Our first meal was delivered on Christmas day 1988. Meals have been delivered every week since.
The Food Chain was established by friends of people living with HIV, inspired by American organisations. Set up in a time before effective medication was available, wasting was common, and good nutrition helped support the immune system and maintain a healthy body mass.
Today, The Food Chain offers a range of nutrition services tailored to provide appropriate support to anyone living with HIV in London. It’s a remarkable story and only possible with the dedication and support of many people who have been volunteers, donors, staff and trustees over the years.
On Christmas Day, members of the Metropolitan Community Church in Central London deliver a Christmas Day meal to people living with HIV in London, based on a similar model in New York. The office is a founder member’s (Mike Pennell) bedroom.
Realising there is an ongoing need for support, Mike Pennell and Amanda Falkson (who had been recruited as a driver and a cook respectively) were approached by the Rev’d Hong Tan and Gill Storey to see if they would take over the service. The church formally ceased to be involved and the name was changed to ‘The Food Chain’.
By May 1989 The Food Chain was up and running with a core of 30 volunteers, a fledgling management group and the use of a Sunday ktichen in a community centre in Kentish Town.
As a poignant reminder of HIV’s indifference to age, race, sexual orientation and gender of the people it infects, our first child service user is referred.
The Food Chain registers formally as a charity. To satisfy a growing service user population, two more kitchens are opened in New Cross and Highbury. Establishing a pattern that has now become the norm, each of the kitchens attracts its own new set of local volunteers.
The Food Chain is delivering food to people in 25 out of 32 boroughs although on 8 councils gave the charity any financial support.
The London Fields/Globe kitchen opens to support service users in East London
A second member of staff, Peter Strickland started working for the Food Chain.
Following a brief time sharing the Lighthouse’s catering facilities, Hammersmith kitchen is opened by one of our patrons, Jimmy Somerville, for service users in west London.
This was the last year of funding of this kind, and over the next few years this was to decline to less than 5% of total income, leading to a major fundraising challenge.
We begin delivering emergency food hampers for people returning home from hospital or experiencing difficulties with accessing benefits. Funding for the new service is provided by Fashion Acts.
Thanks to money raised by our wonderful celebrity chef marathon runners in 1998, we begin a pilot scheme to deliver weekly grocery boxes to our most isolated and chronically sick service users.
The Food Chain is a participant in the Millennium Volunteer Scheme, aiming to encourage more under 24s to volunteer, and as a result volunteers now range in age from 16 to 78.
Service user feedback led to a change in provision of meals, with a hot lunch and a cold supper now being delivered.
Fundraising continues to be a challenge: The Charity Commission reported that out of 25 sectors, HIV was the most difficult to raise money for.
Tooting kitchen opens in August, allowing The Food Chain to provide meals for service users in the far southern fringes of London. In early 2003 the 250,000th meal was delivered.
A quote from this year’s service user survey: “It is a wonderful feeling to have someone prepare a meal for my family and me. It makes us feel so special, in a world that is ready to condemn. I can take a break from cooking, and Sunday becomes a special day we look forward to.”
The Food Chain wins the GSK/Kings Fund award for voluntary organisations making a difference in the field of health.
The Mayor of Islington, Councillor Joan Coupland, becomes the first to adopt an HIV charity as her Mayor’s Charity for her year in office. During the year, enough money is raised to fund all the food costs for her home kitchen in Highbury for a whole year. Research from The Food Chain is presented at The World Aids Conference in Bangkok
We win a National Lottery Award for inspiration and launch the Ian Craddock cookbook, in fond memory of one of our lead cooks, giving recipe ideas analysed by expert volunteer nutritionists.
A grant from The BIG Lottery Fund reaching communities programme allows for the recruitment of professional management to help expand services.
Using the knowledge and experience we have gathered over 20 years of service, The Food Chain begins delivering Eating Positively, a series of cookery and nutrition classes tailored specifically for the needs of people living with HIV. We employ a full time Public Health Nutritionist to deliver the service.
