We are living in unprecedented times. I have heard and read those words so many times. My Mum said in early March that the Covid-19 pandemic will bring out the best in some, the worst in others.
One such positive story is Compassion London, a charity set up in March 2020 by Leon Aarts. Leon, a chef and motivational speaker with many years experience working in hospitality, recognised that many people would be impacted by the pandemic and lockdown. His vision was that no person should go to bed hungry, without a decent hot meal. Leon had previously set up Calais Kitchen supporting the refugees in France. He had the experience to know what would be needed to set something up to feed London’s vulnerable communities.
Within 3 days of coming up with the idea, Leon had formed the charity and posted on Facebook asking for donations of ingredients, produce and packaging, much of it excess that the Food Industry cannot utilise. He also sought monetary donations, and most importantly volunteers.
A diverse range of people have come together to cook and pack meals in the kitchen, deliver to many places around London and behind the scenes dealing with logistics, procurement, supply chain, shifts, people – everything required to ensure that meals can be produced and delivered, in a seamless way. Chefs, foodies and many other volunteers with an array of different professions have worked to produce meals for the NHS & key workers, the elderly, the vulnerable, the homeless, and people shielding at home. The charity is supporting hospitals, care homes, charities, schools, food banks and many more recipients all over London.
Two friends, Alexis and Louise got involved at the start and mentioned to me the charity was looking for volunteers and thought I could help. I have a background in the Food Industry as a food scientist and product developer with some experience working as an assistant cook as a student. I was excited to get involved as soon as I spoke to Naomi and Leon.
I have been helping the team prepare ingredients and pack meals in the kitchen. It has been a wonderful experience meeting and working with chefs, caterers, front of house team managers with hotel, restaurant & cafe experience. Together with students, teachers, a security guard, an optician, a health & beauty therapist, psychologists, a probation officer, local counsellors, an airline steward, a tree surgeon, a professional gambler, a handwriting expert, builders, procurement, HR, sales, and recruitment managers, charity workers and many more.
From the barrister washing up, and the student chopping veggies to the nanny packing meals. Bringing a team together with different skills all with a common goal of wanting to help.
Professionals and non professionals working in harmony to turn good food into simple, nutritious meals and deliver them to those in need as part of Compassion London.
We have cooked in some iconic London locations. Saracens Rugby Club, Wembley Stadium- the Football Association’s National Venue where England play their home matches, to Alexandra Palace, the home of the UK’s first televised broadcast. Ally Pally, as it is known locally, is a beautiful Victorian building. It has a lot of personal memories, as I could see Ally Pally from my family home growing up in North London. It also has an amazing view of the London skyline due to its hilltop location.
During my work for the charity, I have met and worked with some characters with amazing stories. Professional chefs who have worked in fine dining hotels and restaurants such as the Dorchester, Harry Lomas MBE, Gerard, Stefan and the Chefs at Delaware North who are responsible for hospitality at Wembley Stadium, cooking up to 90,000 meals during match days.
Harry has cooked for many famous people including the Queen, the Royal Household and the Military.
Working with the Wembley Stadium team has been a great learning experience in how to work smartly and efficiently. Also the creativity required by all the chefs in every location, as there is not much notice as to what ingredients and produce are going to be available each day.
Compassion London is supported by a number of other charities such as City Harvest London, Edible London and The Felix Project. They collect surplus food ingredients and produce from food suppliers, manufacturers, supermarkets and elsewhere. So if couscous, marinaded olives, venison, white radishes, leeks, sweet potatoes and coconut oil arrive chefs definitely need to be creative to devise the meals to be cooked from the ingredients available. From 200 meals a day back in March to just over 6,000 meals a day, working at Wembley Stadium, Compassion London has produced around 250,000 meals which is a fantastic achievement.
There have been some tough, heartwarming and funny stories along the journey. Leon told me about a mum, shielding after her cancer treatment, caring for her young child alone who had eaten nothing but ice cream for 3 days as she was unable to go out shopping. Danielle told me about the Saracens Rugby Club professional players who came to support in the kitchen. We all wear PPE and there had been a donation of homemade face masks. The sight of a 6 foot 3 player wearing one with frilly elastic straps that looked like it had been made from a pair of ladies knickers. Some banter from his team mates- all in good humour for a great cause. Leon talking ‘chopping’ which sounded a bit like ‘shopping’ with his Dutch twang and his passion, inspiring us all whilst we cook.
Josh and the admin team sorting out our food safety training and electronic shift booking system, with some initial challenges, always overcome with a positive attitude. Our WhatsApp group with people sharing photos, celebrating birthdays, volunteering for extra shifts, suggesting songs for our playlist.
It has been a welcome relief and therapy for us too, to get out of the house, sometimes challenging with lots of personalities, but amazing camaraderie.
Looking forward there will be many vulnerable people to help, support and provide nutritious meals to ensure no one goes hungry whatever their circumstances. Many people to feed, the joy at being able to help, everyone doing it with compassion at Compassion London.
If you would like to find out more, get involved or donate please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and check out the website link.