What does a Leiths-trained party caterer do when parties are cancelled for the forseeable future due to lockdown?
What chef and entrepreneur Ayesha Pakravan decided to do is to find ways to use her skills to help vulnerable people in isolation who struggle to cook for themselves. The idea behind her new Vital Meals parcel-to-plate initiative is to turn government food parcels sent to clinically vulnerable people into tasty, healthy meals, suitable for freezing, for free.
Through her unofficial charity Vital Meals (soon to be registered formally), she is also delivering free meals – made from ingredients paid for with crowdfunding and out of her own pocket – to others in dire need.
Ayesha Pakravan, who is 26, was inspired to start the initiative by her mother, who is isolated with severe rheumatoid arthritis. As a result of her condition, her mother struggles to chop vegetables or open a can of food for herself, says Pakravan, talking on the phone from her Battersea kitchen, where she is preparing grilled cajun chicken tacos and vegetarian butternut squash tacos.
Pakravan only founded her event catering company last year, quitting her job as an estate agent to do so. Her company, The Plattery, created customised picnics and platters for parties from her registered kitchen at home.
But in February, when the first rumblings of coronavirus in Britain put paid to a thriving first year in business - and, of course, to parties - she wanted to help, rather than staying at home "being bored". Initially, she allocated 10% of her profits from Feburary from The Plattery to feed those in need for free.
She started out preparing and delivering 10 free meals a day, in a Volkswagen Fox with the back seats taken out. “I didn’t want to sit at home and do nothing,” she says.
Now, thanks to further investment out of her own pocket and successful crowdfunding via her Go Fund Me page (£18,929 towards an initial target of £25,000), Vital Meals has grown to provide over 100 meals a day.
It now encompasses three other trained volunteer chefs (contacts from her own Leiths training days, and through her own work as a chef, who are currently furloughed) and a team of seven volunteer delivery drivers. She has also enlisted friends to come on board to help with admin and operations, and to be points of contact for the scheme while she's busy cooking.
“There’s a real community spirit," says Pakravan. "I’ve made connections with people with similar mindsets. We’ve build a network of forward-thinking people, who want to help, get stuck in and use their time for good," she says.
Vital Meals is operating on an altruistic, not-for-profit basis, and the scheme is now funded entirely through crowdfunding and donations, run by her growing team of unpaid volunteers.
Pakravan is not paying herself, but funnelling everything raised into providing the meals while living on her own savings. She is in frequent conversations with her accountant to make it work, ensuring every penny donated goes towards providing meals for free to those who need it most.
She caters for the high risk, the homeless, the elderly, those recovering from illness or “anyone unable to easily access food for any reason, whether financial or medical – including NHS staff and key workers.”
She also offers child-friendly options, like mushroom risotto and tomato pasta, for children no longer able to access a cooked meal due to school closures.
“Parties are a long way away, and for now, helping people this way is so much more rewarding. Eating is about survival, but what we do is also about making isolation less lonely," says Pakravan.
"They’re free meals, but they’re hot and nourishing, made with love, garnished with parsley and cheffy flourishes. And we're doing Taco Tuesdays, to keep it jolly,” she adds – hence the tortilla creations in the making.
To find recipients in need of meals, Pakravan initially posted on mutual aid groups on Facebook in the areas she can get to (initially including Wandsworth, Clapham, Hammersmith and Battersea) two to three times a week.
She also relies on word-of-mouth, for example speaking to NHS carers who have found her on social media and have contacted her on behalf of their patients, and is working with the housing association Peabody estates to identify those most in need.
What started as a short term venture has grown into a drive to continue for as long as her services are required. “Through Vital Meals, I’ve discovered such a problem, and a need for food. I feel I can’t turn my back on it now," says Pakravan. "I’m certainly not going to stop until everything we’ve raised has been allocated to people who need help.
“It’s been a career epiphany. I don’t know if I can imagine catering for weddings this time next year, or if I’ll go back to party catering. Now, I have dreams of running a community kitchen, and teaching children more about cooking."
For the time being, Pakravan plans to continue operating and expanding Vital Meals via crowdfunding. “Post-lockdown, I’ll look into whether there is other funding available, and maybe I can look into salaries for the team then – I’ll do whatever I need to do to keep this going, as long as it’s needed.”
There’s no fixed eligibility criteria: but if you need help, says Pakravan, she’ll do her best. “I’ve got a car, I’ve got food, I’ve got my health – so if I can, I will,” she says.
The parcel-to-plate initiative has been launched alongside her Vital Meals free meals, as one aspect of the service it provides. It’s designed to help those at the highest risk from coronavirus, who receive free food parcels from the government – but who for any reason are struggling to cook or prepare meals with the essential supplies they receive.
“The Vital Meals team collects the food parcel from the person's doorstep, brings it to my kitchen where I cook the ingredients into good, nutritious meals, and then we return the food to the original recipient ready for them to either eat or freeze, with no contact required,” she explains.
She is currently actively seeking those who might be in need of the service in order to help them, and hoping to work with local councils to expand the service.
Pakravan can tailor food to meet the needs of different recipients, replacing and maximising ingredients that don’t work for some with food that’s suited to their dietary needs. “Beyond specifying whether they are vegetarian, vegan or require halal food, someone who is diabetic needs to be careful of eating too much white rice or pasta, high in sugar and starch." She and her team chat to them directly on the phone, to identify their needs and reassure them.
"Someone might also not even know what to cook with the ingredients they can get. We heard from one elderly woman who was sent a donation of two kilos of baby mozzarella, so I turned it into portions of aubergine parmigiana and put it into Tupperware for her. There’s potential for wastage if people are receiving ingredients from food donations and food banks they can’t eat or cook with – but we have the flexibility to cater to unique situations.”
Currently covering postcodes across south, east and west London, she plans to expand further – but because demand now already exceeds the capacity of her kitchen, she is now seeking a larger commercial kitchen from which to centralise operations.
"I think people were going hungry or struggling pre-coronavirus," she stresses. "This has put a magnifying glass on the problem, and we need to continue to do something about it, not just move on with our lives after lockdown.
"It would be a silver lining if we could fix the problem, rather than put a plaster on it – and hopefully we will, now that communities like ours are coming together and building the infrastructure for solutions.
“Receiving hand-written letters of thanks has been so heartwarming," she reflects. "I’m also going to set up a phone line, Vital Voices, for our recipients to phone for a chat if they’re feeling a bit blue – a point of contact if they’re finding it all a bit daunting, which I think many people out there are.”
Have you heard of any other businesses pivoting to help their communities? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below. You may also nominate heroic local businesses and individuals for our Lockdown Awards; see the link at the top of this article.