This is the UK’s first vegan community cookery school and charity, created to support people and the environment through food.
By Emily Music and Vittoria d’Adda
Chopping, slicing, peeling, dicing – crates of fresh organic vegetables and herbs sourced from local suppliers make their way into the sizzling pot. With no time nor food to waste the Made in Hackney community meal service starts its day. “Watch out, we need to start packing the food at 12.30. The riders are arriving at 14.00,” points out Shaki, the head-chef.
Twice a week, a nightclub in Shoreditch is transformed into a highly efficient food production hub. Laurie, the community’s logistical manager, leads the charge from the main hall, where he sits with his computer, surrounded by boxed food ready to be sorted and repurposed.
Made in Hackney’s community meal service members receive six nutritious plant-based meals a week. The food can be refrigerated or frozen to be consumed within the expiration date, set on the stickered boxes. These meals are delivered directly to people’s homes in bulk on Tuesdays and Thursdays by affiliated couriers.
In the kitchen, along with Shaki, Jordan and Marcus prepare three meals for the day. Each chef works on their recipe, paying attention to using different ingredients and combinations on the spot. The chef’s culinary creativity and traditions are reflected in the use of vegetables at the core of each dish. Organic produce, including cauliflower, bell peppers, and lentils, are complemented by a mix of bold, spicy flavours and subtle, earthy aromas of thyme and garlic.
Food redistribution charities like The Felix Project donate fresh produce every week directly at the club, from which the chefs create an always diverse menu, covering the meals for the coming week. Meanwhile, local businesses continue to drop in, carrying donated boxes to stack in one huge pile, rich with apples, potatoes, and bread.
Food that cannot be stocked and close to expiring is distributed to food banks in need. “One thing is certain; it will end up in someone’s belly,” adds Khin, proudly acknowledging that Made in Hackney processes around 20 tones of surplus food all year round.
Established in 2012, Made in Hackney is the UK’s first fully vegan community cookery school and charity. Choosing a fully plant-based approach is a conscious philosophy, adopted to respond to global and local crises, such as health inequalities, food access and climate change. These issues are all interconnected and are at the heart of the organisation.
Made in Hackney, also offers classes and courses, local solutions taken to face larger, global, socio-environmental difficulties. Through these activities held at its main facilities in Hackney, the organisation offers people the opportunity to gather and become part of a solid community. By learning from each other’s culture and sharing skills with a universal language: cooking.
The chefs leading the classes have diverse international backgrounds and introduce new recipes and techniques. These include vegan cheese making, fermentation, and the preparation of plant-based meats. They also show creative ways to eat and think more sustainably. The classes feature recipes from diverse cuisines, including Venezuelan, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and more, ensuring that all communities can be part of the plant-based conversation.
Sarah Bentley, the founder, aims to promote positive change by inspiring and educating people with engaging programmes. These include masterclasses and workshops run by a professional team from the food industry, such as nutritionists and entrepreneurs. They offer training to those who want to launch their own food businesses and provide mental and physical support to those in need through gardening activities and teaching healthier and greener food habits.
There is an activity for everyone, no one is left out; families, children, people of all ages and ethnicities are welcome to join the community as volunteers or participants and have fun whilst learning something new.
“By working on re-localizing food systems, you’re having a positive impact on a huge range of issues – food poverty, inequality, climate change, reducing corporate control of our food, health and wellbeing – it’s a hugely inspiring and rewarding area to work in” Sarah told London TV. Made in Hackney’s vision is about giving everyone the possibility to access healthy and affordable food, good for people and for the planet. It is all about mutual support and collaboration, and food is the vehicle for this exemplary mission.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020, Made in Hackney paused the in- person encounters, moving them online, and launched an emergency direct to door community meal service to support those struggling with access to food.
Within weeks of launching, the meal service was providing around 500 meals a day. Throughout the pandemic, their impact was significant, managing to deliver in total over 45,000 healthy meals. From then, they have become a safe haven for people in need, offering the warmth of a community as well.
