Good News Story: Growing and cooking to feed the NHS in Bristol

We are continuing our series of positive stories from women in the food industry in these challenging times. Sonya Devi-Clarke is Director & Founder The Vegetable Diva a packaging free, vegetarian catering company in Bristol and a 4 acre biodynamic vegetable plot just outside the city. We discovered how she helped to co-found The Bristol Food Union, a collective of restaurants, food businesses and community organisations to help ensure the city of Bristol stays fed during the Covid-19 crisis.

Sonya Devi-Clarke

How did the lockdown announcement affect you and your business?

The major difference was the reduction in catering bookings from corporate events/meetings which is predominately what we specialise in. As it has become apparent that there will be a significant reduction in large gathering of any kind possibly until the new year, I have kicked into survival mode I am a very passionate chef and feel a great sense of loss when I can no longer share my passion with the public so have had to find different avenues which will enable me to do this without resorting to using Deliveroo or other delivery services to disseminate my food to the public, it is a facility I deplore and it has contributed to the demise of the restaurant trade long before coronavirus and I certainly do not wish to patronise it in desperation.

What motivated you to take positive action?

Seeing people in need of help getting essential food left me feeling like I had no choice BUT to help. I have an industrial kitchen in the centre of the city and a biodiverse farm where we grow all our own produce. There was no other option but to help where I can with the resources I have available. I was asked to co-found the Bristol Food Union and have been using my facilities to cook food for NHS since lockdown, as my late father was a surgeon there was a strong motivation to do this in addition to the fact that I felt a strong desire as a fit healthy person to do what I could to make the lives of NHS workers a little more bearable. In addition to this we have a click and collect grocery box service which enables us to give business to our suppliers and offer the public an alternative to the supermarket if they are self isolating or do not wish to be in these environments.

What support have you got from other chefs and suppliers?

There has been great support from the Bristol food scene, especially when it comes to supporting vulnerable people. Total Produce have made generous produce donations and Arthur David have helped by supplying produce at cost price to enable me to make the NHS mealsl. Also several volunteers have helped produce and deliver the meals day in day out.

What are your hopes for your future?

Vegetable Diva Vegetable Plot
It’s hard to answer at the moment, considering the circumstances, however I hope that people stay healthy and things return to a new normal where food is sourced ethically and sustainably. Long term I will be transferring my catering kitchen to my home in North Somerset which is where my 4 acre bio-dynamic plot, small holding and orchard are based. This will create a closer relationship between the produce on the farm and my cooking, enabling me to spend more time on the plot, planning which produce we will grow and developing the diva fields into a registered charity so we can share this wonderful resource with the public and hold educational workshops based around the orchard and bio-dynamic farming practises.

Matthew Welsh Sheep

We are particularly interested in working with school groups and refugee women or women who have suffered domestic violence and abuse. We plan to expand the offerings at the diva fields and add chickens and ducks to our small holding shortly and perhaps even learn how to milk Matthew’s Welsh Mountain sheep! We will be holding outdoor supper clubs in the field and I am now drafting a manuscript for my first book. Lots of projects in the pipeline we will not be defeated but will use this as opportunity to actively contribute to a food movement which will hopefully transform our relationship with food and where it comes from.

Sonya Devi-Clarke

Do you have a message to share with other women in the food industry?

Women play a very important role in the food industry and farming and it is time we started to shout about it, male chefs have dominated the scene for too long and there are some amazing female chefs with really innovative ideas and have a much gentler approach to dishes, I just wish there would be more collaboration between us. Men do this really well I hope that we will have the confidence to do the same in the future.

Look out for more good news stories as we cover how women are doing good with food during the lockdown and beyond. Be the first to hear by signing up to our newsletter.

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