How did one act of kindness at Christmas become a charity with hundreds of volunteers that changes lives of people in London? This Christmas The Food Chain celebrates its 30th anniversary; I visited Clifford McManus, their Community Events and Fundraising Coordinator, to find out more.
The Food Chain started at Christmas 1988, when Mike Pennell, Amanda Falkson and members of the Metropolitan Community Church in Central London delivered a meal to people with HIV. They soon realised the absolute necessity of continuing this service, and within six months Pennell, Falkson and a team of 30 volunteers were delivering regular meals. These days, The Food Chain delivers meals and groceries, offers cookery and nutrition classes, and communal eating opportunities to people living with HIV in London, supported by hundreds of volunteers.
These past 30 years have seen enormous strides in HIV awareness, prevention and treatment: HIV positive people receiving regular and effective treatment cannot spread HIV to others, preventative medication (PrEP) is in trial to be available on the NHS, and most importantly, people living with HIV have the same life expectancy as any other member of the population. However, there is still a long way to go, as the great stigma surrounding HIV stops people from getting tested, receiving treatment, and the shame can seriously affect mental health. Tragically, Clifford tells me that they lost two of their service users just this year, not because of HIV, but because of the stigma of HIV.
For Clifford, The Food Chain’s greatest success is the visible change in the wellbeing of their service users, who often undergo a transformation into good health during their time receiving this support. All of The Food Chain’s clients are referred by a health or social care worker, and receive individualised support from dietitians. This is essential as people living with HIV need to follow healthy, balanced diets to boost their immune systems and to prevent diseases they are more vulnerable to, such as heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.
Of course, The Food Chain’s impact isn’t limited to just physical health, and you can’t overstate the comfort that comes from receiving a warm welcome. Their small team works tirelessly to support their clients, and when I ask Clifford if there is anything that he wants the world to know about The Food Chain, he simply says ‘We’re a small charity with a big heart.’ I can only imagine how spending time with a community of people who are surviving the same difficulties that you live everyday must make the world a little less lonely, and the shame a little smaller.
‘We’re a small charity with a big heart.’
The Food Chain is a popular spot for corporate volunteer days, in fact we worked with them this year to
coordinate a volunteer day for Wellcome Community Action. These volunteer days will often facilitate office picnic fundraisers, making and selling lunches to raise funds for the Food Chain. As well as this The Food Chain also holds other fundraisers, such as chef masterclasses, bingo nights, and World AIDS Day celebrations. Whatever the occasion, there is often a brilliant event to get involved in – we went to their annual carol service this year, which was as funny as it was poignant, as reflective as it was celebratory.
It’s true that The Food Chain is changing and saving lives, yet it began with just a few people who just wanted to help others at Christmas. As they prepare to feed 50 people living with HIV this Christmas day in their King’s Cross kitchen, we can all ask ourselves: what can we do to tell the vulnerable people in our community that they deserve a place at the table?