Lockdown Legend: the Londoner helping feed schoolkids and vulnerable people in need

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron
Features Editor, Time Out London

Dominic Cools-Lartigue, founder of Street Feast, was supposed to open a new venue this summer in Brixton. The Civic was set to be a cultural hub with food and a workspace. Most importantly, Cools-Lartigue had plans to use the venue’s platform and network to tackle food poverty in the local area. The plans for A Plate for London, a scheme working with local charities, were already in the works before the city went on lockdown. Cools-Lartigue realised he needed to delay opening The Civic but that he could get started on A Plate for London right now – and that with more people losing their jobs, it would be needed more than ever.

When we did the planning applications for The Civic last year we looked around local charities to see how we could best help. We found a number of charities around Brixton focused on food poverty and we thought that would be a great way for us to support the local area. When lockdown happened we realised we couldn’t open the site so we said let’s just do A Plate for London anyway, there’s actual, real need right now. And let’s not just focus on Brixton – let’s cast the net across London and see where we can best be of service. 

We were out feeding people within a few weeks. I was on the phone to chefs and restaurants working out how to get kitchens going with people I know in the industry. I decided just to focus on the smaller independent restaurants and chefs who’d lost their jobs and try and get them back into work. 

We got going really fast but I wanted to make sure we had the infrastructure there so that we can continue doing this for a long time. There are quite a few people doing things now who’ll probably stop when things calm down but I’m like: no, I want to be doing this. We need to make sure that it’s always there providing this support. 

We are doing a lot with Tower Hamlets – we helped over the Easter holidays when it had no facilities to cook for kids who usually get free school meals. We got 12,000 meals out for them over the course of ten days. It was really humbling to see the need. They gave us access to five of their community centres around the borough and we ran them. There were nurses who’d been working all day and hadn’t had a chance to go and cook and they were so grateful that we were there and able to give them some meals for their kids.

Even after we get on top of this situation, people are still going to be hungry in London. This isn’t going to be fixed easily, it’s not going to go away. 

Our whole thing is getting food together and then getting it to people who’ve got the networks. We’ve split it into four groups. There’s local government and councils like Tower Hamlets and local charities who can get food to people we know really need it. We’ve also been thinking about people who’ve been losing their jobs, so we’re talking to Hospitality Action and Equity for actors who are out of work. The fourth group is what we call grassroots heroes – there’s this amazing woman in Haggerston who’s a single mum of two boys and she’s literally knocking on doors locally and finding people in need. She found out what I was up to and she’s making sure that she can contact anybody who could help her make sure that people who live on her estate get what they need. 

One local charity we’re working with is Compliments of the House in Brixton, run by Sinead Browne. She used to have a unit in Brixton Village where she’d feed people every day. Some of them were unemployed, some of them were nurses and teachers who were struggling to make ends meet. She didn’t really ask too much about them, she just let them in. She’d built up a network of 50 restaurants that would provide hot food that day. Obviously it’s closed now but she’s got the addresses of all of the people who used to come in, so we get food to her and she now hand delivers it. 

I’m a Londoner and this is something I’ve wanted to do anyway. I’ve run businesses like Street Feast which were really great businesses, but you get to that point where if there’s no community purpose, it isn’t enough. Running big food markets in areas like Dalston and Lewisham and maybe not having enough of a connection to those areas where there’s a real need – it didn’t quite sit well with me. There wasn’t anything wrong with what we were doing but I felt I wanted to do more. So when this happened it was like okay, let’s get on with it.

When we started this, some of the people didn’t really believe it was true that people would just be handing food out. When we did the community hubs in Tower Hamlets, I got an email from a nurse – she took a picture of the food and said thank you so much. She got back and was exhausted, so it was the perfect thing for her. It made my day when I got that. 

We’ve spoken to so many people from all walks of life who are really appreciative of what we’re doing. There were more than two million people living below the poverty line even before this, so it’s going to be something that’s going to impact people for quite a while. That’s part of the reason why we’ve tried to think of all the different levels – there are the school children but also the people who’ve lost their jobs. With the people in hospitality, it’s feeding the people who used to feed us.

There are so many people who fall between the cracks. You might not qualify for a particular grant and then what happens to you? Or you might get some benefits but it might not be enough. What happens to the people who fall through the cracks? That’s why working with proper grassroots communities means we can find out who really needs help. We need to be committed to finding them and helping them. Otherwise, what’s the solution? We’re just going to end up with more and more people who are going to end up homeless. It’s pretty heartbreaking.

We have this internal joke about the free food hotline because now people know I can get food out, I get these phone calls. People call me and say: ‘I’ve got two huge whole salmons they need to go right now, do you want them?’ I’m like, yeah! Then I get a call saying: ‘I’ve got 2,000 bakewell tarts.’ I’m sure there were 16,000 shepherd pies at one point. We’ve had two massive pallets of crisps. Yesterday, I had 5,000 hot meals. I love it. It’s a challenge and particularly if it’s hot food, it needs to go there and then. When I get that call, we call our network of homeless shelters and other charities. We’ve built a database of who will take food and what their capacity is to take it. So whenever we get a call, it’s exciting to know we can get the food out there.

It’s amazing to see how London has come together, but we need to stay together after this. This could go on for a couple of years and people are going to need this support. We need to keep doing this.

Read more from this series:

The fitness fanatic hosting aerobics classes on his doorstep.

The Londoner who set up a community scheme to make scrubs for NHS workers.

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