They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But for those struggling to eat three square meals a day – whether they’re living on the streets, are in some way disadvantaged or simply unable to make ends meet – we wanted to challenge that idea. So last week we offered people an open invitation to join us for lunch in Leeds city centre.
After the continued success of our popular Lunchtime Legends initiative (in which we all take turns to cook for each other in the office), we hit upon the idea of extending the concept outwards. If we can cater for ourselves, why not cater for others? And if we could raise awareness amongst our peers and give back to our local community at the same time, all the better.
Led by our free food champions Vanessa and Katie, we selected a suitable location (Penny Pocket Park, directly opposite Leeds Minster) and acquired the relevant permit. Any member of staff who had the time and energy to contribute was encouraged to get involved, and soon enough we had a core team of willing volunteers.
Settling on the name ‘Free Food in the Park’ (we decided the Ronseal approach was the best way to avoid confusion), Phil, one of our talented designers, put together a lovely little flyer outlining all the details. Next, we contacted a number of homeless charities around the city, including St George’s Crypt, Emmaus, Simon on the Streets and the Leeds Food Aid Network – all of whom did a fantastic job of helping us get the word out.
We’d selected a time, date and location – next we needed food. First, we reached out to the amazing Armley Junk-tion, one of The Real Junk Food Project’s “pay-as-you-feel” cafes, famous for repurposing unwanted food. They were generous enough to provide bags of fresh ingredients, giving our volunteers everything they needed to prepare sandwiches, pasta dishes and potato salads. We supplemented this with pies, pizza and homemade buns, then to top it off our local branch of Nando’s kindly offered to cook up some chicken wings.
For the day itself, we borrowed a table and a tarpaulin and set up our stall right in the middle of the park. We weren’t entirely sure how many people would show up, but we’d certainly prepared plenty of food. Luckily, the sun was shining as we ferried snacks, meals and drinks out of our office, down the street and across the road. As the clock struck midday we had our first curious visitor.
News of our presence quickly rippled across the area, and before we knew it we had a large crowd of extremely grateful – and hungry – people. We served up plate after plate for the next couple of hours, chatting away and getting to know the various characters. It was heartwarming to see so many genuinely thankful people – we fed around 50 people in total. We also attracted the attention of local TV channel Made In Leeds, who came down to cover the event.
As the afternoon wore on and the sun disappeared behind the clouds, our new friends quietly wandered off, back into the city. Some of them had accommodation to go to, others did not. With various charities around Leeds often providing evening meals, it seems a free lunch can be difficult to come by. We recognise this project was a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to the battle against such hardship. But hopefully we helped in some small way by raising a few smiles and filling a few bellies. Now we just need to figure out how and when we can do it again.