Across Greater Manchester, there are thousands of families living in emergency and temporary accommodation.
Whilst standards vary, the majority offer very little cooking equipment – and generally, ‘mod cons’ on offer come down to little more than a shared kettle and maybe a microwave.
Much of this housing is often located in ‘food deserts’ – areas with limited access to affordable, fresh ingredients. This, combined with families’ financial struggles, means some parents across the region are choosing to go hungry so that they can feed their kids.
Although there is a good amount of visibility for street homelessness services in Manchester today, the plight of families experiencing homelessness remains much more obscured.
Currently, only a few organisations recognise the issue – and Manchester charity Eat Well MCR is the one preparing fresh, nutritious meals for people in need (as opposed to dried packets of noodles, for example).
The charitable collective was set up by Creameries chef Mary-Ellen McTague alongside friends Kathleen O’Connor and Gemma Saunders in April of last year, a week before the first lockdown hit.
Initially, its focus was on providing food to hard-hit NHS staff. At that time, panic buying had emptied supermarket shelves and many were coming off gruelling shifts to find they couldn’t even get any food in for their tea.
Simultaneously, restaurants and bars were still open but had no customers – thanks to early government guidance that advised people to keep away but didn’t tell businesses to close.
This meant there were a host of Manchester chefs standing in empty restaurants with fully-stocked pantries, watching food deteriorate whilst others struggled to get any at all.
McTague had a brainwave. Facing her own empty restaurant kitchen, with a load of donations of fresh food that had no other place to go, she felt that “the obvious thing to do was to cook the food and take it to those who needed it.”
Partnering with a network of top Manchester restaurants like Hawksmoor and Elnecot, the trio quickly mobilised to take unwanted food that would otherwise have gone in the bin and redistribute it into healthy meals for local NHS staff.
In the weeks that followed, they went from delivering 50 meals on their first day to more than 1,800 a week – and soon realised there were a lot more people in Manchester who needed their help.
Eat Well expanded their operation to begin working with homeless and other vulnerable residents, reaching out to women’s refuges and hotels housing rough sleepers to offer their support.
They also set up an online marketplace, a win-win that has helped to fund more meals for those in need whilst also bringing in much-needed money for partner restaurants that were intermittently closed or operating as takeaway only during the lockdowns.
Here, people can purchase top quality restaurant produce like sourdough pizzas from Honest Crust, pre-mixed cocktails from local producers like Into The Gathering Dust, and fresh fruit and veg from projects like the Cinderwood market garden – a 1-acre organic market garden in Cheshire set up by a local farmer and chef to help make biologically intensive food more accessible.
To date, the charitable collective has delivered nearly 45,000 meals to people in need and is aiming to hit its next milestone of 100,000 with a little help from the people of Manchester.
Managing everything themselves, the charity sources food for their partner restaurants to cook up into nutritious, hearty portions then delivers it out to partner charities such as Emmeline’s Pantry, a Manchester food bank that works exclusively with women in need.
It’s made a huge difference to families who use the service, according to team member Karen Wilson.
“These meals mean so much to our families for different reasons – some are in temporary accommodation with just a microwave, so having a balanced tasty meal is a real treat,” she said.
“It’s a blessing to have a lovely meal made with care, it means more than just the food itself.”
She adds that the partnership has also meant that some families have had the chance to try new foods from restaurants in central Manchester – like KRUM doughnuts from Freight Island and Nell’s pizza.
“The feedback we have had from some of the people we support was that it brought back lovely family memories from childhood, enjoying a meal all together,” adds Karen.
“We also have the supper club part of our making memories scheme, where we get wonderful takeaway meals delivered to the children – they love the variety.
“It’s such a treat to our families! None of that would be possible without Eat Well MCR and we are incredibly thankful to them for everything they do for us.”
Speaking on the project, co-founder and chef Mary-Ellen McTague said: “Food poverty is a real issue in Greater Manchester and there is still so much more work to be done to help people in challenging circumstances who rely on the work we carry out.
“Food shouldn’t just be about survival; it should feed the soul and be an occasion to look forward to. We provide a delicious, restaurant-grade meal once a week to vulnerable people across Manchester because we believe it’s something everyone deserves and has a right to.
“We’re so thankful to everyone who has supported and donated to Eat Well MCR after what has been such an uncertain year for so many people. We are incredibly proud of what we have achieved over the last year and we couldn’t have done it without the help from the wonderful people who have continued to buy, donate, and shout about us.
“We’re so keen to keep this momentum for donations going and would love to celebrate the delivery of 100,000 meals.”