29 March 2022

Aina and Agnès: changing lives with food and friendship

Aina is a local legend throughout the borough of Hackney in London’s east end.  Agnès is a law student on a one-year exchange from university in Paris, living at Ashwell House. Their paths cross on Friday mornings, when Agnès goes to volunteer at Idia’s Community Kitchen where Aina prepares meals for anyone in need of nutritious food and human warmth.

Aina has been cooking for people on the streets for 18 years. Today she has a team of volunteers who join her at a community centre, where homeless people can get at least one hot meal during the day.

No one stands around on Friday mornings. It’s go, go, go. Aina is in the kitchen, Penny, the current chair of the charity, has eyes in every direction as the team sets up for serving lunch. Tables and chairs come out, boxes arrive. Everyone’s working, everyone’s smiling, getting ready for those who come; their guests.

It’s an impressive set-up. Inside, one room is stacked from floor to ceiling with donated non-perishable food, which is used to make up emergency food parcels. Outside, a long trestle table is piled up with fresh food. The project has contracts with local stores such as Tesco, Co-op and Fabrique bakery, and recently also Sainsbury’s. Soon a queue is starting to form. Those who can afford it are asked to give £3, and anyone can take as much food as they want. No one needs to go hungry.

Fighting food waste is part of the mission here. Promoting human dignity is surely another. The guest users who come to Idia’s Community Kitchen get so much more than food; someone to sit and chat to, help with housing applications, universal credit or job centre appointments.  It’s about building trust and giving people the human respect they are entitled to. 

Givers receive so much more than takers, and that has been Agnès’s experience.

“I like feeling useful”, says Agnès. “People are so grateful for what I do, and it’s only a few hours each week.

“When I told one of our guests, Mario, that I was going home for Christmas, the next time I came he gave me a gift. A new thermos bottle, wrapped in Christmas paper. Mario has nothing.”

“Coming here reminds me that my little problems are nothing compared to others.”

Agnès will go back to France enriched from her volunteering experience.   Aina, who named her project after her daughter Idia who died aged 11, will carry on cooking and smiling. And the lonely and marginalised people in this corner of London will continue to receive food, friendship and  charity in the truest sense of the word.

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