Kemi Akinola of
Be Enriched

"Try not to get brainwashed by anyone else’s philosophy or theory. You can have carbs, it’s fine!"

As we entered the church hall in Tooting, a swell of delicious aroma greeted us. Frying onions, curry bubbling away on a stove and the stomach-rumbling fragrance of bread being warmed. The clatter of plates and friendly chatter coming from the kitchen as volunteers prepped and chopped veg, further added to the ambience.

Kemi was yet to arrive, picking up more donated produce from her supermarket suppliers, so we headed into the lunch hall to chat to some of those patiently awaiting their lunch.

One of the regulars, Sheila, took us under her wing straight away, explaining that although she makes wonderful curries herself for her family, she goes for the companionship and to get out during the day. Sat opposite is a local traffic warden, popping in for a hearty three course lunch whilst doing his rounds and then a group of varying ages arrives. They rearrange the tables so they can all sit together, and you get the impression this is one of their regular gang outings.

Kemi arrives, lunch is served and we slope off to an adjacent room for a chat.

What inspired you to start Be Enriched?

I was working as a residential social worker and had organised this project to take these young people to Sicily but I injured my knee and had to take some time off. My manager decided that because I was the only person who could take them she would cancel the project. I was really upset about it because I’d been organising it for a year and a half and I thought, well I’m just going to take some people anyway. I got my sister to be the ‘adult’ and set up a company to send these young people on this European funded project. After that I thought, now we’ve got a company, what else can we do with it?

From the shop - Nectar: Be Enriched inspired print

This print is inspired by Be Enriched and the way in which they use, otherwise discarded food to feed local communities around London. 20% of all the profits made from the sale of this print will go directly to Be Enriched to help them continue their great work. Visit the shop

Is it easy to keep motivated doing this work?

I had a meeting yesterday with six amazing people who are really inspiring. None of them have any youth work experience at all but they’re all interested in cooking and community and they all wanted to do something, that keeps me motivated. They’re full of energy and they come up with ways that we can always improve and be better.

Unlike the social work you were doing, the canteens aren’t necessarily geared towards young people though are they?

Yes and no. this canteen is not geared towards youth, but it is a place for young offenders to come and volunteer. It takes them totally out of their comfort zone. These big boys with massive muscles come in and we get them to make pastry.

"We need to support education, not just through University, but also learning through experience."

So how do you get hold of the food that you serve?

It’s mostly surplus. We have good relationships with the local supermarkets in Tooting and some in Brixton. We’ve built relationships with people that are throwing away food but we have a set time that we have to go and pick it up.

However, that doesn’t mean that we plan what we’re going to cook. Volunteers will turn up with lots of ideas and maybe it’s something we haven’t thought about. Especially if they’re Italian. Italian’s are like ‘it’s pasta and I’m cooking it’ and we’re like…’ok’.

I think most people are aware that there is a lot of food waste, but actually you don’t get confronted with it much. Is it worrying to see it first hand?

This is a weird analogy, but if you were a Paramedic you become a bit immune to the sight of blood. That’s how I feel about food waste because I see it a lot. The worst are the big supermarkets, because they’re throwing away so much food.

I know how much we can use, and we couldn’t utilise all of it, so we’re doing our part. If other people are willing to get involved I’m happy help them.

There is a lot of untapped potential, but there are a lot of charities and there’s a lot of people, they just need that system to work really well together. Also, I know from the supermarkets point of view, they can’t just have any old person come around and take the food. They need to be assured that it’s going to be used on the same day. That the people who are taking it are trained in food hygiene and health and also that they’re not going to sell it.

What have been the major challenges?

The people! How do you sell free food? They’re very distrustful. Why is it free? Do I look poor? Do I look homeless? What’s wrong with it? Nothing.

We did advertise at food banks but nobody came from them because of the stigma involved. By advertising there it was like we were targeting them. I mean, we were, but not just them, anyone really, and so they didn’t come. We’re not going to ask what people’s background is, we just want them to come. The only reason we know they didn’t come from a food bank is because we send out an anonymous questionnaire.

If I saw a sign outside this church saying free meal, I would think it’s not for me. So is that a mistake on my part? Is it for anyone?

It’s for anyone! Especially, in light of Brexit, I just imagine that in the future food is going to become even more expensive and people are going to need help. That’s the biggest stumbling block. Getting people to come in and eat the food.

Also, we used to explain to people on the street, it’s waste food, or surplus food, or food that was going to be thrown away and they assume it must be disgusting, often young people. I’ve got an apple here, with a mark on it, but I’ll just cut that bit off. They wouldn’t eat that because it’s not a perfect apple. So young people won’t eat surplus food and a lot of adults won’t eat free food.

We do work with National Citizen Service, so we get their young people every year, and we do a food waste project. We’ll tell them about food waste. Normally we’ll take the bike out around Brixton, we’ll cook the food earlier and then we’ll serve people. But we’ll also sit together and eat it and then hope that they’ll do their group project with a new understanding of food waste.

Do you think there’s an element of people being distrustful of not only the food, but also the fact that this one is in a church?

The project’s not religious at all, even though this one’s in a church. However, the Vicar does come and that’s actually really useful, because sometimes people come in and they need spiritual guidance. They’ll start telling us something and we’re not really qualified to advise them, but she’s a Vicar!

What have been the highlights so far?

Last Christmas we had 92 guests in this church hall and that was brilliant. It’s really sad actually, a lot of them said to me they weren’t going to have Christmas dinner, they weren’t going to spend Christmas with their family, so this was their Christmas celebration. We were happy to be able to provide that. So that was a massive highlight.

Do you have a plan for the next few years with this?

We have started doing catering which has been really exciting. Really tiring, we did about 500 canapes for the Wellcome Trust recently. That was really cool.

Also, as I was just saying, there’s loads of food that we can’t use, so we decided that we’re going to try and open a cafe. If we can find a building, that someone will let us rent off them, for nothing, for pennies, then we’ll be able to do it. We’re looking as far as Brixton and maybe as far as South Wimbledon, because this is where the people we serve live, so it makes sense to stay here.

Then once we have our building, we’re going to do a lot more workshops. Jam making and more cooking classes for kids and other things.

What does an inspiring Britain look like and what do you think is required to achieve this?

I personally think we need to stay within the EU! And I think young people need to leave the UK and travel more and become a bit more worldly. We need to support education, not just through University, but also learning through experience.

Obviously, less food waste, waste of anything really. It’s impossible to imagine that we would become less consumerist, but that would be good. And recycling, recycle everything. I recycle everything, if I think I can use it, much to the annoyance of my boyfriend. More often than not it does come in handy eventually.

If you could give the 21 year old version of you a piece of advice, what would it be?

I’d probably tell myself ‘you are beautiful’. You don’t need to diet, it’s totally fine. You are surrounded by very skinny, underweight girls who are not healthy. Just calm down, enjoy yourself. Also, I’d tell myself, you’re actually pretty cool.

Have you got any advice for someone who is that sort of age now, just starting out?

I know I’ve just said about the benefits of experiential learning, but, there’s something to be said, for doing some sort of course and knowing what you’re doing. Lots and lots of volunteering so that you can try lots of different avenues. And try not to get brainwashed by anyone else’s philosophy or theory. You can have carbs, it’s fine!

To do what we’re doing here,to run a community meal, you don’t need to be part of any organisation. Just build your own personal relationships with the food suppliers.


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From the shop - Nectar: Be Enriched inspired print

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