- Text by Chloé Meley
Last spring, when the whole of the UK was stuck at home, bicycle couriers were circling the streets of Hackney, delivering vegan meals to people’s doorsteps.
Behind this initiative was the UK’s first vegan community cookery school, Made in Hackney, which has been teaching plant-based cooking, local food growing, composting, and nutrition classes to the people of Hackney and beyond for almost 10 years. All the proceeds made from the sessions on offer are used to fund cookery courses for those in need, including young people in care, low-income families, and people with mental and physical health issues.
When the pandemic struck, the team at Made in Hackney realised just how much the community was struggling. “There were people coming to our classes who we knew were extremely vulnerable, and the appeal of a free meal was just as much an appeal as the class itself,” recalls Sarah Bentley, who founded Made in Hackney back in 2012. “We were able to really hear the concerns and fears over Covid very early on, about a month before the first lockdown. People were losing their jobs, they were scared to go shopping, and the government didn’t seem to be able to do anything about it.”
By the time the first stay-at-home order was announced in March 2020, Made in Hackney had launched its community meal service. Every day, Monday to Friday, volunteers delivered plant-based meals to 500 people across Hackney. Although the team had originally planned for it to be a three-month service, the demand didn’t subside as the pandemic – and the uncertainty and loss of income it caused – lingered on. Today, Made in Hackney cooks a total of 1,200 meals a week, delivered in bulk by volunteer cyclists on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Sarah says the team is committed to continuing the service for as long as the community needs it, but she deplores the fact that this project had to exist in the first place. The meal service may be a great example of a community coming together, but it’s not a feel-good story as much as it is a case of a government eschewing their duty of care towards the most vulnerable.
“In an ideal world, everyone would have a universal wage so that people could just buy their own food. But I’m not in charge, and I don’t get to make those decisions,” Sarah says. “The only thing we can do, as an act of solidarity, is to cook delicious, nutritious, culturally varied food and deliver it to our community members.”
Sareta Puri started at Made in Hackney as a volunteer a few years ago, then became a teaching assistant, and now works as both a cookery teacher and the community meal service head chef. “We really pride ourselves on being responsive to the needs of people in Hackney and creating a culturally appropriate menu for them,” she says. Both chefs and volunteers, who all come from very different backgrounds, contribute to the menu and ensure that it reflects Hackney’s cultural diversity. Sareta brings both her Indian and Scottish heritage to the meals she cooks, her skill-set spanning haggis and Diwali delicacies.
Alongside its newfound role as an emergency food support service, Made in Hackney continues to offer online and in-person vegan cooking courses. For Sarah and Sareta, the goal of those classes is to dispel misconceptions around vegan food, and show how plant-based cooking can be compatible with all types of cuisines. “From the first course we did back in September 2012, it was very clear that lecturing people, nagging people, making people feel bad about what they currently do was never going to work,” Sarah says. “We quickly understood that a joyful, celebratory, and exploratory approach was the only way to help change hearts, minds, and stomachs.”
You’ve joined us at an exciting time as we have six weeks to raise £150K to fund the meal service in 2022!
Do you think we can do it? With you onboard – YES! 💜
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— Made In Hackney Ⓥ 🌱 (@Made_In_Hackney) November 17, 2021
“We really should shift the narrative from a place of veganism being a Whole Foods, ‘yummy mummy’ kind of thing to it being an ingrained part of so many different cultures and communities,” Sareta adds. Over the course of just two months in January and February 2022, classes will cover Vietnamese, Brazilian, Indian, French, and Palestinian cuisines.
This commitment to inclusivity also means making teachers’ expertise as accessible as possible. Through online courses and a one-on-one telephone service, Made in Hackney reaches beyond the confines of the borough and provides support to those most isolated. The one-on-one telephone service is mainly used by young women with complicated diet-related issues, who need help with breaking negative behaviour patterns around food.
Right now, Made in Hackney can count on around 150 active volunteers, who dedicate from three to seven hours a week as cooks, delivery cyclists, or teaching assistants. Volunteer manager Khin Tye says she’s always looking for more, and hopes that partnerships with delivery services will soon be established. “Volunteers have really held on for more than a year and half, but with everyone going back to work I think we need to make it more sustainable. With delivery partnerships, we would be able to ensure the service’s stability and take on even more meals to be delivered,” she says.
By making vegan food easy, accessible, and culturally relevant, Made in Hackney wants to bring together what Sarah calls “the three big Cs”: community, culture, and climate. “It’s about helping people fall in love with plants and the power of plants,” she explains.
As Made in Hackney prepares to celebrate its 10-year anniversary in 2022, the team – which operates in a completely non-hierarchical way, with everyone paid an equal amount – is thinking about the future. They would like to continue to change people’s minds about veganism, inspire similar projects across the UK that teach the environmental and health benefits of plant-based food, and create opportunities for Hackney’s diverse communities to come together.
As Sareta says, “To me, cooking is the most natural and important way to connect with people. It’s a way to show love, to show compassion, and to share your story.”