Stir it up

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Luke Mackay reflects on Wok for 1,000 and turning masses of surplus ingredients into hot meals for London’s hungry

Can you imagine sucking on a pebble to stimulate your saliva to try and fool your brain and stomach that you weren’t quite literally starving? Or tightening a belt to decrease the size of your stomach to achieve the same? The indomitable Lotti Henley can because these are her anecdotes; her real-life experiences.

Born in 1925 as Princess Windisch-Graetz, Lotti found herself in a Russian-run prison camp after the war, where she was fed water and potato peelings by men that didn’t care one jot whether she lived or died. To this day (and this small but harrowing detail made me sit up straighter) she will pack a sandwich in her bag, even if just visiting the post office, so ingrained is her fear of hunger.

This fear has driven her to ensure that fewer people endure the agony of real hunger. Her way of doing this was to found Plan Zheroes which in a nutshell is a charity that collects surplus ingredients from Borough Market and other establishments and distributes it to the homeless and the hungry. For the second consecutive year, Plan Zheroes has formed a wonderful partnership with chef Jeremy Pang and the good people at the School of Wok for an event called Wok for 1,000 which, I’m delighted and proud to say, I attended for the second time on Tuesday.

An ambitious menu
The aim of the event is to turn piles of unused produce from the Market into at least 1,000 meals for those desperately in need. Where last year we made literally thousands of spring rolls, soy and ginger chicken legs and chilli green beans, this year we attempted an even more ambitious menu with chicken Thai green curry, tofu Thai green curry, vegetable laksa and pork and shiitake wontons.

I chatted to Jen, Cathy and Kathryn from a local marketing business who like most attendees had come last year too and had such a great time that they had to come back. None were experienced cooks but the recipes that Jeremy had devised and the guidance of the pro chefs on each table made it great fun, rather than something that could easily have been intimidating and scary. They all said that they’d be back next year.

The logistics are staggering. We made 1,400 meals, including 4,000 incredibly fiddly wontons. There were people there who just washed up, volunteering their time. There were delivery drivers and packers and PR people and chefs, all giving of their time to feed the hungry and it really, as last year, brought a lump to my throat. Standing in the field kitchen after the event surrounded by boxes of food I spoke to Jeremy and his eyes shone bright with the passion that he clearly has for this project: “I just want to make people aware of the hunger problem in London,” he said. “You’ve seen what we’ve done in three hours here, just imagine what we could achieve if everybody did a little bit…”

Teamwork and spirit
It’s a good point. Claire Pritchard spoke on behalf of Borough Market—and clearly from the heart—when she said: “Reducing food waste and tackling food poverty is at the heart of Borough Market’s operation and over the last few years, through our partnership with Plan Zheroes, we’ve created thousands of meals to feed those who really need it.” She summed up the teamwork and spirit on display in the magnificent Market Hall: “What a fantastic opportunity for people to come together and cook under Borough Market’s roof and then share these dishes with the wider community.”

With that sense of community in mind, this year I followed the journey of the collected ‘waste’ food: from chopping and braising, grinding and frying, to packing and loading and finally delivering it to the recipients. I joined the incredibly hard-working Lauren of Plan Zheroes and together we carried 30 meals to Lucy Brown House on the periphery of the Market, the closest recipient that day of our labours.

We spoke to one of the residents, Viv, who was so enthusiastic and energetic she put me to shame, puffing as I was from the days exertions. She repeated how important it was for the residents to meet socially for a meal, to have hot food and companionship. It was a reminder that food is more than physical sustenance—in the act of sharing a meal, emotional sustenance abounds too, along with a sense of community and conviviality instead of loneliness and fear.

No slowing down
And so back to Lotti, whom I had the pleasure of meeting twice last year. She is 93 now, with no plans to slow down. People are still hungry on her watch and this is unacceptable: “There is still so much to do. I will be going straight on with my social activism until I am 100.”

If only there were more people like Lotti, Jeremy and Lauren, hunger in London and further afield could become a dim and distant memory. I look forward with anticipation to Wok for 1,000 three.