Made in Hackney: cooking with heart
By BEL JACOBS
Sarah Bentley - a warm, merry presence - is sitting in the basement headquarters of Made in Hackney, the community kitchen she founded in 2012. “We’ve always been 100 per cent plant-based but, when we first started, the focus was very much on local food and organic and cookery skills,” she muses, remembering the earliest days. “Now, we’re a lot louder about the fact we’re plant-based .…
“Because that was the scariest thing. We thought that, if we made [veganism] the focus of our promotion, people wouldn’t come to our classes.”
How times have changed. A study by leading researchers Ipsos MORI showed that just over half million Brits were following a vegan diet, a surge of over 350% since the estimate of 150,000 ten years before that.That was 2016. Lord knows what the figures are after this year’s Veganuary, a success story in its own right, for which 115,000 people registered.
But plant-based eating isn't the only way Made in Hackney has been forging new paths. Founded on four pillars of impact - health and wellbeing, environment and community - the project aims to help people, often those most in need, lead happier, healthier, more connected, environmentally sustainable lives.
It does this through food: fun, supportive, courses in local food growing, in cooking, in composting and more. In sessions called Cooking for Life, International Cuisine, Healthy Baking and Fifteen Minute Meals, learners develop practical skills to feed themselves and their families as healthily and ethically as budgets allow.
So far, the project has worked with over 6,000 people; 2,500 in 2017. The stats speak for themselves: 98 per cent surveyed said that their class had encouraged them to eat more healthily; 93 per cent now eat less processed food. One hundred per cent were inspired to cook from scratch. Ninety three per cent said they felt more connected to their local area.
While students are cooking, there’s plenty of chances to talk about the wider world and about how food choices can help influence global issues. And, because issues are shared in a busy, happy kitchen, difficult subjects become simultaneously less remote - and less intractable.
For Sarah, approach is key. Joyous and playful, Made in Hackney's activities build on the power of food to nurture, not just physically but emotionally. You know how everyone gathers in the kitchen during parties? That’s what it’s like at Made in Hackney - only you’re learning about food and the world.
“We always make sure we have fantastic teachers. who are genuinely delighted by working with a variety of characters,” says Sarah, of the charity’s approach. “We’re a community cookery school; our door is open. All sorts of people turn up with all sorts of stories and they’re cooking with people they’ve possibly never met before. You need teachers who can manage that dynamic.”
“Every class is like a show. The teachers need to bring everyone along with them. A special teacher is really important.”
“And it’s about not being judgemental about what people are currently eating or what their cultural preferences are,” she adds, emphatically. “Because who are we to do that? That’s just rude. It’s more about inspiring people to learn something new and seeing how that can fit into their lives.”
The same goes with veganism: “Our intention isn’t to convert,” she says. “That’s for another organisation - but people are far more likely to listen if they’re not thinking what am I going to eat [if I did go vegan]?”
“If they already know those answer, they’re going to be way more receptive to seeing something about animal welfare or about the impact of food to the planet. We’re here to introduce people to the solutions.”
Powered by its dedicated staff and volunteers (100 on the books, 40 active at any one time; two on every course “to make sure no one gets left behind because they’ve forgotten their glasses”), Made in Hackney works with local groups to make sure those most in need get first dibs at the charity’s community classes. From low income families to stroke survivors, from children in care to teen carers, all are welcome.
“If we’re booking 12 places, 9 places might go to those in need,” explains Sarah. “Then we open it up to everyone else. So you might get an architect, a GP, a fashion students with some fellows from the homeless shelter and some mums from the Muslim Cultural Centre.
“You’ll never see a more diverse group of people,” she laughs, happily. “At the end of the class, they’re hugging each other and swapping numbers. And that’s rare. In Hackney, you’ve got the wealth and the not wealthy Hackney and the two rarely cross paths.”
The result is a real sense of community. “People come back,” says Sarah, proudly. “We might not see them for a year - and then they pop up.” As evidence of the sense of belonging Made in Hackney can generate, last year’s summer party numbered a buzzy 200.
How has the project changed during its lifetime? “In terms of our three pillars - health and wellbeing, environment, community - we’ve solidly stuck by that,” says Sarah. But it is in terms of scope, of numbers reached and of influence that the project has gone far beyond expectations. The Made in Hackney team are frequently asked to give talks, most notably at recent vegan festival Vevolution and at TED, and to share knowledge with like-minded organisations.
“And the variety of themes, I’d never have imagined,” she continues. “When we first started, we weren’t offering masterclasses. And now we’re one of the go-to places for niche vegan food skills, whether that’s fermentation, nut cheese, cheesy sauces or plant-powered fitness.”
What gives her hope? “Children,” she says, emphatically. “If you explain to them what’s going on, they have an innate sense of justice and wanting to fix it.” She pauses - and adds: “And all the grassroots organisations around the world doing something to challenge things.” Made in Hackney is firmly in that group.