All over the city, there are good people doing good works and some of them can be found on Tuesday mornings in a church hall in Stoke Newington. Bags of Taste is a cooking lesson social enterprise that seeks not only to assist people with little spare cash to make their own delicious meals, but also to change their shopping, eating and dietary behaviour for the long term – and do so at a cost of just £1 per meal.
Bags of Taste was founded by Alicia Weston (pictured above, right), a qualified pharmacologist who worked in the financial sector for 18 years before joining the New Economics Foundation think tank. She’d done a lot of charitable work during her time in the Square Mile, and in 2010 started a supper club to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières. It was the finances of the supper club – producing the tastiest meals possible while still passing on as much money as possible to MSF – that gave rise to Bags of Taste, which began four years ago and now has branches in eight boroughs and the City.
This is not a conspicuous thrift lifestyle service for the middle-class. Bags of Taste students are predominantly recruited through referrals and outreach to ensure that the right sorts of Londoners are helped – people who might have learning difficulties, or disabilities, or addiction or mental health troubles, perhaps leading isolated lives and in need of a self-confidence boost in order to break out and be happier.
I sat in on one of the Stoke Newington classes. It was a lovely thing to see. Alicia did the demo with a colleague called Linda (above, left). They were a double act as funny and engaging as any cooks you see on telly, full of economy tips (peel your ginger with a spoon, freeze what you don’t need and grate what you need from the frozen piece next time) and making the occasional light foray into a form of visual humour for which certain vegetables might have been invented.
The dishes were stupendous: magnificent vegetable noodles and a breath-taking beefy thing with vermicelli. Suitably for a London-born school (though there are branches elsewhere too), Bags of Taste recipes are profoundly international and everything you need for them is available in the average London high street. It’s a wonderful project and it’s easy to see what Alicia means when she says that it isn’t about telling people of limited means what to eat or even how to cook, as most already have the basic skills required. “It’s about motivation,” she says. “Breaking through barriers and finding the confidence to go out and buy the things you need and then going home and doing it for yourself and your family.”
Bags of Taste classes are embedded in local community networks, enabling them to respond well to local needs and work in partnerships with a variety of organisations, such as St Mungo’s, Crisis, East London Age UK, the Salvation Army and Hackney Foodbank. The organisation has a number of funders and is always looking for a range of volunteers. It is a measure of its success that many of the course participants go on to help those who follow them. Find out about their courses here. Make a donation here.