The Food Chain celebrates 21 years of service and commissions independent research from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations into the nutritional needs of people living with HIV in the UK to inform our future strategy and better understand the changing needs of our users.
‘Understanding Need’ is published and in response The Food Chain develops its ambitious four-year strategy to provide more meals throughout the week, more tailored support and communal eating opportunities for our most isolated service users.
Given the difficult economic climate, the organisation begins to look at ways to reduce costs, meal delivery is centralised from four kitchens allowing us to support the same number of service users at a reduced cost.
Elton John AIDS Foundation supports our strategy and a step-change in services, with a grant of £1 million to be used over the course of three years
The grant from Elton John AIDS Foundation allows us to employ a HIV Specialist Community Dietitian. For the first time, we begin giving individual advice to service users and more carefully tailor food deliveries to their medical needs.
In autumn 2011 we pilot a communal eating programme, Eating Together, in conjunction with Age UK Camden targeting older isolated people living with HIV.
The Food Chain relocate to a new office in Acorn House near King’s Cross and fits out a new facility, giving the organisation access to a kitchen 7 days a week for the first time in our history.
Eating Postively and Eating Together become weekly services run from Acorn House kitchen. The space is also available to hire to help fund our services in a sustainable way.
The Food Chain make significant changes to the grocery service and the meal service in order to adapt to the current needs of people living with HIV in London.
Food Chain services are delivered outside of London for the first time, including in Manchester, where we worked with the George House Trust to deliver Eating Positively classes to people living with HIV in the Greater Manchester area. Pilot demo classes were also delivered to other HIV support groups in Bristol and Southampton.
Like many charities, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt keenly at The Food Chain. We saw a five-fold increase in people referred to us as crisis hit those who had been just about getting by. Our volunteers jumped in to action when we weren’t able to get online supermarket delivery slots, shopping for isolating Service Users and delivering groceries to their doors. In the 2020 calendar year, 500 grocery deliveries were made by our volunteers.
In response to the increase in need amongst our community, we began sending non-food items to those who needed it. This included toiletries, baby & toddler packs, essential homeware items, kids toys and books and puzzles.
We were also sadly forced to close our kitchen and suspend our face to face services, Eating Together and Eating Positively.
The Word Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidance (2016) states that mothers who are fully supported with antiretroviral therapy should breastfeed for at least 12 months and may continue breastfeeding for 24 months or beyond. However, current recommendations differ in the UK. The British HIV Association (BHIVA) recommends that the safest way for an HIV+ mother to feed her baby is with formula milk, as there is zero risk of HIV transmission (2018).
As formula milk for HIV+ parents is not available on the NHS, the result is formula milk insecurity for those parents who choose to formula feed. The Food Chain has always supplied ad hoc formula milk free of charge to our Service Users, and in May 2021 we formalised this service, committing to providing enough formula milk to feed a newborn until they are 12 months old.
By 2022, we were overjoyed to be able to resume our Eating Together meals, and start to plan ahead for an Eating Positively course later in the year.
On Tuesday 5th July 2022 we opened our first ever public-facing café. The café was open for breakfasts, teas, coffees and home-made cakes serving the local community and of course anyone who wanted to make a special trip to see us! We also hosted catering for charity meetings and events, starting to establish ourselves as a community hub for the sector.
2023 began with some changes at The Food Chain as we faced some unprecedented challenges.
After less than a year of trading, our community cafe closed for business on Friday February 24th 2023. The price rises in food and energy, coupled with the continuing impact of the pandemic, meant that we sadly concluded that we were unable to remain in operation. It was a difficult decision, but one that enabled us to conserve our core services along with our specialist HIV dietetic focus.
Our friends in the HIV sector were as supportive as ever through this period – the Terrence Higgins Trust are hosting our office team in their Caledonian Road offices, and Positive East in Stepney is the new home of Eating Together. Long may both of these partnerships thrive.