Jazz Shaper: Sarah Bentley

Posted on 12 September 2020

Sarah Bentley is the Founder of Made in Hackney - a charity and community cookery school that's making healthy, nourishing, local food available to society's most vulnerable. 

Elliot Moss

That was Earth, Wind and Fire with In the Stone.  Good morning, welcome to Jazz Shapers, it’s me Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM.  It’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today I am extremely pleased to say is Sarah Bentley, Founder and Project Director of Made In Hackney, a charity and eco community cookery school.  After ten years working as a print and radio journalist specialising in reggae dancehall music, Sarah became jaded with the industry when a series of her articles were pulled from broadsheet papers; I think they call it be spiked.  The motivation behind her journalism, she says, was to make a positive difference, to tell stories that dispel prejudice and change perceptions by shining a light on phenomenal overlooked, underfunded people and projects.  Beyond journalism, Sarah wanted to do something tangible herself that brought about change.  After a life-focussing conversation with Indian activist, Vandana Shiva, about the horrific impact of big agriculture on farming communities in India, Sarah was inspired to dive into community food growing and permaculture and collaborate on a funding bid to start a community kitchen.  The successful bid was the origins of Made In Hackney, an all vegan community cookery school and charity launched in 2012 that has inspired over 15,000 people across London to grow, cook and eat more plants and offer free classes for groups that suffer disproportionately from health inequalities.  As Sarah says, “by working on re-localising food systems, you are having a positive impact on a huge range of issues; food poverty, inequality, climate change, reducing corporate control of our food, health and wellbeing.  It’s a hugely inspiring and rewarding area to work in.”  It’s great to have you here, I like that name, by the way. 

Sarah Bentley

Made In Hackney?

Elliot Moss

Yeah.  How did you come up with the name, it’s actually quite simple. 

Sarah Bentley

Great.  It’s a very familiar sounding name, we’ve obviously got Made in Chelsea on the telly – no connection whatsoever – but what we found with… when we called it Made In Hackney people would go ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of you’ and we’d been open like a week and you are like, no you definitely haven’t so we knew it was a good name then by people presuming and thinking they’d heard of us when they couldn’t possibly have done. 

Elliot Moss

We meet all sorts of people, and people on the spectrum of billion pound companies all the way through to some of the things that happen at the other end which is that you’re in the community, you’re for the community, you want to make a change.  Tell me, this notion of change, Sarah, obviously you’ve changed careers and you’ve morphed and you’ve done this and you’ve done that, when you were little, what did you think you would be when you grew up?

Sarah Bentley

I thought I would be a fashion journalist.  At first I thought I would be an actress, then I thought I would be a fashion journalist.

Elliot Moss

This is like age five or something?

Sarah Bentley

Actress from age five and fashion from about age fifteen.

Elliot Moss

And then you did become a journalist. 

Sarah Bentley

I did become a journalist.  I went to the London College of Fashion and realised that fashion really wasn’t for me, I also had a work experience stint on a fashion magazine that shan’t be named which definitely hammered the nail in the coffin for any desire to work in the fashion industry. 

Elliot Moss

So, it was that but what else was it about the fashion industry that wasn’t right for you?  In terms of a career because you can love fashion, I know a lot of people who love it but wouldn’t want to work in it. 

Sarah Bentley

Absolutely.  Well, my experience when I was eighteen, coming from Lincolnshire, starry eyed, up from a rural market town to work in the fashion industry, people spoke to me with no respect, they spoke to each other with no respect, it was really un-diverse, I was in London and yet everyone I met was white which seemed really odd to me given that I had arrived in London to meet new people from all around the world and in fashion that didn’t seem to be the case when I was eighteen and just some incidents where, you know, I was in a photo shoot where the photographer threw their wallet at an assistant’s head and I just thought, you know what, this industry is not for me. 

Elliot Moss

So, fashion though and that thing, you move slightly to the side, there’s the journalism piece, I want to come back to that but just before – and I always forget to do this, I have decided I am terrible at this job sometimes – tell me a bit about, in your own words, what Made In Hackney is and then I want to walk backwards again.  Just for those people that haven’t heard of it. 

