In 2015, Leon had helped to set up Calais Kitchen, a project that provided food for refugees living in the camp known as ‘the jungle’. He decided to put that expertise to work, and with the help of some friends and about seven volunteers, set up the first version of Compassion in a small kitchen in north London.
That was back in early April, when many thought the crisis would be over by the summer. Four months later, Compassion London is bustling with over 400 volunteers. From the kitchens underneath Alexandra Palace, the team of chefs, organisers, helpers and drivers provide thousands of meals a day: they recently hit a milestone of 350,000 delivered.
Ally Pally is a relatively new home. Compassion’s first formal kitchen was at Allianz Park, but the team quickly found it wasn’t big enough to fulfil the increasing demand. After about a month, Compassion moved to Wembley, where, with the help of the stadium’s in-house chefs, they were able to up their output, nearing a goal of 20,000 meals a day. But before that could happen, the government announced that sporting events were back in play – and they had to find somewhere new fast.
The people’s palace stepped up. Ally Pally were already hosting Edible London, another food charity, so Compassion were welcomed rent-free into the kitchen that was standing free while the cultural events that would normally have kept it busy remain on hold.
Compassion’s volunteers are in every day from 8 to 5, playing music and chatting while they chop, fry, boil, bake, pack and send off meals. One volunteer, Becky Matthews, said that getting involved with the organisation had been the ideal way to put her spare lockdown time to good use.
“I love coming in and meeting people,” she said. “It’s much better than sitting at home watching TV. Food waste and hunger are problems that I’ve always cared about, too, so Compassion was an opportunity to combine everything.”
Naomi Clucas, a caterer who helped Leon in the initial stages of setting up Compassion – and has been a core part of the team ever since – said that the organisation set out with the intention of making two hundred meals each day. “Now I come in every day and it’s just the most amazing feeling,” she added, “seeing thirty or thirty-five beautiful people, all working together to help others.”
The single serving meals, which range from salad to frittata to stew, are delivered to organisations that distribute them in their local communities. That includes religious groups, food banks, and even a motorcycle club that gives out food to the homeless. Meals are made from ingredients donated by organisations including Ocado and the Felix Project, which would otherwise go to waste.
The medical staff Compassion set out to help are less in need now that canteens have reopened – although some hospitals like Great Ormond Street still receive meals, which busy staff can enjoy on their breaks. But that doesn’t mean the need has gone away: with increasing lay-offs, the government’s furlough scheme on its way to ending and the future more uncertain than ever, Leon’s plans for Compassion to have shut shop by the summer seem a distant memory.
Last month, the team launched their ‘You Eat They Eat’ campaign across their social media, encouraging people to donate a portion of the money they would normally spend on a meal out to support Compassion’s running costs. £1 pays for one meal, so a little goes a long way – particularly as Compassion are taking on new meal requests every day, even as volunteer numbers fall.
In a recent video message to volunteers, Leon spoke about what the prospect of a second wave means for the future of Compassion.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen with the virus,” he said. “It’s likely that the demand for meals will increase even further. At the moment we do 10-11,000 meals a week, and we easily find recipients for them.”
He went on to encourage volunteers who haven’t visited for a while to come back in, even for just a couple of hours per week: Compassion is, after all, a collaborative effort, and dependent on the time and energy people are willing to give up to help others who share their city.
“We want to be here for those who need us now,” he says, “but we also want to build something lasting for the future.”
Compassion are in need of volunteers and donations. If you’d like to help, visit www.compassionlondon.org or email email@example.com