priority they may not be able to afford. However, Mark and Niall know all too well that a healthy diet is a vital part of recovery for their residents.

Alcohol abuse takes a major toll on the body and recovering from alcohol\drug abuse is a gradual process and nutrition is one of many issues that require attention.

Niall explained, “we place a huge emphasis on food and ensuring that the food we are supplying is nutritious and healthy. They would come in not only detoxing from their alcohol but perhaps [also from] the high sugar content in the alcohol and the foods they would have been eating.”

In order to address this, the service ensures there is always a wide selection of fruit available for residents so they can get their sugar from natural sugars in fruit rather than alcohol and processed foods.

Coupled with the struggles of addiction, the chaotic nature of their lives means that some people experiencing homelessness, for example those in one night only hostels, are forced to leave their accommodation at 8am in the morning and they cannot return until 8pm at night. This means that they have no way to cook or prepare their own food and are therefore reliant on fast or ready-made food that is rarely the healthiest option.

Mark and Niall explained that while they were always conscious of proving healthy options for residents. a lot of the food donations they received in the past were made up of biscuits, sweets, fizzy drinks and chocolates. Therefore, they made a conscious effort in January this year to embrace the new year with a fresh approach to healthy eating at the service.

“ Our residents are very vulnerable, and they are in a low place when they come in the door to our service. The food makes a huge difference to their recovery and to be able to see that is amazing,”

Mr Niall Murtagh, Operations Manager In treatment Services, , Dublin Simon Community

Small changes

They explained that it started off with small changes. For example, the deep fat fryer was decommissioned, and oven baked homemade potato wedges and fresh cod replaced the weekly Friday fish supper of deep-fried cod and chips.

“It was a gradual change our residents never noticed or never commented on the change,” Niall said.

With the help and advice of Sarah Noone, Dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation, Friday’s fish and chip supper now also includes oily fish such as mackerel and trout and the fresh cod is prepared with homemade wholemeal breadcrumbs.

There has been no negative feedback whatsoever from residents or staff at the service and Mark said that as a cook, it’s “a pleasure” to be preparing healthy, home cooked, wholesome food.

“It’s a pleasure for us as cooks to be able to cook that kind of food instead of taking a battered cod out of a frozen box and sticking that on a tray or into a deep fat fryer, there is no love in that. So, we are getting a buzz out of it ourselves,” Mark said.


Over the last year the service has completely transformed the food offerings to residents and staff. There are no longer any biscuits, sweets or fizzy drinks available and deserts and pastries are banned. In their place are herbal teas, mint and lemon infused water and fresh fruit. Fresh salads are offered with every meal and nuts and seeds are also freely available to add to salads or morning porridge.

Mark, Niall, Ruth and JT also reviewed all the menus and based them largely around the healthier food donations received by Dublin Simon, this means that even on shoestring budget, the Usher’s Island in treatment service has successfully implemented a diet that prioritises heart health for its residents and staff alike.

Coupled with providing healthy nutritious food at mealtimes, the in-treatment service in Dublin Simon also organises workshops on nutrition and cooking for residents so they can learn for themselves the importance of a heart healthy diet and acquire lifelong cooking skills.

The Dublin Simon Community Treatment Service is one of 80 companies and organisations that will be presented with an ‘The Irish Heart Foundation Happy Heart Healthy Eating Award’ at a special event on Tuesday 19th November at the Gibson Hotel in Dublin .

" This is an inspirational story where through creativity and passion the Dublin Simon Community provides nutritious healthy meals every day to their staff and residents ,"

Sarah Noone, Dietitian , Irish Heart Foundation

Huge Achievement

Commenting on the award, Niall said it was a “huge achievement” and he credited the whole team at Usher’s Island, staff, volunteers and residents with being instrumental in getting the award.

“When we look back on what our menu looked like 12 months ago to what it is now there has just been a huge change. We are all in this work here to provide the best service we can for our residents and to see the difference in the meals being provided is amazing.”

“Our residents are very vulnerable, and they are in a low place when they come in the door to our service. The food makes a huge difference to their recovery and to be able to see that is amazing,” Niall added.

Mark said he was “over the moon” with the award as it entailed a lot of planning and hard work by all the team at the service including the residents. He said the residents themselves had really embraced the changes and were eager to learn about the importance of a healthy diet. He added that the next steps in the process was the roll out of the health eating initiative to all Dublin Simon services across the city.

Commenting Sarah Noone Dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation said the work done by the Dublin Simon Community was inspirational.

“We often take everyday things like a hot nutritious meal for granted however, for people experiencing homelessness a hot meal (never mind a healthy meal) often simply isn’t available. What we eat, worrying about food and being hungry can have a huge knock on effect on both our physical and mental health. If you’re malnourished, you can’t function properly. This is an inspirational story where through creativity and passion the Dublin Simon Community provides nutritious healthy meals every day to their staff and residents. It has been so heartening to work with the team at the Dublin Simon Community on this project to achieve the Irish Heart Foundation Healthy Eating Award.’’

Irish Heart Foundation Healthy Eating Awards

The Irish Heart Foundation has been supporting healthy workplaces nationwide for more than 20 years through its annual Healthy Eating Awards.

This year 80 companies, which between them have almost 70,500 employees, will receive a Healthy Eating Award, which assists staff restaurants in adopting healthier cooking practices and providing healthier food choices, ultimately making the healthier choice the easier choice for employees. There are three different levels of achievement – gold, silver and bronze – which are aligned to the Irish Heart Foundation and Department of Health’s Healthy Eating Guidelines. Implementation is overseen by the Irish Heart Foundation’s panel of registered dietitians.

The Irish Heart Foundation’s Active@Work Awards, launched in 2013, will be presented to 22 companies (affecting more than 15,000 employees) this year in recognition of their efforts to increase employees’ physical activity levels at work.

For more information on the Irish Heart Foundation Healthy Eating and Active@Work Awards  please see here


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awards dietitian happy heart healthy eating awards healthy eating healthy eating awards homeless nutrition

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