What started as 100 portions of curry made in his own kitchen has evolved into an army of furloughed workers feeding 2,000 healthy meals to frontline NHS staff every week. Nick Hughes reports.
Like many of us, the word furlough wasn’t in Floris Ten Nijenhuis’ vocabulary at the beginning of March. Two months later, the former Oxbridge student and investment banker has rallied together hundreds of people on temporary leave of absence under the government’s job retention scheme to deliver healthy, home-cooked meals to frontline NHS staff.
Ten Nijenhuis, who comes from an Italian Dutch background and has lived in the UK for around 14 years, was travelling in South America when UK nationals living abroad were told to return home due to the coronavirus pandemic. He was set to begin a new job with a tech start-up on his return but instead found himself homebound in London with “nothing to do”. Keen to volunteer, Ten Nijenhuis signed up with several community groups but when no jobs came his way he “decided to start my own thing”.
That thing was meals on wheels. “I spoke to a friend from Oxford [University] who is an A&E doctor at North Middlesex hospital,” he recalls. “He told me it was really hard to get healthy meals because the wards are separated from the canteens, the vending machines are closed and they are all working ridiculous shifts.”
Leaning on his previous experience as a private chef, Ten Nijenhuis prepared 100 portions of Thai green curry in his own kitchen and took them to the hospital to give to medical staff. The following day he did the same with a pasta salad. “I realised this was great but there was a lot more that could be done if I spent a bit of time trying to organise a load of volunteers,” he says.
Ten Nijenhuis put a post on Instagram asking for help and donations. In response, he raised £2,500 and attracted around 20 or 30 volunteers one of whom was an old housemate, Chloe Hall, who had been furloughed from her marketing job. “I had never heard the word ‘furloughed’ before so I had to look it up,” says Ten Nijenhuis. “I went on the BBC website and saw that thousands of people had been furloughed so I set up the [www.furloughedfoodieslondon.co.uk] domain that morning.”
With the help of Hall’s marketing acumen, the group now has around 150 volunteers preparing over 2,000 meals each week in their own kitchens. A further 40 or so volunteers deliver the food to A&E and ICU staff across 15 London hospitals as well as two local food banks, which Ten Nijenhuis says are a growing focus for the organisation. Money donated is used to cover the cost of the meals, capped at £1.50, and the cost of petrol for delivery.
What distinguishes Furloughed Foodies from other groups serving meals to the NHS is its insistence on healthy food. While hospitals have been inundated with pizzas and doughnuts, staff were telling Ten Nijenhuis they wanted homely, nourishing meals at the end of a long shift. Dishes to date include Moroccan tagines and super-food salads made from fresh ingredients.
Footprint recently reported that food donated to hospitals risks going to waste because catering managers can’t guarantee its safety. The Furloughed Foodies website requires volunteers to click through to a food safety page before they are accepted and while Ten Nijenhuis admits he can’t police every volunteer, weekly reminders are sent to members hammering home the importance of good hygiene practices. To ensure there is no surplus food produced, volunteers call the wards in advance to see what they require and reroute meals to other hospitals if necessary.
Ten Nijenhuis says the response from recipients has been amazing. “When people started to see it wasn’t just a one off [delivery] we started getting more thank you videos and messages from them which has been incredible. Everyone in the [Furloughed Foodies] group gets a bit teary when they see them.”
Ten Nijenhuis is not looking too far into the future. A further 200 willing volunteers cannot currently be taken on due to a lack of funds. As a result, and in order to meet growing demand from frontline staff, the organisation has set a target of raising a total of £25,000.
The future of its army of furloughed workers is uncertain too with the government’s job retention scheme currently guaranteed only until the end of June. Ten Nijenhuis, however, is committed to sustaining the operation for as long as he can. “I personally feel indebted to doctors given what they have done for my family over the years and I want to continue this.”
The debt of gratitude, one suspects, has already been repaid many times over.