Huddersfield chef on a mission to feed the community

by K Featherstone

Ben Franco is no stranger to cooking en masse, serving delicious delights and delicacies from The Barn in Almondbury since 2016.  

When lockdown came along in March 2020, normal service was indefinitely halted and he found himself providing food in a whole different way.

“I shut down on the weekend and had loads of food left over,” says Ben, “so I decided to cook a big stew and give it away to the locals”.

He advertised his grub on Facebook to be given to anybody who was hungry, worried, or vulnerable.  It was such a great success and received so much positive feedback that he decided to do it again the next week.  “It was more about the elderly at that stage, people were messaging me asking if I could help out someone they knew”, and help out he did.  

Things were set to grow further when a friend asked if they could meet to discuss providing meals for staff at the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary in the early throes of the pandemic.  A plea from critical care nurse Dawn Bilborough had gone viral, highlighting the difficulties hospital workers were having getting to the shops in time to purchase fresh food before the shelves were stripped bare.  Ben wanted to be involved with helping.

Ben met with his friend and others, the Food4Heroes initiative was born, and the very next day delivered 300 meals to grateful hospital staff.  It wasn’t a one-off – they delivered hundreds of meals day after day.  The project quickly built momentum and gained publicity, leading to Food4Heroes becoming a nationwide effort. 

In the first phase of the initiative, Food4Heroes delivered 230000 meals to 43 hospitals, using the £407000 of funds raised.

Satisfied that Food4Heroes was running smoothly and in safe hands, Ben returned to Almondbury to continue supporting the community.  Using his own funds and donations from customers initially, he started running ‘Franco’s Friday’ – 100 meals each Friday taken to his friend’s newsagent in the village where people could arrange to collect from.  

Franco’s Friday was soon approached by Kirklees, offering to sponsor the project and helping it to run for a significant time, until lockdown was lifted and it was time for Ben to reopen the restaurant.

Normality wasn’t to stay around for long.  With the government’s announcement that they would not be funding free school meals throughout October half term, action was needed once again.    

{In England, over 1.4 million children are eligible for means-tested free school meals.  That number is from January 2020 and is sure to have grown with redundancies and reduced pay over the last year.  17% of school-age children in Yorkshire have free school meals.  For many children it is the only hot meal they will have that day.}

source: ifs.gov.uk

Publicity surrounding the issue was boosted with the campaigning of Marcus Rashford, Manchester United player.  People in the village asked Ben if he would help with doing meals for children, at the same time as social media was flooded with offers of meals from cafes, restaurants, burger vans, and people cooking in their own homes.

“So it started up again,” he says, “every day in half term I did 100 meals for children and their families.  After the first day, donations from locals covered all of the costs involved”.

Sadly they found that some of the meals weren’t being taken from the newsagents in half term, and all involved were eager to ensure that nothing went to waste.  It was at this time that Ben met Jane from St Michael and St Helen’s Church on Fleminghouse Lane, Almondbury.  After discussion, they decided to split the meals between the shop and the church.  Ben was shocked to hear about the situations that people were dealing with on his doorstep.

“I spoke to a lady who hadn’t eaten for 2 days so her kids could eat, and families who couldn’t afford electricity.  It’s truly horrific to think that people are struggling like that in this day and age.”  Ben was even more determined to do what he could to help

{The most recent statistics (2018) show that there are 2.4 million households in England living in fuel poverty. Fuel poverty is the inability to afford adequate warmth in the home, defined as needing to pay more than 10% of income on energy costs.  In the Yorkshire area, 10.6% of households are in fuel poverty.

source: lginform.local.gov.uk

He decided to put on a 2 course Christmas meal for 200 people, using donations from locals and customers, to whom he is eternally grateful for their continued support.  Every child received a present and a goodie bag along with their Christmas dinner.  Each family received drinks, Christmas crackers, party poppers and other items to make sure they had a fantastic day.

Almost a year later, there is no end in sight for Franco’s Friday where they are now providing 150 meals a week with more people in need arriving all the time.  Since March 2020 Ben has provided at least 5000 meals and has only had one weekend off!  His selfless efforts to help the community have not gone unnoticed, with Ben receiving many nominations to receive a hamper from Morrisons Waterloo Community Champion Debbie Creaser in December.

With Ben’s skills and Jane’s connections in the community, they are hoping to set up a food bank in the community that will provide food for a week rather than a day.

{The Trussell Trust alone has 1200 food banks and handed out 1.4 million food parcels in the 2019-2020 financial year.  In the first month of the pandemic, they saw an increase of 89% demand for support.  There are over 800 independent food banks and they saw a rise of 175%.}

Source: commonslibrary.parliament.uk

If you’d like to donate or get involved, please contact Ben at The Barn.

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