It was two years ago when dietitian Hannah Style walked into her local Sainsbury’s in Kilburn and asked to speak to the manager.
“Give me all your groceries that are going in the bin, all your misshapen vegetables and all the fresh food you haven’t sold and I will use it to feed the homeless,” she said with characteristic chutzpah.
The Sainsbury’s branch manager, a big man with a booming voice, looked down at this determined, diminutive stranger in her colourful gym outfit. “Great!” he said. “We’ve been looking for a charitable cause — we’d love to help.”
The following week Hannah, 26, duly picked up the surplus produce and took it to nearby Conway House, a 60-bed homeless hostel for men, where she prepared a sumptuous communal sit-down dinner for the residents.
She called it Feast! Just five residents pitched up. A month later she held a second slap-up meal, this time using recipes from the residents themselves, and involved them in the cooking.
Within a year, Feast had grown into a popular weekly event with up to 40 residents attending the smorgasbord of food and conversation.
But success brought new pressures — a lack of funding meant their sustainability was in doubt.
Now a £9,733 grant from the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund has helped to secure Feast’s future.
It was one of 29 grants announced this week as part of our £358,500 Food for London initiative backing community projects that use surplus food to tackle food poverty.
Our grant — Feast’s first — will be used to hire a part-time logistics and volunteers manager to oversee their programme and put it on a sustainable footing.
“This grant is transformative for us,” said Hannah, welcoming the Standard to Feast’s regular Thursday dinner and greeting each resident by name as they arrived. She soon had them helping the dozen volunteers.
An array of roast tomatoes, ricotta cheese with mushroom, asparagus and rice, and bread and butter pudding were just some of the dishes being prepared while music played and conversation flowed.
Hannah, who works at several GP practices, explained her motivation.
She said: “A lot of patients I see are malnourished adults susceptible to weight loss, often due to cancer, substance abuse or following a stroke.
“I provide nutrition support to build these people up so what I am doing with Feast is transferring what I do in my day job to another category of vulnerable people who need healthy food — the homeless.
“We use surplus food because repurposing good food that would otherwise be thrown away is such an obvious solution.”
One guest tucking into the carrot and coriander soup starter was James, 62, a chemical engineer who worked in an oil refinery but had been homeless for three months.
He said: “I used to earn over £100,000 a year so I really did not expect to end up homeless, but this is where I have ended up due to depression, unemployment and a marital breakdown.
“You think homeless is for other people and then it happens to you. I have a Masters from Edinburgh University, I am a fellow of the Institute of Chemical Engineers.
“This is the hardest time in my life and one of the toughest things is how isolating it is.
“When you live in a homeless hostel, the only people you tend to see are other homeless people or key workers. But at Feast you meet volunteers, regular people with regular jobs.
“This meal brings me out of myself and into conversation with young people. It gives me hope. You can’t imagine how important that is.”
Hannah added: “One of the most poignant things was when one of the residents had their 70th birthday here. He said he hadn’t had a family meal for some time. We were moved to tears.”
Another resident, Paul, 50, said he used to care for his uncle but when he died, the flat was taken back by the council and he had nowhere to live.
“This is the best day of the week for us,” he said.
“We eat well but we also enjoy the company and have fun.”
Hannah said the practice of volunteers eating alongside residents was inspired by FoodCycle, a charity that also uses surplus food to feed the socially excluded, and where she had been a hub leader.
But in 2015, after she moved into Moishe House, a rent-subsidised community of Jewish social activists, she was inspired to start her own gig: she approached Conway House and Sainsbury’s and, assisted by a dozen Moishe House volunteers, started Feast.
Hannah has since added Aldi to the mix and they are “similarly delighted to have food go to a good cause instead of composting”.
She pointed to the piles of ready-prepared salads and boxes of groceries and said: “The amount of food we get from just two branch supermarkets is crazy. You can only imagine how much is being thrown out across London. It’s criminal and it’s happening all over the UK.”
Recently Hannah formed a committee of six volunteers to run Feast.
“I feel privileged to have such a committed group of people making Feast work and to have got close to some homeless people,” she said.
“I come from a middle-class Jewish family, but their stories have made me realise how it could so easily be me.”
So what’s next? “Our model has the potential to be replicated,” said Hannah, dishing up cherry custard dessert. “The Standard’s grant could be a kick-starter for us.
My vision is to take these incredible feasts and, with the right backing, eventually expand this concept to other hostels across London.”
The names of the residents have been changed.