Like Lyn, who discovered through the charity’s meal service a true “lifeline” when struggling with the effects of the pandemic. She lives alone and as many other elderly people, she was not eligible for priority supermarket market deliveries. “I’ve got a muscle condition, so although I can walk, I cannot stand for protracted periods without pain, I felt quite stuck. When I reached out to Made in Hackney they immediately cracked into action and started delivering food by the week,” Lyn told us.
Fast forward to 2023, the community has grown significantly, responding to social issues, and continuing the service meal every Tuesday and Thursday, preparing three different dishes for each householder, and providing over 1,200 culturally diverse meals around London. Variety of ingredients and inclusivity at the core of the dishes, which cover cuisines from all around the world ranging from tomato sauce pasta to spiced curry rice.
They engaged in finding different ways to sustain their projects economically through paid cooking classes, funds, and donations. “During the lockdowns, it was pretty easy to get COVID grants since we were a COVID relief project. “And then, when the grants started becoming less available, we ran a crowdfunding campaign that lasted six weeks. We raised over £150,000, and that has paid for this year’s community meal service project,” says Laurie.
Amidst the fumes of the pots and pans and the tapping of knives on the cutting boards, the colors and scents of vegetables are the true kitchen’s protagonists. All dishes are vegetarian-based and little to no compromises are allowed.
“I’m a vegetarian and I’ve always been involved in sustainability. But it’s not just about the food. Working here just made me more aware about what’s happening around me and what’s happening in London especially,” says Jordan while stirring the tomato sauce, garnish for the lentil fusilli.
London’s food scene is renowned for its diversity, street food markets, and restaurants. However, access to food is not universal as many Londoners struggle to meet their basic needs. Food insecurity can disrupt eating patterns and reduce food intake due to a lack of resources and money.
Despite the abundance of food options, poverty is a prevalent issue in London, with a poverty rate of 27% (after housing costs), which is higher than in other parts of the country. The inflated costs of housing, childcare, and public transport further exacerbate the financial burden on low-income households, leaving many struggling to make ends meet.
The impact of poverty on food and nutrition cannot be ignored, as many individuals and families cannot afford a sufficient and balanced diet. A survey by YouGov in London alone, 4% of households experienced hunger in the past month due to limited access to food. In addition, 12.6% had to reduce or skip meals due to the same reason, while 14% expressed concerns about their ability to procure enough food for their households.
A considerable proportion of households in the city are experiencing difficulties accessing food. This means that out of every 100 London households, four will go hungry at some point in a month, 13 will have to cut back on or skip meals, 14 will be worried about being able to access food.
From the kitchen, it’s time to move into the main hall to pack the food. Each container is labelled with the dish’s name and the list of its ingredients. There’s extreme care when it comes to selecting the ingredients and ultimately delivering the final dish.
“Some people have quite specific diseases or medical conditions. If you are celiac, for example, and we are wrapping up three meals and one contains pasta, we will provide rice instead,” adds Laurie. The in-house team of chefs and volunteers work hard to ensure that the meals are not only nutritious but also cater to individuals’ dietary restrictions.
When all is set up, the meals are handed to the riders, who are waiting outside, ready to cycle to their destination. Laurie explains that each rider is assigned a route via a platform, and that this system is supported by an app that riders can access to match with people’s home addresses. The routes can be modified in real-time so that riders’ routes are eco-friendlier and more efficient, delivering food sustainably and while it’s still warm.
As the day came to an end, the team and volunteers at Made in Hackney completed their final tasks by scrubbing and drying every last casserole. Once everything is in its place, they gather to share the leftovers as a final treat. Along with the fragrance of cleanliness, there is a palpable sense of joy and camaraderie among the group.
“One cannot applaud them enough really; they are always driving things forward as well. They’re not just sort of sitting complacently on what they do. They actively look for a benefit that they can add to the community” says Lyn.
This is the true essence of Made in Hackney – people coming together for a greater cause.
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All images by Vittoria d’Adda