Food Fighters: The charity cookbook making sure no child goes hungry

Outraged at the free school meals debate last October, Gemma Combellack and Becky Tanner-Rolf put out a call to arms on social media for a fundraising cookbook. The response was epic, they tell Hannah Twiggs

Saturday 01 May 2021 10:35
comments
<p>The Gills Gals turned their platform into a force for good after ‘fuming’ at the decision not to feed children in lockdown</p>

The Gills Gals turned their platform into a force for good after ‘fuming’ at the decision not to feed children in lockdown

I

n October 2020, MPs spent the day in parliament arguing over whether the nation’s vulnerable children should be left to go hungry while schools were shut during lockdown. In an astonishing move, 322 politicians – all Tory – shot down the motion, cutting off access to vital free school meals for millions of schoolchildren stuck at home.

There was uproar. Marcus Rashford and other campaigners vented their “despair”. Even Nigel Farage questioned why the government was able to subsidise Eat Out to Help Out, but couldn’t give low income children lunch in the school holidays.

And two food bloggers in southeast London started plotting.

“We had a phone call the morning after they said they weren’t going to feed children where we were both just really angry about it,” Gemma Combellack, one half of the Gills Gals, a foodie duo cooking up sustainable seafood dishes, tells me. “We felt like we could do something in this space.”

“People were outraged, and we were fuming,” says the other half, Becky Tanner-Rolf. “I feel like there’s a lot of things to be angry about at the moment, but we thought, ‘Well, we have this very modest platform, let’s have a go’.”

The downloadable, interactive cookbook is available now

They put out a call to arms on social media, asking fellow food bloggers, chefs, designers, writers – and anyone else who was equally outraged by the debate – to get involved with their recipe project, with all proceeds going to a food donation platform.

“It went completely mad,” says Combellack. Overnight the post received hundreds of responses, and by the weekend they had scrambled to put together a more concrete plan. They asked contributors to submit a recipe that answered the question: what most feels like home to you? They scouted around for up-and-coming food photographers and stylists to bring the dishes to life. Illustrators and creatives were called upon to mock up a design for the book. They asked for advice from anyone with any experience in publishing.

A week later, Food Fighters was born.

“The book is called The Food Fighters, but that’s the name of the community as well,” says Tanner-Rolf. “That’s the whole ethos behind it, that’s why we wanted to do it this way.” It was important to them to extract themselves from the brand, and focus it on the 60+ contributors that have opened up their kitchens – and themselves – and donated their time for free to bring the book to life. “It was honestly really overwhelming the amount of people that wanted to get involved and wanted to help,” says Combellack. “I think it was just such a good cause that everyone really wanted to get behind it.”

Read more from this month’s IndyEats:

In just six months, Combellack, Tanner-Rolf and a team offreelancers have collected over 60 recipes from award-winning chefs, celebrities, professional food writers and passionate cooks, which are available as an interactive cookbook from Cookt. Almost all of the proceeds from the book (bar some technical costs) are going to Bankuet, a food donation platform dedicated to stocking food banks around the country with the products vulnerable people actually need – not just tins of baked beans (“beans on toast is great,” protests Tanner-Rolf, “but you can’t live off it,” she begrudgingly admits) – and making it easier for people to donate. “We decided to work with Bankuet because what they do is so important in filling that gap within food banks,” says Tanner-Rolf. “They find what’s missing and get what’s missing to them. It’s a really clever system that’s unbelievably helpful.” Combellack adds: “We were really drawn to them because they recognise that there’s a problem and they’re trying to do something about it.”

Robin Ferris founded Bankuet, the UK’s first zero-waste donation platform, when he noticed a surplus of things like dried pasta and tinned vegetables while volunteering at his local food bank, and a lack of other things people also needed such as household items and toiletries. In a world where we use technology such as Monzo, Deliveroo and Slack on a daily basis, he wondered: why isn’t there an online food bank? “Food banks felt like an old school way of doing it,” he tells me. “Hence Bankuet was born.” Food banks log onto the system, place an order for the things they need –  just like we were all rushing to do this time last year – and the money from donations is used to ship those items out to exactly where they’re needed, when they’re needed. It’s a simple system that makes you wonder why it didn’t exist before.

At the start, Bankuet supported 10 food banks based in London, shipping out enough food to feed about 500 people. “December 2019 is often cited as one of the busiest times for food banks ever,” Ferris says. “Then Covid hit.” Fast forward to today, and Bankuet is supporting over 130 food banks across 55 cities in the UK and Ireland, and has shipped over 1,000 bulk deliveries. The success of the platform can feel bittersweet, though. “It’s actually a good job we did start when we did, I suppose,” Ferris tells me, chuckling sadly. “Looking back to this time last year, that was probably the moment Bankuet truly launched and for which it was intended.”

It’s a sad truth that Bankuet and the Food Fighters couldn’t have come at a better time. According to statistics from the Trussell Trust, from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021, they gave out 2.5 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis. As they only represent around 50 per cent of food banks in the UK, the true figure is likely to be even higher. “The killer stat,” Ferris adds, “is that 1 million of those went to children.”

“We’re absolutely thrilled that [the Food Fighters] have chosen to back the work we’ve been doing,” he says.

