Food for all: Feeding Hackney in the pandemic

"Your meals are the first food we’ve had in the house for four days."

| 6 min read

This shocking admission came from Mary, a Hackney resident whose partner had been “let go” by his employers a week before the first national lockdown. While they were waiting for benefits to start, they had nothing to tide them over. Millions of people go hungry every day in the UK – and the impact of Covid-19 has made this worse. In a country as well resourced as the UK, this is wrong. And that’s why Made In Hackney stepped in.

Made In Hackney is a charity, community cookery school and community meal service. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our work focused on food growing and cookery classes to give communities the skills, knowledge and inspiration to grow, cook and eat more plants for the benefit of not just their health – but the planet too. The power of cooking changed many of our community members lives – helping chronic illnesses, improving mental health, increasing community connection, and learning to cook healthy meals on challengingly low budgets.

When the pandemic hit we rapidly pivoted to better serve our community during the crisis. In the chaotic and scary weeks leading up to the first national lockdown, our elders and people with compromised health, learning difficulties, or were living in accommodation with no access to a kitchen, were putting themselves at risk to go out and buy food. Many people lost their jobs. Online orders were full. Our community needed free, nutritious meals delivered to their doorsteps. So, we paused our classes, and that’s what we did.

In 10 days (and with not much sleep) we designed, fundraised for and launched our community meal service. On our first delivery day we fed 300 people and, by week three, this had gone up to 500. The need was overwhelming. Our service becoming full within 24 hours of opening.

Many people ask us, “Where did you find the people?” Having worked in the community for the last 8 years this wasn’t difficult. We outreached to local GPs, schools, grassroots community groups, social services, Citizens Advice Bureau and other support services letting them know about the meals and how to refer. Unlike government benefits, we didn’t ‘means test’ anyone. The indignity of having to prove you’re in dire straits is a major barrier for many people who need help ever asking for it. No one wants free food. People want to choose and buy their own. Eating what you’re given is a last resort. You don’t need to means test it.

To get the meal service off the ground we partnered with local Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant Angelina’s. They took care of the cooking while we took care of the referrals, outreach, fundraising, volunteers and delivery by cycle courier direct to people’s doorsteps. We trained ourselves how to use Circuits – a courier app – and routed cycle couriers across Hackney with the most efficient routes to drop off meals every day.

For months our cycle couriers and a team of volunteer telephone-welfare callers were the only people many of our community member saw and interacted with. Our delivery cyclists called ambulances on a number of occasions to assist residents taken ill and our welfare callers were able to refer our community members on to other services for support with domestic violence, mental health and benefits applications. The service started about food – but it became about so, so much more.

Anne, a 65-year-old pensioner, former class attendee and meal recipient told us: “I don’t know what I would have done without your meals. I’m not online so can’t shop like that but I’m also high risk so can’t go out. Seeing your young, friendly couriers kept me going during a very bleak time. The care and attention the chefs put into the meals and the variety was also so appreciated. They’ve been a life saver.”

Once the community meal service was running, and it was clear the pandemic was not going to be resolved quickly, we moved our cookery classes online and launched a telephone health-and-cooking coaching service for people for whom group settings or online didn’t work. Both services were an invaluable way of staying connected with our community, continuing to help people take control of their health through better food choices – and also – as highlighted by the pandemic – help people transition to more plant-centred diets for the sake of the planet. People even joined our classes as a way of connecting to family scattered across the country – even the world.

Dalia, an attendee on our plant-based online West African Cuisine cookery course led by West African plant-based chef Duchess Nena, told us: “I was sinking into a dark place during the lockdown. Your classes gave me an interest. A focus. I learnt new skills and felt connected to people even through the screen. I started taking care of myself again and thinking about what I was eating. I got my family involved, who live in Brazil, and it was amazing to see them on-screen cooking the same food as me. It was the lift I needed.”

Over one year on, our community meal service is still going – and we’ve provided more than 90,000 nutritious, free meals. As many community food responses have ended we can see the urgent need for ours to continue – the economic impact of Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the health, prosperity and opportunities of our community and will for years to come. As an organisation, we’ve committed to making it a permanent part of our operation for as long as our community needs it, and, critically, as long as we have the funding to continue.

In 2021, no-one in the UK should go hungry. Please help us make that a reality by making a donation to our crowdfunder.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

Food for all: Feeding Hackney in the pandemic

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