Sarah Bentley

So, Made In Hackney is a community cookery school, it’s a safe, joyful, inclusive space where people can come together and learn how to cook more plant based foods and we do that because it’s really good for people’s health and also it’s really good for the planet.  We make it as multicultural and international as possible and we make it very non-preachy, there’s nothing worse than being told “You should eat this.  You shouldn’t eat that.  You should feel bad about eating this.”  Food is complicated, it’s connected to people’s family history or heritage or emotions.  No one should be telling you it’s bad or good so we just have a safe, joyful space for people to share their food skills, share their recipes and learn how to make more plant based food and in the process, we hopefully normalise eating meals that have no animal products in them and people find them tasty, delicious, they start to feel better and they are like hang on a minute we might be onto something here. 

Elliot Moss

There’s something in this.  I feel good when I eat plant based food. 

Sarah Bentley

I feel well.

Elliot Moss

I feel well.  Are you… I know you became a vegetarian around nine, if I am not mistaken.  Are you now a vegan?

Sarah Bentley

So, I went vegan when I was eighteen.  I was the only vegetarian in my family so I wasn’t following my family’s lead in any way, shape or form and then I became vegan when I was eighteen.  I went to Jamaica as a music journalist and I was introduced to Ital food which is the food Rastafarians eat which is a Caribbean style of vegan food, no salt, and there’s some other, you know there’s some other approaches to it and I felt incredible, I had been eating quite unhealthy vegetarian food sort of throughout my teenage years and then suddenly I was eating these incredible bowls of Ital food and by the time I came back from the trip, I felt like a new person and I start diving into veganism when I was like, “Oh, I need to be doing this, vegetarianism isn’t enough” so that was part of my journey. 

Elliot Moss

And that’s why back in 2012, Made In Hackney was born.  What’s interesting I think is that obviously there was a passion when you were young for fashion; a passion for fashion, a passion for music, a passion for writing, you’ve also got a passion for feeling good which is natural.  None of those things are money orientated, those things are of the senses, those things are about wellbeing.  Are you someone who has always listened to your heart rather than your head?

Sarah Bentley

I think to be fair, I have done both so while I was a journalist, and I was a journalist for ten years, I was always following stories that I felt dispelled prejudice or shone a light on something that was incredible but was really underfunded or under-resourced but I was still doing jobs for money on the side, I was still doing research work for brands and bits of PR and things that I do for money and not really talked to people about to sustain my passion work which never paid very well, so it’s a juggle really, you need to pay the bills, London is an expensive city, but where my heart was and what I wanted to do, there is never a big cheque at the end of that so it was a combination, a balance. 

Elliot Moss

But the fact that you’ve wanted to address prejudice and the fact that you’ve wanted to look to those, you know, the stories that don’t make the headlines, that aren’t part of… I think Noam Chomsky used to called it ‘manufactured consent’ I believe. 

Sarah Bentley

He did, yes.    

Elliot Moss

He did.  Why?  Why has that bothered you?  Was it something in your upbringing about fairness, you know because we all have our hot buns that just change our, the way we think.  What was it for you?

Sarah Bentley

Do you know I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and one significant moment in my childhood was I sat myself down in my living room, on my own, and watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X film.  I was eleven or twelve.  And it really blew my mind like the world that had been presented to me in my small rural market town, was not really the world in its fullest picture and the stories I was being told about how things are, how people are, and how society is structured, is not right but when you are eleven or twelve, all you really know is that’s not right so that definitely started me on a journey of looking for, listening, reading more and also going further back from that, I became vegetarian when I was nine, I remember finding out how animals were transported from the farm to the slaughter house, reading it in one of my mum’s magazines and I can remember feeling like “I have been grossly let down by adults and adults are not to be trusted.” I can remember that distinct feeling, adults allow this to happen, it’s wrong, therefore I need to dig deeper and read deeper, I can’t just accept what I am told so I think those two, reading that story in a magazine about how animals are transported to the slaughter house and later on watching the Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X, were really significant and I really held onto those experiences and I didn’t quite know how to interpret them but they certainly set me on a path of exploring and learning. 

