The story of Hackney School of Food is one of community, changing spaces, the need to adapt and of working together

The space of Hackney, like all communities in the country, has had to change dramatically in the last few months due to our current COVID environment. But it is also easy to see everything as temporary and to forget that community existed before and will exist after, and that we can’t just see that the work being done in this – and other - community as only for the now.

Hackney School of Food is a product of past work around feeding and teaching primary school children about cooking, eating, and providing a skill set. It was created to fill an educational need, and it has now adapted to fill the immediate need of feeding pupils and their family who are eligible for school lunches, as well as other vulnerable children.

Louise Nichols is the executive head of three schools in Hackney- Kingsmead, Gayhurst and Madeville - and a few years ago she spearheaded a project, Chefs in Schools, that involved restaurant chefs taking on the role of cooking school lunches and, teaching cooking classes in her primary schools. The project developed organically and was also about meeting the curriculum need around food education. One of the challenges was to do with space and facilities to teach cooking, spaces needed to be big enough to teach 30 students at once.

This lead to Hackney School of Food. Louise and her team worked with the architect firm Surman and Weston to develop the ex premises managers house, which is on the Mandeville Primary School site, but has its own entrance. One of the three that Louise oversees – to create an incredible resource. This kitchen space can allow for 30 children, it has an operational kitchen garden, is run by head chef Tom Walker, who was part of Jamie Oliver’s teaching kitchen, and then head chef at Gayhurst school in London fields. He is supported by an assistant chef and a gardener. The children spend the whole day there, they start the morning with knife skills in and make a veggie soup, make soda bread, and in the afternoon bake brownies. It isn’t just for the three schools that Louise is responsible for, but for all and any that want to utilise these facilities.

But, within three weeks of the Hackney School of Food opening the crisis hit.

Head chef Tom Walker
Head chef Tom Walker

For various reasons the schools are not using the government school vouchers and instead are providing food crates for families who are eligible, run by Tom. This entails a mixture of cooked meals and products such as cereals, pasta and fruits, so that families can also prepare their own food; this part of the crates come from a supplier ready put together.

On Tuesday morning the team cook meals to last a week – able to be frozen or heated up immediately - ready for families to pick up in the afternoon. They are supplied produce from a variety of places including the Felix Project and Fair Share. “The key to the project is about logistics” Louise explained. “It is a full time job sourcing all the donations and managing what is coming in.”

The last week they received a call to say they had an extensive amount of raspberries – this meant speaking with Tom about what they could do with so many raspberries, and then finding places they could store them (ideally freeze) them until they could be cook and be sent out. The previous week they received a cubic ton of chicken breast, and the same negations around space and storage had to be managed.

The other important aspect of this is keeping in touch with people. “This is a valuable moment of connection with parents, we can touch base, find way to help if it is need. See that everyone is alive” said Louise. In this time of isolation and distancing, it is a key part of a school and community, to keep in contact.

So much of this current iteration of Hackney School of Food is also to do with communication; “we are always checking in to see what families want, what they like to eat. We have to ask what dishes and produce is useful, and what is not.” It is really important to the team that they cater for people so that they enjoy the food – even with the limitations they have regarding what produce they get – everyone has a different ‘normal’ when it comes to food that has to be taken into consideration. Approximately half the crates are veggie and half include meat.

At the moment they are making 300 crates a week, but this goes up each week. Louise explained that due to the continued economic hardship (a situation not simply based on the current COVID but is rather a continuing issues exasperated by the virus) more and more families are qualifying. At Mandeville Primary School 50% of children qualify, although the other schools (four in total, including the two others Louise is responsible for) this statistic is a little less.

As mentioned, this is a story about a community. Louise has been working with these schools since 2004 and it is an area that has changed dramatically since that time. Some of the families have been in the area for generations and are of a working class background, but there is also an influx of new middle class professionals. Louise has seen a divide between the two communities. But her experience has told her that events around food cross barriers, “we’ve organised events with up to 600 people with food and music and that draws the community together. If you want to reach people, you put on a food event!.”

Of course the days of large gatherings are not going to be fast coming, but we will get to a point that Hackney School of Food will be running as it was set up to do. The space will also be open in the weekends for others with cooking classes ranging from Polish food, to Bangladeshi, to pizza and pickling. “I hope to open people’s eyes up to our great school, and to share a lovely community resource.” Louise said.

At the moment, they are looking for volunteers to help with the gardening as the warm, spring weather has meant it has truly sprung into life! And if you are able to, The Felix Project are always looking for donations, as are Fair Share, who help keep projects like this in operation.

Teachers are using their own cars to deliver food boxes
Teachers are using their own cars to deliver food boxes

Typical content of a box. A mix of healthy prepped meals as well as
ingredients to cook lunch for one child for a week

The green space on the left is the beginning of Mandeville’s alotment for fruit and veg.

We have been to Mandeville before. See more photos and stories here:
Food popup portraits
School dinners