You don’t have to see the shocking images of looting in South Africa to understand the importance of food shortages to social stability.
You don’t have to be a history student to know that the severe French winter of 1788/89 triggered a bread crisis and famine that ended in a bloody revolution.
But the idea that food – or lack of it – is a basic need that can topple governments was in truth not something we pondered when we launched our food poverty campaign on March 27th last year by Covid- 19th Instead, we were consumed by something far less grandiose.
We knew the lockdown, announced just 72 hours earlier on March 23rd, was going to be tough, and that it was going to be especially tough for disadvantaged Londoners – and we wanted to make sure food poverty was the only additional problem with that they don’t have to deal.
So we lay down. We only had three days to set up a structure, work with a food supplier, learn the story and write it down, a big task from the start, but we had a decisive advantage: we had already started a campaign against food poverty in 2016 and participated The Felix Project, a brilliant start-up that was distributing good-to-eat surplus food that we helped found. In the four years since then, the Felix Project, founded by Justin and Jane Byam Shaw in memory of their teenage son Felix, had grown from just one van to 22 and from 21 volunteers to 1,560, becoming London’s largest grocery distributor.
Little did we know then that our 2020 partnership with Felix would raise £ 10 million, more money than any other single campaign in the 193-year history of the Evening Standard. Or that it would get so bad that middle-class universities made up 10 percent of the food lines. Or that the funds we have secured would enable Felix to quadruple food deliveries to 40 tons per week and Londoners in need – children, parents, the elderly, the homeless, refugees, homes for domestic violence and people with mental health problems – with an astonishing 20 million meals to be catered for by the end of 2020.
Jack Whitehall helps Felix Project – in pictures
But to start at the beginning. Working with an outstanding editorial team who published unique stories seven days a week, a remarkable editorial achievement, we appealed to readers, corporations, philanthropists, and foundations to support our efforts – and how generously they responded.
We raised £ 500,000 that first weekend and within 10 days we had exceeded £ 1 million. Tottenham Hotspur got involved and invited us to open their new stadium as a community food redistribution center, one of many across London that Felix delivered to in those early, fearful days of the pandemic.
From the beginning our owner Evgeny Lebedev led from the beginning. He volunteered for Felix and helped with the distribution of food – and was at times our chief reporter with a mask on the front line. Equally important, along with Oliver Poole, who ran the campaign with me, he helped us reach out to celebrities who would take our campaign to a new level.
Olivia Colman was the first. In mid-April, at the height of the pandemic, at a time when celebrities were too scared to leave their homes, The Crown Star said “of course I’ll come” and drove from the country to London for several hours in her battered old car. She helped stack food in the Felix warehouse, delivered it to hungry people who couldn’t believe the other “queen” was on their doorstep, then jumped back into her jalopy and disappeared back into the M1. Brilliant.
Then came Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jack Whitehall, Melissa Hemsley, Spurs soccer player Moussa Sissoko, Chelsea’s Reece James and rapper KSI, who all took to the streets to volunteer for Felix – and then tweeted about it. Even Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, gave her tail wind and came to us via zoom from California.
Ellie Goulding joins the Felix project
Singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding joined Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev along with Greenhouse volunteers to feed vulnerable people across London.
As the millions poured in and Felix grew in a remarkable, almost military-like manner, things got worse – unemployment rose, the queues at the food stalls lengthened, and food poverty grew. The pandemic had led to a deepening crisis, with 1 million Londoners on leave and a 128 percent increase in food parcels distributed by food banks.
Families were particularly hard hit: around 100,000 children in London – one in eight – suffered from food insecurity, and the Trussell Trust predicted that high demand for food aid is likely to continue and erode many families’ financial resilience.
It became clear that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. We originally hoped to raise £ 3m, but now we’ve increased our target to £ 10m. In truth, we had no idea how we were going to get there.
The art world came to our aid. Sir Peter Blake and Damien Hirst created new works of art that sold on our behalf for over £ 1.7 million. Then Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor, Yinka Shonibare and Bridget Riley auctioned pieces for our campaign.
Our readers responded great too, giving out over £ 1 million in small donations at a time when many were feeling uncertain about their own futures. Corporate and philanthropic supporters opened their coffers with donations of at least £ 250,000 from Barclays, Citi, Morgan Stanley, Ocado, the Garfield Weston Foundation, Lansdowne Partners and our own Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund.
That generosity fueled Felix’s 25 iconic green vans that drove through the capital every day, hauling food packages to more than 900 charities, food centers and schools.
Then, at Christmas, London’s landmarks – St. Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery and Piccadilly Circus – were spectacularly lit up with our Food For London Now and Help The Hungry symbols when the central London authorities gave us their support. By then, Felix’s incredible workers were delivering 100,000 meals a day, an amazing logistical feat, and we had reached the unthinkable goal of £ 10 million.
But we weren’t done yet. We had quietly set ourselves one final ambitious goal – to build, remodel and open the largest social kitchen in central London ever. With an additional £ 1 million from the Expropriation Fund, the Social Kitchen will cook and distribute 1.5 million meals a year to support thousands of hungry families across East London.
Fortunately, we’ll never know what if the 20 million meals hadn’t been delivered by Felix, but we do. When London faced its greatest crisis since World War II on March 23 last year and the Evening Standard questioned its existence, we stepped up – and London responded.
And now the Society of Editors named us Campaign of the Year at the Press Awards, calling it “Truly Amazing” and “Historic Lockdown Journalism.” Again we say the words we made when we set fire to Piccadilly Circus: “Thank you London”. Our joint campaigns Food For London Now and Help the Hungry in the Evening Standard and The Independent belong to all of you. And with the opening of our social kitchen later this month, we’ve created a permanent resource that will hopefully help satisfy hunger in the capital long after Covid itself is history.