Elliot Moss

And setting up that business back when you did and the funding I think happened the year before and all that stuff, was that… I mean it sounds like you are very practical, if other strong women that we can think about that have been from Grantham in Lincolnshire who may have different politics to you but there’s something about the… listening to you that is very practical and very down to earth about listen I’ve got to earn some money.  When you set Made In Hackney up, were you aware that it had to be cash positive?  Were you aware that you had to ensure that you could pay the bills as well do something fantastic?

Sarah Bentley

Yes, I was and that is an endless struggle for grassroots community organisations.  We are now eight years deep, we started it eight years ago, we are actually a medium sized charity now and I never realised to do positive, impactful community work, as the Founder, you would end up spending ages thinking about money, how to make it, how to bring it in with grants, how to make sure you pay people fairly, how to make sure people were being paid more than maybe the industry standard because the industry standard was too low, just questioning everything, making sure your charity was well resourced, there’s something called poverty syndrome where sometimes charities can feel like they shouldn’t be offering high quality offers because it costs too much but then you have to really think about what kind of message that conveys to the people you are offering the service to so it became very clear that Made In Hackney would need to be not just solvent but successful and along with all of our community work we would have to develop income streams, do supper clubs, do master classes, have a big fundraising, you know, volunteer database and we’ve been building those up ever since but that, it was a bit of a shock to be honest. 

Elliot Moss

It’s a kind of an irony isn’t it, the charity world has to be underpinned by a really shrewd brain.  Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, that’s Sarah Bentley, she’s coming back in a couple of minutes to tell us a lot more about what goes on at Made In Hackney and what drives her.  Right now, we are going to hear a taster for the Mishcon Academy digital sessions which can be found on all of the major podcast platforms and aptly, Mishcon de Reya’s Alexander Rhodes explores how businesses are responding to Covid-19 and the importance that social value will play in success in the post-crisis world.

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers, and indeed hear this programme again with Sarah by popping Jazz Shapers into your preferred podcast platform or you can find many of the recent programmes on your smart speaker, simply ask it politely to play Jazz Shapers and you will be rewarded.  But back to today’s guest, it’s Sarah Bentley, Founder and Project Director of Made In Hackney, a charity and eco community cookery school.  Do you like cooking?

Sarah Bentley

I love cooking.

Elliot Moss

Do you?

Sarah Bentley

But secret’s out, I am not a great cook, I am a professional eater.  So, at Made In Hackney…

Elliot Moss

But only of healthy stuff. 

Sarah Bentley

No, no.  I love doughnuts, I love vegan junk food but you can’t eat it all the time.  You need to be having a really good baseline of healthy food so that you stay well, you stay vibrant, helps you look after your mental health but I love a doughnut as much as the next person. 

Elliot Moss

You were talking about the Malcolm X film and I had a very similar experience about racism with Cry Freedom funnily enough and it’s what inspired me to want to study the law but I’ve ended up working in the law as well here.  You also have alluded to a conversation you have with Vandana Shiva.  You know when you read something and you go “so this person had a really interesting conversation and then their whole world was rocked.”  

Sarah Bentley

Yes.

Elliot Moss

How did that come about and what does it feel like when you have actually looked into someone’s eyes, listened to them and fundamentally gone “okay, I’m going to do something different” because that doesn’t happen to many people?

Sarah Bentley

No.  I was working at a magazine called Arise which was a magazine about contemporary African culture and diaspora African culture and I was writing a piece on the green revolution which sounds like a brilliant piece about environmentally sustainable farming methods and it’s actually the opposite because the green revolution refers to big agriculture and I was writing with an African focus but I wanted to speak Vandana Shiva about the experience in India and how the green revolution there had impacted farming communities.  Now, I didn’t know anything about this, my journalism was an exploration into issues I was interested in and I let the experts do the talking, I just weaved it together and the conversation I had with her just, I could feel my heart beating fast, I could feel my hands going sweaty, just the way she spoke about the impact, the global, corporate agriculture sector had had on farming communities, just reached me and she said the same pattern is going to happen in Africa, it’s already happened in America, you know this is a global situation and it really changed my life.  I had always loved food, I had already gone vegan, my mum was a gardener and a home economics teacher, you want to be different to your mum and you end up being the same thing.  She was a home economics teacher.  It just, a lot of things slotted into place for me where I just felt like food, soil, that I think what’s going to be my next step after journalism. 

Elliot Moss

Is there something of you now within this, running this charity that knows that every conversation potentially can change someone’s life or is that a little bit too poetic?

Sarah Bentley

I think it’s a touch poetic, I think it’s a journey that you go on with people and it’s small incremental changes and it’s not us, Made In Hackney, that’s doing the changing, we are just providing a space for cooking, it’s the participants, with each other, the teachers, the conversations people have, the sharing, you know, we’re just sort of providing a space for that to happen, I wouldn’t want to have the enormous ego.  I think there’s a habit in our society where when you have these kind of interviews, it’s all like “we did this and we achieved this” and actually it’s… change happens with a whole collaboration of people and factors coming together and so we were just part of an ecosystem of change and we know it changes people because they ring us up and tell us, they say “oh I was a Type 2 diabetic and I  have been doing your classes for a year and I am no longer on any insulin” and we had a lady ring up and say “what have you done to my father?” which is never a good opener if I am quite honest and we were like “sorry?” and she said, “he is ninety and he is cooking us a Sunday dinner on Sunday and he has never even been in the kitchen before and he’s bought his own cooking stuff and his own peeler and his own garlic crusher and none of us are allowed to use it and just thank you I think.” 

Elliot Moss

Well, look, you say it is, you’ve been the catalyst and I see that and also there’s obviously for those people in this world, there’s the community based organisations and the NGOs which sits above it and often people don’t know that the CBOs are right inside the community which is essentially what you are referring to.  You have reached out though, the Covid-19 crisis earlier in the year that we are all still in unfortunately, just tell me a little bit about the thought process that led to some of the things that you’ve done and just very briefly map out what you have done. 

Sarah Bentley

So, about a month before lockdown happened, we had a Board meeting and the whole Board including myself, I cannot lie, were in complete denial about what was about to happen. 

Elliot Moss

We all were, Sarah, you weren’t alone.  None of us could believe that this was going to happen. 

Sarah Bentley

Complete denial.  And we were talking about business as usual which for us means cooking classes, face-to-face cooking classes, supper clubs, teams in the London marathon, fundraising with big collaborative events that are all face-to-face, all very touchy feely, all about sharing food, and about five days after that I realised hang on a minute, I am not going to swear but it is about to hit the fan and I could see that all of our supporters who are in the hospitality sector would be pulling out their support, and they did, we actually lost £30,000 of pledged support in one week which really very starkly brought it home to me what this was going to do and that included the money we were anticipated to fundraise at the Hackney Half Marathon, it included support from a restaurant, you know, people just pulling the plug, I was just getting emails, dum dum dum dum, every day like we’re not to give you that five grand, we’re not going to give you that one grand, that race isn’t going to happen and I was like “wow.  Okay.  The charity will tank.  All the people we support and who are part of the Made In Hackney family won’t have this service anymore.  Crikey.  What are we going to do?”

Elliot Moss

And then what happened?  Drumroll. 

Sarah Bentley

Then, I spent about five nights not sleeping and my husband said to me, “can you just stop thinking as you are keeping me awake.”  I don’t think I slept for about four or five days and what was going through my head was two things, a lot of people are going to suffer, a lot of people are going to be hungry, if you are medically shielding you are going to be stuck inside, and if you are going to be financial impacted which thousands of people will be as you are living in the gig economy, you’ve got a cash job whatever, all of that’s gone, plug is pulled, it’s like this is going to be cataclysmic so what can we do as a charity to both support and continue our work.  We had a big team meeting, this was definitely not my idea, it was a collaborative idea, before we had the brainstorming session about how we would best help, we actually had a letting go circle which for some business leaders might seem as a bit hippie, but if you’ve got a team of people who have been working flat out on events, programming, and suddenly you want them to just drop it and move onto the next thing, you need to mark that with some sort of ritual so we actually got together, it was our last face-to-face meeting and everyone talked about all the things they were disappointed about, you know, the parties that weren’t going to happen, the community party that wasn’t going to happen, the cooking group with the group of Muslim parents from up the road, sort of let go of all of that gave people about a whole ten minutes to digest that and then went, “okay so right what are we going to do next?” but…

Elliot Moss

You were just playing with them, it was like I’m going to give you this whole time and have a cathartic experience, okay fine you’re done, move on. 

