Community champions who helped feed the nation during their time of need are among the ”ordinary people” invited to King Charles III’s coronation.
i speaks to some of the “feeders” invited to the historic occasion.
‘We love feeding people – hunger is so difficult to deal with’
When Daksha Varsani and husband Paresh Jethwa see a homeless person or someone going hungry, they feel compelled to go and buy them some food.
The couple founded the Community Response Kitchen at the height of the Covid pandemic and served more than 350,000 vegetarian Indian meals to NHS staff and vulnerable people.
“Myself and my husband come from a community where we love feeding people,” says Daksha, who has three children and two grandchildren. “If we see a homeless person or someone who is hungry, we always make sure we stop and grab some food to give to them.
“We have always done this and have taught our children to do this too. Food is the one thing that keeps a person going and hunger is so difficult to deal with. It’s hard to sleep or do anything when you’re hungry.”
The Community Response Kitchen was born after Daksha’s niece, who is a nurse, contacted her just before the Covid lockdown telling her that NHS staff working at the Northwick Park Hospital in London, which was an epicentre of the crisis, were struggling to get food while battling to save people’s lives.
“My niece knew we helped provide food for people who were struggling and that evening, myself and my husband cooked up around 25 meals for NHS staff working in intensive care at the hospital and delivered it for them.”
When the lockdown happened, the need for NHS staff to access food became greater so Daksha and Paresh swung into action. “The doctors and medical staff were working 16 to 18 hour shifts and there was no provision for food as everything had shut down,” explains Daksha. “They needed around 250 to 300 meals a day.”
The couple moved from their kitchen to a community centre and created the Community Response Kitchen with an army of volunteers. Using social media, they appealed for donations of food and ingredients and cooked whatever was donated. Over the course of three months, they produced 2,500 hot meals a day, as well as making up and delivering food packages of sandwiches, snacks and drinks to different hospitals across London and the suburbs.
As well as feeding NHS workers, they provided food to vulnerable people in the community, the elderly and care homes.
“We supported 45 to 50 hospitals all across London and suburban areas down to Kent. We would also deliver food to residents in need.
“We made Indian vegetarian meals such as dhaal, rice and vegetable curries and we rolled between 600 and 1,000 chapatis every single day.”
Even though the Community Response Kitchen has closed down since Covid, Daksha and Paresh, who now live in Milton Keynes, still collect donated food from places like supermarkets and take it to food banks.
The couple were both honoured with a British Empire Medal for their efforts feeding the community – and now they will both be attending the King’s coronation.
“It feels very overwhelming to be invited to the coronation and we will be able to see history in the making,” says Daksha. “We have received the invitation and it is absolutely beautiful, but it still hasn’t sunk in that we will actually be there. I don’t think it will seem real until the day.”
‘I cooked so many curries for fellow bus drivers, I broke my cooker and dishwasher!’
When the coronavirus lockdown happened in the UK, bus driver Simon Taylor knew he wanted to do something positive as a morale booster for his colleagues working through the crisis.
“When the pandemic happened, I was working away in Bristol as a loan bus driver and staying in a hotel,” recalls Simon, 35, who lives in Great Yarmouth. “Life just completely changed and it was literally like a light switch.
“The hotel emptied itself and all loan drivers were told to return to base stations and depots.”.
Simon, who suffers from ADHD and anxiety, says it felt surreal being back in his home town and seeing life having ground to a halt, with once busy places now deserted.
With canteens serving hot food across the bus depots having closed down due to the Covid lockdown, Simon decided to cook curries and other hot meals for his colleagues and ended up cooking all day on his rest days from work to make sure there were plenty of meals to feed them.
“I started cooking curries and meals like Hunter’s chicken and tuna pasta bake in my kitchen at home and would put the food in separate tubs that would be easy to heat up in the microwave,” he says. “I knew the bus drivers couldn’t get a hot meal while working through the pandemic as the canteen was closed, so I would put these containers in the staff fridge with a message saying: “Drivers, help yourselves.’ They went down an absolute treat.”
Simon enrolled himself on an online food and hygiene diploma course before he started his venture and he bought industrial sized cooking utensils and pots to allow him to prepare around 80 meals of curry and rice on his days off. He provided the food free of charge, but told people they could make donations if they wanted which went to the air ambulance service.
“I broke my cooker and I broke my dishwasher because I was using them so much,” he laughs. “But I just wanted to do this for all the drivers as a morale booster through the difficult times and to let them know they were valued.”
When Simon received notification that he was being honoured with a British Empire Medal, he says he initially thought it was “a scam” and that “someone was phishing for my details.” However, to his amazement, it was true.
Now, he says he is astounded once again after being invited to attend the coronation as a recent recipient of the British Empire Medal.
“When I received the email telling me I had been invited to the coronation, I got a warm fuzzy feeling inside and a little tear in my eye,” he says. “I was actually on the bus at the time when I saw the email and I remember saying to a couple of passengers: ‘I’ve just been invited to the King’s coronation!’
“It really brightened my day as it is a once in the lifetime opportunity to actually go in person to something like this.”
‘If people have food in their bellies, it gives then the fuel to take on life’s challenges’
As the head of Lisburn Foodbank in Northern Ireland, Lynsey Agnew-Caqeua knows what a difference food can make to people’s lives and how without it, dealing with challenges can feel insurmountable.
“Food is such a basic necessity and if we don’t have food in our bellies, it’s very hard to concentrate on anything else,” she says. “If people are hungry, how can they be expected to parent their children well or make sure they are paying their bills on time or to be generally successful and to thrive in life?”
Lynsey, who is married with two boys, was one of the initial volunteers who set up Lisburn Foodbank 10 years ago and now heads it up.
The charity, which also runs a social supermarket where people can get heavily subsidised fresh food, found its services in particular demand during the pandemic when it partnered with the council to distribute emergency food parcels. “We were delivering 400 food parcels every week which was a significant number in relation to our population as Lisburn has just under 50,000 people,” she says.
Demand for the food bank has increased due to the cost of living crisis, says Lynsey and the charity offers a lot more than food to people as it feels it is important to tackle issues such as financial inclusion and wellbeing.
The team of staff and volunteers run cookery courses, wellbeing groups, employment skills services and help people with personal development plans.
“People can come to the foodbank to get some food and know that there is someone for them to talk to,” says Lynsey. “We have a chat with them and help them with their problems and signpost them to services.
“The wellbeing course we run is particularly beneficial to people. A lot of people come in when they are at their lowest point and we hope by the end of it, they can walk away with their head held high and with hope for the future again.”
Lynsey was awarded a British Empire Medal for her incredible work with Lisburn Foodbank and has now been invited to the coronation. “It is such an honour,” she says. “When the Queen passed away, as a family, we were watching the funeral on television and were so engrossed by it all.
“It really made it hit home how important the establishment and the monarchy is and the reliable steadfastness they bring to everyone.
“To be able to be a part of the King’s coronation by being there in person is such a privilege.”