It’s an incredible achievement – one million free meals created and distributed to those in need by Thomas Franks, the global catering company based in Hook Norton.
For two years they (and when I say they, I mean everyone in the company who has pledged their time and volunteered to drive, cook, distribute and organise this mammoth operation) have been quietly and continually getting on with their mission – to end food poverty.
“Frank won’t tell you this, but he is out there delivering the food at weekends and in the evenings alongside his staff”
The Feeding Communities project was set up by founder Frank Bothwell before lockdown, and once the pandemic was in full swing, the operation cranked up even faster.
“Well we had all these kitchens lying empty all over the country. It was the obvious thing to do,” Frank tells me at his offices on the Hook Norton Brewery estate.
Infuriatingly modest, quietly efficient, and frustratingly humble, Frank rose to the occasion immediately and hasn’t stopped since. There is no ego involved. He is reluctant to be photographed or interviewed, neither will he accept any praise, instead lavishing it all on his team and staff all over the country who took his vision and ran with it.
He certainly doesn’t want to receive any credit, but only to raise publicity for Feeding Communities and encourage us to get involved.
“I remember another girl eating the meals we delivered on the doorstep because her family had run out of food”
Raj Patel, Thomas Franks’ charity advisor says: “Frank won’t tell you this, but he is out there delivering the food at weekends and in the evenings alongside his staff.”
As for the million meals Thomas Franks has produced, Frank says: “A million is only a number. It doesn’t stop there we will keep going. And while it was quite hard to set up we have a fantastic team here to help. Everyone who helps with Feeding Communities does it because they feel they are making a difference. And it gets bigger and better each day.
The practicalities alone would fell most mere mortals, but Frank is curiously unfazed by the logistics: “We started by making food for the elderly who couldn’t get out in lockdown and it went from there. We just wanted to give back,” he says. “We had 165 empty kitchens at our disposal. It was just a case of doing something practical to help,” he says. “And we aren’t going to stop.”
“We have all the right ingredients to make this work: food, kitchens, staff, clients, funds and the meals we produce are not substandard just because they are for charity. That’s the deal and one I am very proud of.”
“we got sent an arctic lorry load of tomatoes, batch cooked it, made 16,000 pots of tomato sauce and distributed it hot, chilled or frozen”
He is however touched by the response from his business partners and clients, many of whom have provided the funding, kitchens, staff, vans, time, distribution, hours and nouse to get meals delivered to the needy on a daily basis all over the country
Frank has also been moved to tears by the gratitude he’s witnessed along the way – the 1000 Oxfordshire carers treated to the Thomas Franks Feet Up Friday initiative for example: “There was a 14 year-old girl who cares for her mum who said it was like being sent Waitrose quality food even though she’d never tried Waitrose food before. And she was so happy and emotional.
“I remember another girl eating the food we delivered on the doorstep because her family’s budget had run out and there was no food, so we feel like we are making an impact certainly, you can see it on people’s faces,” he says.
“using Surplus food means we can do more and obviously it’s good for the environment instead of the food going into landfill or being incinerated”
Thomas Franks also helped children and single mothers, the elderly, NHS workers, ambulance drivers, the homeless, the debt ridden struggling during Covid, women in refuges, and the 110 charities Thomas Franks work with – all are grateful beyond words.
“Well I couldn’t sit there and do nothing,” Frank says when asked how he feels about the milestone achievement of reaching a million free meals. “And we had the facilities just sitting there.
“But what has really amazed me is our staff. They all wanted to help and gave up their time to come in and help, from the chefs to the delivery men. Lots of the pupils at the schools we work with also volunteered their time as well, alongside employees from the big corporations we cater for.
“But they said there had been big benefits for them too. Many said it really helped with their own mental health by getting them out of the house during lockdown.
And with his eye now firmly set on using surplus food to produce the free meals, Frank is now killing two birds with one stone.
“pupils at the schools we work with volunteered their time , alongside employees from the big corporations we cater for”
“Surplus To Purpose aims to stop food waste and food poverty at the same time, which makes sense,’ Franks says.
“So when we got sent an arctic lorry load of tomatoes, we batch cooked it, made 16,000 pots of tomato sauce and then distributed it to those who needed it, in whatever form they wanted – hot, fresh or frozen.
“So whether it’s a lorry full of tinned tuna or fresh courgettes, it can all go to our kitchens and get transformed into meals that people can eat. When we get loads of flour we had a breadathon and all our chefs baked and made bread. We can cope with volume,” Frank explained. “Surplus means we can do more and obviously it’s good for the environment instead of the food going into landfill or being incinerated.”
Doesn’t he ever stop to process what he has achieved? “We work hard and stay humble and while there is still food poverty and food scarcity we will respond to both,” he smiles. “We will just keep going until we get there.”
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