Robin Ferris set up Bankuet when he realised food banks weren’t getting enough of what vulnerable people really needed

Before Covid, Combellack and Tanner-Rolf ran fundraising supper clubs through their blog the Gills Gals (referencing their love for seafood; they both grew up on the coast, in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, respectively) raising money for various good causes, from mental health charity Calm to the Fisherman’s Mission, which provides support to active and retired fishermen and their families. So using their existing platform and launching this new project to fight food poverty was somewhat familiar territory. “You feel really helpless in those kinds of scenarios,” says Combellack. “We all want to go out and volunteer for a food bank, but realistically does everyone have the time to do that? So it felt like everyone was trying to do something positive.”

Lockdown has seen a real drive to help the little guy and bring people together over food, I suggest. That’s definitely something the Food Fighters have found while putting together the book: “Some of [the contributors] are more like home cooks that have set up an Instagram, but it has been a lot of chefs, food stylists and food photographers that haven’t had any work, especially when we launched it back in October,” says Combellack. “Those lockdowns were a lot worse.” Even some restaurants that had spent the best part of a year closed were keen to submit a recipe. “The fact that they’re still thinking of other people has been so good,” she adds.

“There’s been all this upset and genuine annoyance that should exist about children not being fed,” says Tanner-Rolf. “But then if you’re away from your family there’s something really lovely about cooking a recipe that means something to you.” But they’re quick to point out that family doesn’t have to mean mums, dads, brothers and sisters. “Maybe your family is the people you live with in your shared house during coronavirus. The best friends you haven’t been able to have dinner with,” says Tanner-Rolf. For example, one of the recipes featured is something the writer would always cook for their friends when they came round for dinner.

Akshay Borges’ pav bhaji, one of the recipes featured in the book

Ferris is looking forward to getting his copy, too. “The Food Fighters comes at such a great time because you can buy a recipe book for you and your mates that you’ve not seen for months, you can have a barbecue or a dinner party, you can cook a nice meal and reconnect with people,” he says. “At the same time as doing that, you’re giving that joyful experience of food to someone else, because Bankuet will use the donations to buy the food and ship it off to people in need.”

The book is completely interactive and some cool features include scalable servings, shoppable ingredients and a new cookalong mode, “playing into the fact everyone’s family or home situation is different”. But what Combellack and Tanner-Rolf think is even cooler is not only the diversity of the recipes, but the personal touch and history of each one. “Laura Rowe, ex-editor atOlive magazine, submitted one and it was her mum’s Christmas Eve mince pies recipe. She sent across the instructions and it was all scribbled down on a little note,” recalls Combellack. “It’s been so nice to go through that and the family stories behind it.” When they sent the styled photographs of another recipe to a contributor, “she said she started crying when she saw the pictures because it was so beautiful. She said, ‘this recipe means so much to our family so the fact that it’s going to be featured and someone else will make it means so much’.”

Fans of the Gills Gals supper clubs will be pleased to know Combellack’s mackerel pate is making a triumphant return in the book (it was a staple at almost every event). “My auntie always used to bring some for me when I was a kid,” she explains. “She’d never bring me chocolate, it would be a tub of smoked mackerel pate. I haven’t been able to go home to Cornwall in the last year so the fact that I’ve been able to write that [recipe] and remember my childhood is really nice.”

When we speak over Zoom in April, the duo are deep in proofing mode: testing all the recipes, shooting dishes and editing each story. They’ve roped in friends to help test, though that doesn’t soundtoo arduous. There have been lots of sad emojis and “pre-Covid this” and “pre-Covid thats” in the recipes submitted, which they’ve edited out “because I hope someone is going to be making it this summer,” laughs Tanner-Rolf, adding: “I think people felt empowered to make a change because things were upsetting, but also it was something nice to think about again and to remember having a lovely time with your friends, eating together and sharing a piece of food. It’s been really lovely.” 

The food crisis in numbers

Statistics published by the Trussell Trust in April highlight that:

  • Between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, 2.5 million emergency food parcels were distributed to people in crisis, a 33% increase on the previous year
  • Almost 1 million of these parcels went to children
  • Compared to this time five years ago, the need for food banks has increased by 128%

In some ways, it’s been a bit of an uphill sprint. Combellack and Tanner-Rolf have only seen each other twice in the last year, and have communicated mostly over “the power of WhatsApp voice notes” in between their day jobs in PR and freelance writing, respectively. That’s equipped them with a lot of transferable skills that have certainly come in handy during the project but when it came to the recipe briefs, “we had to spend quite a lot of time going back and forth talking about the order we wanted it to be in, whether we wanted tablespoons or cups, all that kind of stuff,” Combellack says. I say I know a thing or two about that. “Recipe writing is such an art,” she jokes. Well, I guess that makes us artists.

With the book going live in just a few days (“Thanks for the reminder!”), the duo haven’t had much time to sit back and appreciate they’re in the final stretch of months of hard work. “I mean, I’m probably going to have a big cry when it comes out,” says Tanner-Rolf. Combellack agrees: “We’re probably going to enjoy a couple of months of just seeing people cook from it.”

Ferris agrees that Covid can bring out the best in people – “It’s almost tragically beautiful in some ways” – but says we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. “A lot of people are going to go ‘back to normal’, but more people have dropped into food poverty than ever before. It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he says, sombrely.

So let’s not forget. Let’s buy the book, reunite with our loved ones over one of the delicious recipes, and enjoy our meal knowing that someone else is too.

‘The Food Fighters: Celebrating the Power of Food’ is available on Cookt now. Order your copy and donate to a good cause here. Support your local food bank or make a general donation to the great work Bankuet does here.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments