MADE IN HACKNEY
I’ve been lucky enough to know Sarah since we were at uni together. We met as girls with completely different lives and interests, thrown together as flatmates in an East London pad. Sarah was a spiky haired, music loving, rave machine; working for edgy magazines like Sleazenation and DJ. I was a completely-out-of-my-depth girl from the beach who liked posh shoes and white eyeshadow, hell bent on a career in fashion journalism. Sounds like the start to a trashy rom-com right? Well it kind of was.
As we grew we found we had more in common than we thought and actually liked each other a lot. Fast forward 20 years (yikes) and we’ve grown together through our love of good food, ethical living, surfing, our children and of course yoga.
Always a devout vegetarian, Sarah took her passion for plant based food to the next level when she founded her award winning charity Made In Hackney. Set up in 2012, it’s a community kitchen and cookery school that inspires and gives people the skills to eat healthy, affordable food that's good for people and planet. The first of it’s kind, the school promotes food that is local, seasonal, organic and most importantly 100% plant-based.
Since it’s set up, MIH has worked with over 13,000 people, 98% of which surveyed said that their class had encouraged them to eat more healthily, with 93% now eating less processed food and 100% more likely to cook from scratch. In 2017 Sarah was honoured to deliver a TED Talk - Why The World Needs Community Kitchens. She’s spoken at Vevolution Festival and appeared in print from Vogue to the Guardian and everyone in between.
Not least she’s also mum to Rowan, now 5.
And I’m thrilled to get 5 mins out of her busy schedule to chat to her as part of our Supermama Series – amazing mums with inspiring stories to tell.
Hi! Please introduce yourself.
‘I’m Sarah Bentley, founder of MIH, black belt auntie to Gigi, 22, mama to Rowan 5, enthusiastic but inept surfer. I’m walking through Abney Park in Stoke London in the blazing sunshine with a Made In Hackney matcha, this is not what life normally looks like!’
What is Made In Hackney?
‘It’s a community cookery school whose whole mission is to get people growing, cooking and eating more plants. What’s great is that no one can argue that what we all need for our health and the planet is to eat more plants. You can get into an argument about different kinds of diets and whether they work. But plants are good for us. End of argument. What people tend to struggle with the most is making things taste nice, and getting kids to eat well; that area needs the most needs attention and love.’
I once remember you existing on tomato sauce sandwiches at uni, how did you go from that to being the culinary vegan Goddess you are today?
‘I met and fell for an Ital food chef in Jamaica and when he came to visit I needed to impress in the kitchen, he wasn’t going to eat cheesy chips and ketchup sandwiches, I was a pretty unhealthy vegetarian at the time! I found the Good Housekeeping veggie cookbook and chose a recipe every night and learnt to cook from that basically. I also went to the Viva! vegan event for inspiration, and there and I was like ‘OMG - the state of the dairy industry!’ It was just not on my radar. I went vegan, in the end, not for the Rasta chef, but for the animals. It took me a couple of years to go fully vegan as there wasn’t the options back then, but I’ve never looked back.’
Back in 2012 when you launched, veganism was still vilified to an extent, how did you get around that with your charity?
‘We didn’t say it was vegan ever. We used to say to other charities who were bringing people to visit, ‘they’re going to learn to cook healthy food for them that’s healthy for the planet.’ We made sure they had a great time and tasty food, so when they’d realise there was no meat or dairy, it didn’t matter. If they had a fun and banging food, they came back. We kind of tricked people thorough the door! Only now it’s acceptable to be vegan; we shout about it for our master classes and supper clubs but in our community classes we still don’t.’
What is your life mission?
‘Two things actually. Firstly, the climate crisis. I just hate feeling helpless watching us burning up our divine planet and not doing enough. Something I wanted to contribute to with my skills. Secondly, I’m a real lover of people, I want them to thrive and be happy and to do that they need to be healthy. I’ve always been interested in food, I’m a whole foods vegan, feeling and seeing the benefits of this way of life. I remember reading about people having limbs taking off because of type 2 diabetes, and thinking you can cure that with food or at least greatly improve the symptoms. It’s no coincidence that the planet is fucked and people’s health is fucked and for some reason we tackle them individually. The health of planet is equally important to peoples health.’
How was pregnancy and birth for you?
‘How was it for me? Pregnancy varied! I did have the beautiful power mama stage, the earth mama Goddess vibe, and then I had a lot of time when I didn’t feel like that AT ALL. I had terrible problems with my hips, if I couldn’t have had acupuncture – 3 times per week, I’m convinced I would have been on crutches. In the third trimester I was desperate to float in water the whole time, I couldn’t sleep and was deranged with discomfort. I remember going to the Aquatic centre at 9.30pm one night, even though it officially shut at 9.15pm for admissions, but there was no way they weren’t letting me in that pool. I would have taken the girl on the desk down! I actually climbed over the turnstile when she refused me – she wasn’t able to stop this pregnant woman. The hip issues continued after birth but a Latin American hip closing ceremony helped a lot. I had one when Rowan was 1 ½, I was so desperate and it was life changing, a beautiful mixture of ritual and manipulation.’
How important was your yoga practice in pregnancy?
‘I didn’t do loads of pregnancy yoga when I was pregnant, I was quite naïve and thought that healthy body equals a healthy baby – I had no fear of miscarriage. I just went to normal classes, mentioned my pregnancy to the teacher and carried on. Actually now I would worry about going to a non pregnancy class. I’m more anxious as I’ve had a miscarriage post Rowan. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it, I had wrongly associated miscarriage with being unhealthy, but it can be part of the journey. So I would be more nervous now and would go to a proper pregnancy class.’
And how do you feel it helped you postnatally mentally and physically?
‘It’s 1000% beneficial, I think I would have lost my mind without it. Yoga is a must. As a mum you must do something that brings you mental and physical peace.’
What was your favourite yoga pose in pregnancy?
‘Goddess pose. I had one teacher that would get us to rub our bumps at the same time and her script was just magical.’
How did having a baby change you/ your work, if at all?
‘The first 6 weeks were a nightmare with the whole breastfeeding initiation thing that no one tells you about. I really struggled with it, it was borderline horrific! But after that it was dreamy and it was worth every minute of confusion and sleeplessness, I just needed to make it over the hurdles. And after that I found personally, and not to put pressure on anyone, that I could get a lot done when he was a baby. It was when he was crawling and walking I found it really hard. I needed my maternity leave when he was 10 months to 2 years. In the early months I took him to meetings, did a talk holding him, collected an award, he was dope and versatile as long as he had the tit. I thought, ‘OMG I’m officially superwoman and then he started to crawl… In one meeting he knocked over 3 plants and killed someone’s laptop and I had to stop. Once he was mobile I timed everything around his naps and I would time my team appropriately- I’d do loops with buggy and give people work to do when this was happening. I was lucky I was in charge of my own work destiny.’
How does Rowan inspire you in your work?
‘He makes me work quicker and be as efficient as I can be. Kids make you ruthlessly prioritise. With the bigger issues, I just can’t look him in the eye and not do anything about the planet. There’s always more to do, we have 11 years left to save our world, Rowan and all the young people didn’t ask for this shit, neither did we, but our generation has been too slow to get on it. Young people today are really on their game and are really inspiring.’
Where do you get your energy from?
‘I don’t always have any, let’s be honest. I eat really well, a colourful varied plant based diet, mainly organic, and I exercise regularly. When I don’t, I don’t feel I can cope with life. I need to get my blood is pumping and I feel like I can do anything.’
What would you say to the sceptics of raising vegan children?
‘Rowan is 95% vegan, sometimes he’ll eat what I call backyard eggs. If we’re away and I know the hens are doted on and get to live their lives happily, he can have them. He has no tolerance to any animal secretions like milk as he’s never had them and doesn’t need them.
People are really scared of feeding a child a vegan diet, and they do need to take precautions. You can totally raise a healthy vegan child but you must learn to cook and you must learn basic nutrition. You can’t just replace meat with processed vegan substitutes, they are shit. Novel, yes, and fun to try, but not for eating regularly. Be a bit of a foodie, get into it, go to classes, buy books. You owe it to your kid. Your doctor or family centre won’t be able to help you with a vegan based diet. Rowan is a fussy eater, it’s hard to get lentils and legumes etc. into him, he doesn’t eat like I eat, he eats like a kid.’
What tip would you give to a parent for healthy eating?
‘Don’t give them anything out of a shiny packet until they are at least 3, so they don’t associate food with shiny packets. Even if you want to feed them some crisps or whatever put them in a zip lock bag, so they don’t get the association with the shiny packets and branding.’
To find out more about Made In Hackney and to get involved check out madeinhackney.org
See Sarah’s Ted Talk on why the world needs community kitchens here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7ab3eN9qPo