From food banks to charity appeals, how the food community is coming together in the coronavirus crisis 

Up and down the country, people are volunteering at food banks, fundraising and more

FareShare 
Volunteers sorting through food at a FareShare distribution centre in Deptford, London Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters 

The coronavirus crisis has had a stark impact on the food and hospitality industries. Lost jobs; furloughs; unused produce; farmers worrying about who will buy their vegetables; freelance food writers unsure when their next commission – and paycheck – will come in; the elderly and vulnerable unable to secure deliveries; the homeless looking for their next meal. The list of people impacted could fill an entire newspaper, let alone one article. 

So it’s heartening to see how, in the toughest of times, people from all corners of the food industry have come together. Newly formed charities such as Hospitality for Heroes, which is using chefs and restaurant kitchens to cook for the NHS, have sprung up across the country. Hundreds of mutual aid groups are supporting those in lockdown or the vulnerable in areas such as the Bemerton Estate near Caledonian Road, north London, with social media playing a key role in logistics. 

As reported in the Telegraph last week, several alcoholic drinks producers have switched to producing hand sanitiser; Murger Han in London is one of a great many restaurants offering free meals to NHS workers, chef Paul Ainsworth is delivering meals to vulnerable locals in Padstow and Rock free of charge, while several chefs are cooking for children who might otherwise miss out on free school meals. Every supermarket worker deserves a medal. 

The Telegraph spoke to several people who, in their own ways, are doing their bit during the lockdown. 

  • The Telegraph has launched a coronavirus charity appeal offering financial to support to people in need of all backgrounds, including hospitality. Follow this link to donate

The Covid-19 Appeal 

Chef Tom Brown thought his restaurant, Cornerstone in east London, might be able to ride out the wave. Normally closed for five weeks a year, there was some cash reserved for emergencies. Quickly, though, it became apparent that this wouldn’t be possible. “I have no idea how to run a takeaway,” he admits. 

Telling staff they might be let go, when the Government advised the public not to visit restaurants but didn’t formally close them down, and before the job retention scheme promised to fund 80 per cent of wages, brought Brown to tears. “I realised people like that needed help, and wanted to do something to prove to them I would if I could,” Brown tells me. Initially he thought of a crowdfunder, but decided to get in touch with Hospitality Action, a charity formed in 1837, who were working on their own Covid-19 Appeal. “I thought I’d love to help,” says Brown. 

So he decided to take a leadership role in the appeal. Having worked with the likes of Nathan Outlaw, Brown is well connected, and asked everyone he knew to post videos on social media. The actor Stephen Graham did the first, followed by Outlaw, Raymond Blanc, Tom Kerridge, and Ryan Giggs – who owns a hotel in Manchester – and more have since joined the call to arms. 

“It went absolutely crazy after the launch. It was mentioned on This Morning,” Brown says. “We asked people, if they were going to go out on the weekend but now couldn’t, to donate a part of that, or [the price of] a St Patrick’s Day Guinness, to people who’ve lost their jobs.” 

Anyone in the hospitality industry laid off due to the pandemic is eligible for a £250 grant. “It’s not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things,” Brown concedes. “But it’s for people who need that money right away. One of the first was a chef who’d lost his job, had a wife and three children. He had £1.82 in his bank. I can’t imagine what that’s like, not knowing how to feed your children. The fact you can get as little as £250 is a huge help.” 

Over £250,000 has since been raised (it’s Hospitality Action’s biggest ever appeal) providing a lifeline, so far, to a thousand people. 

To donate, visit hospitality.org-donate 

The Bristol Food Union 

“One of the things that blows me away about Bristol, whether it’s food, festivals, or music, is people’s willingness to collaborate,” says Aine Morris. “Bristol’s food community is quite unique. As a city, it has fantastic independent restaurants but on the community side of things, feeding vulnerable people and refugees, I don’t think every city is like that.” 

True to this collaborative spirit, Morris has launched the Bristol Food Union (BFU), with Josh Eggleton, chef-patron of the Pony & Trap and Steph Wetherell of Bristol Food Producers. It’s an informal collective of the city’s best restaurants, community food groups, farmers and producers, with help from the city council. 

The BFU’s stated aim is to target “both ends of the crisis,” as Morris puts it. One end is restaurants, food producers and farmers, some of whom have seen their businesses disappear overnight. Then there are the vulnerable individuals – the homeless, the self-isolating, those struggling to afford a meal – and NHS and frontline workers, who could do with a healthy cooked meal at the end of a long shift. 

Six production kitchens have been set up across the city, with social distancing rules strictly enforced. Additionally, food parcels are delivered to the vulnerable and young adults who have recently left social care. Funding is mostly via donations, kick-started by the Bristol band Massive Attack last Friday.  

Visitors to the website are presented with four way they can help: 

  • Shop Bristol Food offers direct-from-farmer produce and premade meals from restaurants. 

