On Tuesday, Vegetarian for Life (VfL) held an event in Parliament under the banner of the Special Dietary Network to launch our forthcoming research into diet and identity, and to hear from a number of experts on the challenges around having dietary needs respect in care settings.

Anna Boardman of VfL set out the findings of the systematic literature review she has been conducting into diet and identity, emphasising the centrality of diet to our sense of self.

Nitin Mehta, an expert and speaker on India’s spiritual heritage and vegetarianism and veganism focused particularly on the complexities of Jain culinary requirements, and on a successful example of campaigning to improve the cultural sensitivity of hospital food.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain talked about Jewish dietary requirements and connections with identity, with food acting as a ‘daily reminder’ of the latter.

Yasmin Surti, who works nationally for the NHS and locally for the Federation of Muslim Organisations in Leicestershire, spoke to some of the subtleties of the relationship between food and culture in different Islamic communities, and how these are often not respected in care settings.

A video presentation by Dr Karan Jutlla described the work she has done exploring the treatment of South Asian individuals in care settings, focusing in particular on Sikh dietary requirements that often go misunderstood.

Beth Britton, whose experience as carer to her father who had vascular dementia for 19 years has led her to become a long-term campaigner on improving dementia care and support, talked about the importance of finding different ways to communicate with people living with dementia, such as through life stories, so that we can know the person and thus begin to meet their needs.

It became clear in discussion that, for all the different particularities of the diets people of different faiths and none follow, there is a common desire to defend people’s autonomy and to see them treated with respect. There was an understanding that things to do not always work so well on that front in care settings, and that one of the challenges is that the sector as a whole experiences under funding and staffing pressures.

Yet there are examples of things working well, and a wealth of resources that can be tapped into.

So while there was agreement that we cannot lose sight of these structural challenges, we can also support improvement in the sector by signposting what works well, and focus on treating people as individuals through person-centred care.

There was thus optimism that this group could continue to work together in future, and that there were common threads to our experiences that point towards joint approaches towards changing things for the better.

For updates on the work of the Special Dietary Network, join our Facebook group here. The group is for UK organisations with an interest in recognising and promoting the importance of dietary beliefs and practices to individuals receiving care.

This is a matter of dignity: no individual should have their health or beliefs compromised when receiving care.