Hastings Food Action started up in October 2020 in response to free school meals being rejected by MPs. The original aim of locals Lillian Pierce, Chloe Counter, Lily Gutierrez and Annie Williams was to give vulnerable families in Hastings and St Leonards direct access to free food and toiletries during half term. HIP finds out how in 2021 they have reinvented themselves to help teach skills of how to cook food cheaply and healthily.

Albion head chef, Jed Wrobel, filmed at Homeground Kitchen by Fizzel Castro

How did you feel you could add to what was being done already in October last year? 
It’s never been about doing more than any other initiative in the town – we began raising money for a huge food bank shop. And we collated all the information over the October half term so that it was easy to find what was accessible. It went from there really. It was purely about rallying our community and standing in solidarity with everyone and anyone who was struggling or may have ever struggled to put food on the table. No judgment. No questions asked. A genuine offer from within the community that it’s ok to ask for help. And for those wanting to help, it was amazing to have a platform to offer support to those who were in a position to do so: those who were more fortunate were enabled. 

We’re constantly reminded of the levels of poverty and deprivation in our community, but it was astonishing to see the generosity and outpourings of support and offers of help that we saw as well. We wouldn’t be anywhere today without the support of local people, whether donations of money or food, drivers running volunteers around, shops offering their space or chefs offering their time.

How did the idea for the cook-along come about? 
We always wanted to collaborate with local restaurants and chefs while also thinking about ideas that could include every part of the local community. Cookery lessons were a natural step, but with lockdown setting in at the beginning of the year, these had to go online with Covid-safe filming and delivery taken into account. 

You can learn a new skill at home as well as eat a tasty meal that you can recognise from one of the restaurants

So partnering up with lots of local organisations was part of your strategy. 
Yes. Our wider community is at the centre of everything we hope to do. Everyone has struggled as a result of the pandemic, not just vulnerable families, but successful businesses, stable families, people who never thought that their lives would be turned upside down. We hope to celebrate our incredible community while on the way to getting back up and running properly. 

How do you make sure you can reach the people you want to help?
We’re fortunate to have an incredibly talented and tech savvy organiser who we rely on heavily. We believe one of our strengths is in our communication and delivery. 

How is it working out? 
Brilliantly so far. Everyone we’ve spoken to and worked with has been incredible and so supportive. We’ve had such positive interactions from everyone from the start. And along the way we’ve learnt more about other organisations and what they offer, finding ways to support one another’s initiatives or to signpost them in the right direction to ensure local families are able to access the best support possible. 

For example, we learnt about Education Futures Trust (EFT) and the incredible work they were doing. They were so open and willing to work with us, we were able to combine our services and streamline things for families. 

Smoked Haddock pie with fish from Rock-a-Nore

We understand you’ve already worked with Tommy’s Pizzeria, The Albion, Rock-a-Nore fisheries and Southside Wrappers among others.
It’s been really encouraging working with such brilliant, hands-on businesses. The town is full of people with a genuine desire to ‘give back’ to the community they love. It’s even more heartening that this attitude comes at the toughest time for small businesses. With the cook-along videos it’s lovely that you can learn a new skill at home as well as eat a tasty meal that you can recognise from one of the restaurants – so it’s familiar. Food and beverage is such a huge part of the Hastings and St Leonard’s tapestry.

Do you twist people’s arms to get them to work with you?
Whilst we’re happy to give our time for free, we decided from the beginning that we wouldn’t expect that of anyone else. We think it’s important to support others during this time and not take advantage of the circumstances. We have an incredible network of volunteers who are always so willing to help. But our intention was always to cover our costs and pay people for their expertise.

What has the response been from your target audience? 
It’s been fantastic! We love seeing what everyone’s been getting up to in their kitchen and it’s great that kids can get involved too – it’s also an activity that can fill a few hours for families during lockdown. When delivering the kits on Saturday mornings, people are really excited to receive them and generally ask what will be coming next week! 

We’ve had some great feedback from people that lacked confidence in the kitchen; we’re told the recipe kits are easy to follow and the photos we get back are great. Our aim with the cook-along was to flip the dialogue: we wanted to create a positive ripple effect around food, family and community. We’ve been working with a lot of families who haven’t engaged in this sort of thing before so what we’ve tried to do is be genuine and open; for example, we’ll put them in touch with another organisation if we think they are best placed to help them; or we’ll let them know how to access our YouTube channel if they’re not used to Instagram. 

What would be your ideal result from what you are doing? 
It would be creating community and positivity around food, providing support back to the independent businesses that supported our initiative at the start – bringing our experience and expertise to a really valuable sector that is already doing incredible work. 

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