  • Feed A Frontline Worker, to give money for a meal.

  • A straight donation to the Bristol Food Fund to help manufacturers who’ve been hit the hardest. 

  • Singing up to a newsletter to stay informed. 

Morris’s great passion is a local, sustainable, environmentally-friendly food system: “We don’t want to come back in four months’ time with only an industrialised food system to depend on.”

To donate, visitsupportbristolfood.co.uk

The foodbank volunteer 

Jane Phillipson, 64, has worked in HR and consultancy her whole life. With work winding down, Phillipson had been thinking of volunteering for some time. But seeing FareShare, a UK-wide network of food distributors, featured on Sport Relief a few weeks back convinced her to get involved – it was around the time the extent of the crisis was becoming apparent. 

Phillipson signed up online and, within 24 hours, was put in touch with a manager at her nearest branch on Merseyside, 20 miles from her home in Chester. “We had the induction, and by the end of the afternoon I was sorting cans of beans and soup.” 

“I have a passion for food and abhor food waste,” Phillipson explains. “I thought there are people doing something really useful, converting food otherwise wasted into nourishing meals in various ways.” 

Fruit and veg at a FareShare food distribution centre Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Twice a week Phillipson helps sort through deliveries. Everything is delivered to the warehouse, where it is prepared to be sent to local distributors. There’s tinned and fresh meat, tuna, pasta, rice, vegetables, toothpaste and more. “I’ve never seen so much chocolate,” says Phillipson . 

Parts of Merseyside are among the most deprived areas in the country, and the likes of FareShare provide a lifeline for millions in Britain. Food and monetary donations are vital, with so many mouths to feed and infrastructure costs high. All ambient food is welcome, as are treats: with Easter coming up, chocolate eggs are pouring in. “I was delighted when I picked up a crate full of Green and Blacks chocolate,” says Phillipson. “It’s luxury chocolate, and I thought that’s a nice treat.” 

To donate, visit fareshare.org.uk

Feeding the homeless

The coronavirus crisis has left homeless people in an even more precarious position – and keeping those who can’t afford meals fed requires a large, coordinated effort. Soul Kitchen Chester has spent the last six years helping homeless people with everything from food to cookery groups and football teams. 

It has now joined forces with several of Chester’s independent restaurants whose kitchens would otherwise go underused. One place helping to create nutritious meals for 75 people a night is Sticky Walnut, part of Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros group. While some restaurants nationwide have turned to takeaway, Usher says it “didn’t make sense logistically” for his group. 

Before the crisis, Usher had been in touch with Soul Kitchen, and had cooked a couple of times for the homeless at Sticky Walnut. With Soul Kitchen needing food every day, Usher helped coordinate Chester’s restaurants to take one night each in producing the meals. 

Places like Meltdown, who are making a slow-cooked ham with parmentier potato and ratatouille, or Joseph Benjamin, where a fish and chickpea curry was produced. Food has been donated by various local butchers and veg suppliers, such as 20kg of mince and 20kg of chicken wings from Hoptons in Hoole. Takeaway containers have been provided for free by Essell Cleaning. 

“Everybody is practising social distancing,” Usher explains. When a volunteer arrives to deliver, they open their boot, the chef fills it with the meals, and it’s dropped off in a similar fashion. Usher, who says his cooking is “rusty”, has nevertheless enjoyed cooking in such large batches. “It’s been nice to do something amongst all the rubbish happening at the minute.” 

soulkitchenchester.btck.co.uk

A new space for food writers 

Food writer Jonathan Nunn recently set up an online newsletter called Vittles (from the word victuals). “The main reason I started is because as soon as I realised the scale of what was going on, my job was redundant, I knew I wouldn’t be eating out at restaurants for the next few months.” 

There were two main factors as to why Nunn wanted to launch Vittles. One is that many chefs and freelance food writers would be out of work. Commissioning original pieces, and paying for them, could play a small role in helping them see through the pandemic.

“I’ve also thought for a while that a lot of people want to try their hand at food writing but don’t see themselves as food writers,” Nunn explains. “This could be an opportunity, an excuse, to finally do that. Food writing is generally fairly middle-class lifestyle writing, but there are so many different stories out there.” 

Thus, each day, subscribers receive stories straight into their inbox. Topics are diverse, from showcasing London’s Polish or Turkish supermarkets to exploring how Greggs and Wetherspoons have dealt with staff during the pandemic. 

Nunn is wary of making everything coronavirus-related, though admits it’s a tall order in the current climate. “For now, the stories do have a coronavirus angle to them, but everything ties into it.” 

Crucially, every writer is offered payment (with funding coming through Patreon subscribers to the newsletter). “It’s not a form of charity,” Nunn explains. “It’s because I think writers should be paid for what they write, even if at the beginning it’s a small fee.” Some contributors have decided to donate the fee for their pieces, with one London chef giving his to a local charity. 

vittles.substack.com