Sarah Bentley

Right, now move on. 

Elliot Moss

Now let’s focus. 

Sarah Bentley

But the team did say that was so helpful for them putting us in a fresh space to look at what’s coming next and so we decided we would deliver cooked meals for free to… direct to people’s doors who needed it most and we would outreach to all the community groups, third sectors, doctors’ surgeries, Citizens Advice, Job Centre and let them know we were going to offer this service so they could refer households and we started fundraising about two days after we had this idea, so not much sleep going on, and we launched a crowdfunding campaign, built the service, learned how to use a bicycle courier app, recruited a team of cycle couriers, ordered all the equipment and launched the service, there’s discrepancy, somewhere between nine and eleven days because we weren’t sleeping much, those sort of days merge into one but within about nine and eleven days so, we were delivering meals to people’s front doors about ten days before lockdown because we could see, if people are out and about buying food or trying to get work and really they should be at home, a lot more people are going to die than really need to, you know, we should be helping people to stay inside now and if that means providing food, we need to do this now so I was a bit horrified at the slowness of the response from other kind of higher factors that shall remain nameless but it was an emergency response, a speed response and we are not an emergency service, we really learned it on the fly and I am sure if we looked back there’s lots of ways we would change it and improve it but that’s what we did.

Elliot Moss

But I imagine your team that works for you, loves the fact that they’re working in a kind of a values in action business because people can talk about and then there’s the kind of the tagged onto the profit piece that’s something else but this sits right in the core of what you do.  Are you conscious that everyone signs up to something beyond raising the money?  I mean, are you… are those people clear why they are with you?

Sarah Bentley

Yes.  Absolutely, and when we interview people, there’s quite a lot of questions that surprise people about their sort of moral compass. 

Elliot Moss

Oh give me one, come on. 

Sarah Bentley

Oooh.  How can I?  What keeps you awake at night?  What do you think about?  If you had a magic wand, what would you change if you could change anything tomorrow?  All sorts of questions.  I was a journalist so I am a bit of a mean job interviewer to be honest. 

Elliot Moss

No, that’s good.  Give me another one, I mean, I you know, I don’t want to give a trite answer, I need to be good now, I’ve got to quickly think on my feet, I mean I know what I would say to that one but then it would sound contrived.  Give me one more.  I just want to hear, because it’s interesting isn’t it, finding the right people is critical. 

Sarah Bentley

What makes you angry?

Elliot Moss

Everything.  That’s a rubbish question for me, I wouldn’t get a job.  Stay with me for my final chat with my great guest today, it’s Sarah Bentley.  Plus we’ll be playing a track from Diana Krall and maybe we’ll ask some more questions and we will find out we would have failed miserably at joining Sarah’s charity.  That’s all coming up in just a moment.  I am only kidding. 

Sarah Bentley is with me, we’ve been talking about all sorts of things, about people, about values and through osmosis we’ve heard about your own leadership and it must be pretty easy to see what you really think about and what’s important to you.  We’ve mentioned the primacy of food and the supply chain that goes with that and I have had a few guests along the way; Henry Dimbleby who recently wrote the whole Food Plan and with his partner, John Vincent, they wrote the School Food Plan many years ago and I have had a few chefs on who are very prominent around soil and so on.  Have we got a crisis?  Are we in the space where we should be panicking or do you think we are in a better place now in terms of our awareness and our knowledge and what will happen with food production going forward?

