At 10:30am on a Monday morning, Meryl Fernandes, the television presenter and co-owner of The Duke of Richmond pub in London's Hackney, would usually be filming her CBBC series, The Dengineers.
Instead, she is at the pub, where her partner Tom Oldroyd is chef-proprietor, packing brown paper bags with sandwiches, cartons of juice, raisins and fruit, destined to feed hundreds of children in the community who, thanks to The Duke of Richmond and many other businesses, will be receiving a free lunch this half term holiday.
“We have a three-year-old daughter in nursery, and she’s extremely lucky,” Fernandes tells me. “Others around us aren’t, so we felt we had to do something to help.”
In her London borough, which has a population of 281,100, around 11,000 children qualify for free school meals. None of them will receive one officially over this half term break.
The government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays and, after a campaign spearheaded by footballer and child poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, the summer holiday, too.
Last week, a Labour motion for the meals scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021 was defeated in the House of Commons. And, despite campaigners calling for free meals to continue over the holidays, none will be provided this half term.
In response, the hospitality industry has stepped in. Restaurants, cafes, pubs, farm shops and bakeries around the country are providing free school lunches for anyone in need, giving back to the communities that have supported them in the toughest year yet.
“I said to [my partner] Tom that I wanted to provide 300 packed lunches during the holiday,” says Fernandes. She had originally planned on funding it herself, but an outpouring of community generosity changed this.
“I posted on our social media channels to let people know we were doing this, and loads of people replied asking to donate money. After a couple of days we had raised £3,500, meaning we’ll now be able to give out 300 packed lunches a day.”
Her lunches include a sandwich, a packet of crisps, a yogurt, fruit and a drink. “I’ve reached out to all the schools, nurseries and charities in the area to organise pick-up times. I cried on Friday; it’s been quite overwhelming.”
Alison Clarke, owner of community cafe Toast in Herne Bay, Kent, has also been overwhelmed by the response to her offer of free lunches. “We had estimated that we’d give away 30 bags a day, but since announcing it last night, we’ve already had requests for 20. It’s shocking how many people are in need of help,” she says.
She was moved to do something when her team of employees, most of whom are in their early twenties, came to her and asked if it would be possible to help. “It was quite emotional. It really makes you think; it’s so simple to offer a bag of food. No child should go hungry, there’s no excuse for that.”
Debs and Jennifer Rinkoff have been running their family bakery, Rinkoffs, in Whitechapel, since 2007; the bakery itself dates back to 1911. “We’ve been part of the community for a very long time, and during the height of lockdown everyone really supported us,” says Debs. “We were very lucky growing up. We always had food on the table, and so we can’t imagine what it’s like without that privilege. This is one way we can give back.”
The pair have been packing bags filled with sandwiches, fruit and their freshly baked brownies throughout the morning. “We’re not putting a limit on how many we give away - we’re just going to keep going until we run out,” she says.
Beyond the gratitude felt by venues for the support shown by locals who are donating food and funds lies an anger that they should need to do this at all. “We don’t do any of this begrudgingly, but we’re not a charity, and the Government should not be relying on us to step up to this,” says Debs.
“Yesterday morning I rang up my local council and asked what to do if I have a hungry child. The person on the other end of the line gave me the number of a local charity advice line, and told me to go on social media and find my nearest cafe handing out meals,” says Mike Simmonite, co-owner of restaurant Gastrono-Me in Bury St Edmunds, which is handing out takeaway portions of macaroni cheese and croque monsieurs with salad to children in the local area. “Matt Hancock said local councils are best placed to deal with this. Clearly, they’re not.”
Many outlets are already beginning to think about how they can provide meals in the Christmas holidays, as communities come together to support their own. Their wish is for their efforts to be matched.
“I don’t expect governments to do everything, but I do expect them to feed hungry children,” says Clarke. “It’s staggering that we’re the ones expected to provide, particularly when many of us are on their knees. In the end, it’s not a child’s fault that they have no food. It’s never a child’s fault, and yet they are the ones suffering.”
The efforts of hospitality venues is particularly poignant in light of their own struggle to stay afloat over the past few months. “Our industry is really suffering right now; we have a third of the customers we would normally have,” says Fernandes, who has been cheered by the enthusiastic support offered by her local community. “It means a lot that so many people have come forward to help us.”