Melissa Thompson on the most-inspiring food campaigners of the year
As we approach the end of 2022, this is my tribute to the remarkable people who have rallied to support others.
Food is sustenance, but as a BBC Good Food reader, you know it can also be much more. It can be joy, comfort, celebration and love. And often, it can be used as a vehicle for bigger issues: to educate, raise awareness and raise funds.
At the end of a year that has seen Russia invade Ukraine, causing repercussions around the world – including rising food, petrol and gas prices, to the cost-of-living crisis that has seen families struggle to afford to heat their homes and buy food – it is the generosity of spirit of those who try to help by any means that truly inspires.
Perhaps it is because food is such a vital aspect of our lives, but those working in it have rallied to support people. Then, there are those who have used their platforms to shout about inequality and unfairness in events that may have otherwise fallen from our consciousness.
Here, we celebrate those in food who have worked tirelessly to help others.
Jaya Chandna is a child psychologist by day, but by night – and on weekends – she uses her brilliant cookery skills to raise funds for various causes.
More like this
Her mission started with the Indian farmer protests in 2021, against acts introduced by the Indian government that would remove financial safeguards for farmers to receive guaranteed prices for their stock, and which they feared would leave them vulnerable to large corporations. With more than 40 per cent of the working population in farming, and more than 70 per cent of global spices originating in India, she started selling mail-order DIY dhal kits in the UK – mixes of lentils and spices using her great-grandmother’s recipes.
She set out to raise £1,000. But, once word spread, orders flooded in and Jaya sold more than 450 kits, raising more than £6,000 to send to Khalsa Aid, an NGO supporting the farmers. Eventually, the government dropped the law. Since then, Jaya has used food to raise funds for other campaigns, especially those that receive less attention from mainstream news. She has hosted supper clubs to raise money for Yemeni humanitarian charity Mona Relief; the Afghan Institute of Learning, which empowers women in Afghanistan; and Refugees at Home, a UK organisation connecting households with spare rooms with refugees in need of accommodation.
Outside Cue Point’s stand at the Pub in the Park festival, where they serve up barbecue to thousands of hungry people across the country, the Union Jack and Afghan flags blow side-by-side in the wind.
It’s an important symbol, one that represents both founders Mursal Saiq and Joshua Moroney’s heritage, but also their desire to continue to build a connection between the two countries.
"Mursal remains an ardent campaigner, raising the profile of Afghanistan through her food and public talks"
Cue Point serves ‘inclusive barbecue’ – something for everyone, whether they’re vegan or follow a halal diet. Dishes such as brisket, which you’d expect from a barbecue joint, are sold alongside vegan hash buns.
Mursal and her family fled Afghanistan in the 1990s during the civil war and rise of the Taliban. The family felt leaving would be temporary while the Taliban were overthrown, but their exile proved permanent, first in India and then to the UK where they settled in London.
Mursal was devastated after the Taliban re-took Afghanistan following the withdrawal of allied troops in 2021. Not only did she work to facilitate the evacuation of family from the country, but she also brought much-needed attention to the plight of millions in Afghanistan once the news coverage had turned to other issues.
Now, Mursal remains an ardent campaigner, raising the profile of Afghanistan through her food and public talks. She also works with British hospitality businesses to teach racial awareness and equity, using her own experiences and those of her team to provide first-hand information about its importance.
Olia Hercules was key in introducing the beauty of her homeland Ukraine and its food to British people.
Through her cookbooks, including Summer Kitchens, she excited minds with recollections of growing up in Ukraine and memories of food there.
As Russia began threatening Ukraine, Olia’s concern was apparent. And, when Putin’s forces invaded in February, her response was immediate and raw; a visceral, personal reaction that immediately put a face onto a war happening 1,500 miles away.
"When Putin's forces invaded in February, her response was immediate and raw, a visceral, personal reaction"
Olia interspersed personal reflections and recollections of her beloved country with practical information on how people could help, such as where to direct funds, as well as providing historical context to the invasion.
With friend Alissa Timoshkina, a Russian cook and author, the pair also demonstrated the complexities of Russian-Ukraine relations and how entwined the two nations are. They set up Cook For Ukraine, an initiative that has, at the time of writing, raised almost £800,000 to support Ukrainians with vital equipment.
It is an incredible feat, considering how close Olia is to the war – her brother signed up to fight.
MiMi Aye & Rangoon sisters
The military coup in Burma in 2021 overthrew the country’s democratically elected leaders. Since then, thousands have been imprisoned, tortured and killed, including the execution of pro-democracy activists by the ruling military junta. The events initially made headlines, but as the news cycle dried up, it was only thanks to a few people that eyes were kept on Burma.
Food writer, author and MSG podcast host MiMi Aye has kept a light shining on what has happened in Burma, the country of her parents’ birth, under the banner #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar. The Mandalay author has shared the names of victims and highlighted other human rights abuses. In a powerful video with Amnesty International, MiMi used food as a metaphor for what the people of Myanmar are facing. In it, she cooked a dish describing the use of fire, firearms and violence by the military, interspersed with footage of the horrors.
The Rangoon sisters, Emily and Amy Chung, have also raised the profile of this cause through cooking and collaborations that raised money for Medical Action Myanmar, a charity that supported the country’s most vulnerable before the coup, and more since.
Both doctors by day, the authors of the Rangoon Sisters Cookbook have collaborated with Tandoor Chop House, Chick ‘n’ Sours and other restaurants to raise money.
In spring this year, an economic crisis in Sri Lanka prompted daily power cuts and a shortage of basic essentials, such as food, medicines and fuel. It meant public transport and emergency vehicles couldn’t run, while the government defaulted on debt repayments. The president fled the country, prompting a state of emergency to be declared as protests broke out.
In London, co-owner of Sri Lankan restaurant group Hoppers, Karan Gokani, watched as events unravelled in the nation that inspires his food, wondering what he could do to help. The result was Feeding the Future, an initiative between Hoppers and Sri Lankan charity Hemas Outreach Foundation. They highlighted the worst-hit areas, including Ampara, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, and created a plan to assist those most in need. Money raised through discretionary additions to diners’ bills in Hoppers restaurants and monthly charity specials as well as special events pay for ration packs supplying rice, gram flour and fish to families in need. To date, the initiative has helped thousands.
"To date, the initiative has helped thousands of children and their families"
Melissa Thompson is one of our regular columnists. In 2021, she was given the prestigious Food Writing Award by the Guild of Food Writers and this year was named Writer of the Year at the Professional Publisher’s Association Awards.