Sarah Bentley

We are definitely still in a crisis.  You know, on multiple levels food, just very basically food access, many people, many households over the next few years will suffer from food poverty, you know, people will be missing meals, they will be feeding their children and not themselves and some days they won’t be feeding their children either.  The repercussions of Covid through the recession, through everything that follows will be that people will go hungry and we need to completely reframe how people access food affordably or for free because no one…  Who wants to go to a food bank?  Who wants to the stigma of going to a food bank?  Who wants the stigma of getting, you know, free school meals if you have to stand in a separate line?  You know, we really need to look at, and Made In Hackney needs to look at this as well, we are always learning from other community leaders who have been doing free food work for a long time, you know, food banks, should they be called social supermarkets perhaps instead, like wording is really important.  Should we be holding more community feasts where everyone turns up to eat together and there isn’t that stigma about “oh you’re just going because you haven’t got enough money”, you know, who wants to put their hand up and go “oh, our household hasn’t got enough money right now” so when it comes to food access, I am afraid over the next few years things are going to get very, very bleak.  When it comes to how we grow food, how we produce food, in an ideal world everyone would have access to organic food, right?  Everyone.  But instead it’s really aspirational, it’s really expensive, it’s really exclusive, when in fact we should all really want to be eating food that’s not drenched in chemicals, right?  If we could all choose that so again we need to look at how that can become feasible and possible, like eating healthy organic food should be your right, it shouldn’t be your privilege and we are a long, long way from that. 

Elliot Moss

Have you thought about, well maybe you do already, lobbying?  Do you get involved with your local or central Government? 

Sarah Bentley

We get involved with focus groups, we get involved with steering committees etcetera but not lobbying per se.  No. 

Elliot Moss

Watch this space.  It’s been really great talking to you Sarah.  Just before I ask you what your song choice and why it is, within five years, and you have painted an honest and a relatively bleak picture, where do you think your charity will be?  What are the two or three markers of success do you think that you will hopefully look back on and say, “we made that difference?”

Sarah Bentley

Hopefully that we’ll have provided a pathway for a lot more young people from black and ethnic minority communities to either enter the charity sector or to start their own enterprise or charity and they’re well-resourced and they’re skilled up and any prejudice that needs to be surmounted to get these young people in these spaces, we would have helped to provide a pathway for that.  That’s our next focus, it’s work experience and traineeships for young people within black and ethnic communities. 

Elliot Moss

Sounds pretty good to me.  Good luck with that and good luck with everything else.  It’s been absolutely lovely talking to you and very uplifting as well, may I add.  Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Sarah Bentley

It is Ego Ella May, Girls Don’t Always Think About Boys.  It’s because at Made In Hackney it’s very much a matriarch, it’s mainly women, we all get paid the same money, there’s no Founder’s fee, we all get paid the same, the cleaner is on the same pay rate as me and it’s a flatline management structure and they’re really rad and when I heard this song it just made me think of all the women at Made In Hackney and all the women we connect with on a daily basis, out in the community, doing the work, looking after people and putting others first. 

Elliot Moss

The song choice of my fantastic Business Shaper today, Sarah Bentley.  She talked about respect and wanting to work in an industry where people were respectful of each other.  She talked about the dichotomy between doing good things and needing the money to do them, the importance of actually raising lots of money and earning money as you go and importantly she talked about collaboration, the power of working with people, not looking down on them, not looking over them but actually working with them and through them to achieve her objectives.  Absolutely great stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a great weekend.

After ten years working as a print and radio journalist specialising in reggae dancehall music, Sarah had a conscious awakening 10 years ago. Following a period of learning – which included joining the blockade of an oil rig for the day and a life changing conversation with Indian activist Vandana Shiva – Sarah set up Made In Hackney in 2012.

Sarah says: "By working on re-localising food systems you're having a positive impact on a huge range of issues - food poverty, inequality, climate change, reducing corporate control of our food, health and wellbeing - it's a hugely inspiring and rewarding area to work in." 

Highlights

I came to London to meet new people from all around the world.

People spoke to me with no respect. They spoke to each other with no respect and it really lacked diversity.

Food is complicated, it’s connected to people’s family history or heritage or emotions.

I was in London and yet everyone I met was white.

I was always following stories that I felt dispelled prejudice or shone a light on something that was incredible but really underfunded or under-resourced.

At the age of 11 or 12, it really blew my mind that the world that had been presented to me in my small rural market town, was not really the world in its fullest picture.

I (had) to dig deeper and read deeper, I (couldn't) just accept what I (was) told.

I remember finding out how animals were transported from the farm to the slaughter house […] and feeling it’s wrong,

I love cooking.

You need to have a really good baseline of healthy food so that you stay well, vibrant and it helps you look after your mental health.

My journalism was an exploration into issues I was interested in and I let the experts do the talking.

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