A campaign to fund thousands of hot meals a day for NHS staff has smashed its £1m target. Leon's values and sustainability director Kirsty Saddler tells Jennie Milsom how the initiative took hold and the operational challenges it faced along the way
With NHS staff working around the clock in critical care units up and down the country, access to nutritious, hot meals every day has never been more crucial. But with the usual cafés and food outlets closed, accessing them is more difficult than ever, which is where ‘naturally fast food' brand Leon decided to step in.
When Leon launched 16 years ago, the health-focused chain committed to a 15% discount for NHS workers. As soon as the coronavirus crisis hit, this was increased to 50% and the brand became inundated with NHS staff asking how to feed their teams and departments.
Leon's values and sustainability director Kirsty Saddler says: "A lot of our sites are within close proximity to London hospitals and lots of businesses across the country that staff had relied on for food were shutting. Those [staff] in critical care can't leave the hospital and some hospitals don't have a staff canteen at all."
The initiative was galvanised by Leon's connection with St Mungo's, with whom it had been working to support those experiencing homelessness, bringing with it the realisation that, like the vulnerable, key hospital workers needed to "find food confidently".
We went very hard with doing the right thing and that's what motivates me every day
In a separate endeavour, actors Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory and comedian Matt Lucas had been devoting a tremendous amount of personal time into understanding what NHS staff on the frontline needed most. Attracted to the brand's values, the trio presented their findings to Leon co-founder John Vincent and decided to combine forces to set up a fundraising appeal for a hot meal delivery programme for NHS staff.
"We had a brilliant introduction from Damian, Helen and Matt, with Imperial College and a call with the people who lead on the [hospital] trust charity side," says Saddler. "They worked out they would benefit from 6,000 meals a day across five of their hospitals."
Saddler says each NHS trust and hospital is "quite unique" in terms of how they operate and are managed, leading to separate discussions about how it would work best: "Two hundred meals an hour is our best capacity, which we are delivering across three to four slots per day. We prep and pack in eight separated, insulated bags per [hospital] floor to ensure the food stays hot from restaurant to hospital. No one should enter the hospital, so we go to a designated spot to meet someone from logistics and a team of volunteers pick the bags up and run them through every floor."
Hot meals from a pared-down menu of chicken burgers, lentil masala, Brazilian black bean and chilli con carne are prepared across five dedicated Leon kitchens in London. Those within a one-mile radius of the hospitals are delivered by foot, everything else goes via delivery partner Deliveroo.
Since the first meals arrived at St Mary's hospital in Paddington on 27 March, Leon has been finetuning the service – supplying napkins but not cutlery, for example, and ensuring allergen briefings are included within every layer of the bags. "The teams have certain needs and restrictions. We have to be very careful," says Saddler, stressing that offering individual portions is "crucial".
The programme launched in London and from this week will extend to Birmingham and Manchester. Saddler says she is looking forward to having conversations about replicating the model further and to integrate more operators: "It really is a community with other businesses and we are trying to match the demand." Other restaurant operators, including Wasabi, Dishoom, Franco Manca, Tossed and Tortilla, have also supported the scheme.
Since hitting the target on Saturday, just two weeks after launching, Saddler thanked the generosity of the public and businesses and vowed to keep going: "Every day we learn how to better support the hospitals, but also how big the need is, so we intend to keep fundraising so we can serve more meals."
She confirmed that with "a coalition of restaurant brands", the funds had already helped deliver 35,000 meals to NHS staff and they were now aiming for 45,000 in London, Birmingham, Manchester and potentially Scotland.
Last week Leon also launched another campaign, Feed Britain (see below). Saddler credits Just Giving as "extremely flexible and supportive", having launched the campaign originally as a crowdfunding appeal before transitioning into a unique fundraising appeal. "Your skillset is merely a support to your attitude, your motivation to do what needs doing and the realisation that it is absolutely crucial to lead with doing the right thing," she says. "We went very hard with doing the right thing and that's what motivates me every day."
To get involved, visit www.feednhs.com
Feed Britain is Leon's new online delivery service of fresh food, everyday essentials and restaurant-quality meals. It aims to boost the catering industry by connecting food manufacturers, suppliers, farmers and other brands to help the foodservice industry survive and to save jobs.
There are currently four boxes to choose from with more in the pipeline: Market Fruit & Vegetables (£28), designed to create soups and stews; a Vegan Family Box (£32) of plant-based, chef-quality ready meals such as Brazilian black bean and gobi curry; a Family Meal Box (£36), containing three slow-cooked meals, each serving four people; and a Daily Essentials Box (£22.50) of dairy products, freshly baked bread, juice and eggs. All profits during the crisis are being donated to the NHS through FeedNHS and the initiative plans to continue as a commercial enterprise in the long term.
You need to create an account to read this article. It's free and only requires a few basic details.
Already subscribed? Log In