ou don’t need to see the shocking images of looting in South Africa to get the importance of food shortages for the stability of society.
You don’t need to be a student of history to know that the severe French winter of 1788/89 precipitated a bread crisis and starvation that ended with a bloody revolution.
Yet the idea that food – or the lack of it – is a basic need that left unsated can topple governments, was in truth not something we thought about when, on March 27 last year, we launched our campaign to tackle food poverty in the wake of Covid-19. We were instead consumed with something far less grandiose.
We knew that lockdown, announced just 72 hours before on March 23, would be tough, and that it would be especially tough for disadvantaged Londoners – and we wanted to make sure that food poverty was the one additional problem they wouldn’t have to face.
So we knuckled down. We had just three days to establish a structure, partner with a food provider, get the story and write it up, a tall order from a standing start, but we had one critical advantage: back in 2016 we had launched a campaign tackling food poverty and had partnered with The Felix Project, a brilliant start-up that distributed good-to-eat surplus food and which we helped launch. In the four years since, The Felix Project, founded by Justin and Jane Byam Shaw in memory of their teenage son Felix, had grown from just one delivery van to 22 and from 21 volunteers to 1,560, becoming London’s biggest food redistributor.
Little did we know then that our 2020 partnership with Felix would go on to raise £10 million, more money than any other single campaign in the 193 year history of the Evening Standard. Or that things would get so bad that university educated middle classes would make up 10 per cent of foodbank queues. Or that the funds we secured would empower Felix to quadruple food deliveries to 40 tonnes a week and supply struggling Londoners – children, parents, the elderly, the homeless, refugees, domestic abuse shelters and people with mental health issues – with an astonishing 20 million meals by the close of 2020.
But to start at the beginning. Working with an outstanding editorial team that put out unique stories seven days a week, a remarkable editorial effort, we appealed to readers, corporates, philanthropists and foundations to support our efforts – and how generously they responded.
We raised £500k over that first weekend and within 10 days had passed £1 million. Tottenham Hotspur got involved and invited us over, opening their new stadium as a community food redistribution centre, one of many across London to which Felix was delivering in those early, anxious days of the pandemic.
From the start, our proprietor Evgeny Lebedev led from the front. He made himself available to volunteer for Felix and help deliver food – and there were times when he was our chief reporter in a mask on the front line. Just as importantly, together with Oliver Poole, who would co-run the campaign with me, he helped us reach out to celebrities who would lift our campaign to new heights.
Olivia Colman was the first. In mid-April at the height of the pandemic, at a time when celebrities were too frightened to leave their homes, The Crown star said “of course I’ll come” and drove several hours from the countryside into London in her battered old car. She helped stack food at the Felix warehouse, delivered it to hungry people who could not believe the other “Queen” was outside their front door, and then jumped back in her jalopy and disappeared back up the M1. Brilliant.
After that came Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jack Whitehall, Melissa Hemsley, Spurs footballer Moussa Sissoko, Chelsea’s Reece James and rapper KSI, who all went on the road to volunteer for Felix – and then tweeted about it. Even Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, gave her backing, joining us by zoom from California.
As the millions poured in, and as Felix scaled up in a remarkable, almost military-like way, things got worse – unemployment rose, foodbank queues lengthened and food poverty soared. The pandemic had led to a deepening crisis with 1 million Londoners furloughed and a 128 per cent spike in food parcels given out by food banks.
Families were especially hard hit: Around 100,000 children in London – one in eight – experienced food insecurity, according to the Food Foundation and the Trussell Trust predicted that high demand for food aid was likely to continue with many families’ financial resilience eroded.
It became clear this would be no quick fix. Initially we had hoped to raise £3 million but now we raised our sights to £10 million. In truth, we had no idea how we would get there.
The art world came to our rescue. Sir Peter Blake and Damien Hirst made new art works that were sold on our behalf, raising over £1.7m. Then Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor, Yinka Shonibare and Bridget Riley auctioned pieces for our campaign.
Our readers, too, responded magnificently, dishing out over £1 million in small donations at a time when many felt insecure about their own future. Corporate and philanthropic backers opened their coffers, with donations of £250,000 or more coming from the likes of Barclays, Citi, Morgan Stanley, Ocado, the Garfield Weston Foundation, Lansdowne Partners and our own Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund.
This generosity was the fuel that powered Felix’s 25 iconic green vans that daily fanned out across the capital, ferrying food parcels to more than 900 charities, food-hubs and schools.
Then, at Christmas, London landmarks – St Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery and Piccadilly Circus – were spectacularly illuminated with our Food For London Now and Help The Hungry symbols as central London authorities gave us their support. By then, the incredible workers of Felix were delivering 100,000 meals a day, an astonishing logistical feat, and we had passed the unthinkable £10 million goal.
But we weren’t finished yet. We had quietly set ourselves one final ambitious target – to locate, refit and open central London’s biggest ever social kitchen. With another £1million secured from the Dispossessed Fund, the social kitchen will cook and distribute 1.5 million meals a year to support thousands of hungry families across East London.
Thankfully, we will never know what might have been if the 20 million meals had not been delivered by Felix, but we do know this. On 23rd March last year, when London faced its biggest crisis since the Second World War and the Evening Standard faced challenges to its very existence, we stepped up – and London responded.
And now the Society of Editors has rewarded us with Campaign of the Year at the Press Awards, calling it “truly amazing” and “historic lockdown journalism”. Again, we say the words we did when we lit up Piccadilly Circus: “Thank you London”. Our joint Food For London Now and Help the Hungry campaigns in the Evening Standard and The Independent have been owned by all of you. And with our social kitchen opening later this month, we have created a permanent resource that, we hope, will help assuage hunger in the capital long after Covid itself becomes history.