LOVE NEVER DIES AND NOR DOES THE POWERFUL PURPOSE OF A MEAL SHARED
I want to reflect on the scenes we saw from London on the day before the tier 4 restrictions come into effect. Within hours of the Prime Minister’s sudden announcement that the capital and much of the south-east would be plunged into lockdown — days before Christmas — London’s train stations were packed with people desperately hoping to get home to their family.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock described these people as “totally irresponsible” on Sunday morning. While I do not encourage the risks many took in leaving areas of the country hit by this new strain of coronavirus, it is important that we understand why people did this.
Many of those who defend the individuals who fled on that Saturday night — and more who will likely defy instruction and leave in the days to come — have made salient points. A large proportion of those travelling were young people, living alone in a city that is not their home, frightened of the mental health implications Christmas spent away from their families will have. The physical health impact of COVID-19 for many of them will be minimal, compared to the brutal nature of the past year on their well-being.
But I put their decision down to another emotion. Not fear, but love.
What drove so many to leave London in the wake of this announcement was love. Love of their families and their homes, yes, but this alone has not been enough to inspire such an exodus in previous lockdowns. No, in this case, it is a love that is in many ways, unique to the festive season. It is the love that comes with sharing a meal.
Of course, we joke about the stresses of Christmas Day. The chaos of cooking, making sure we have bought the right presents, the family arguments. But ultimately the experience of spending this day together with our families outweighs it all. It is why so many of us are so dedicated to ensuring our own family’s Christmas traditions hold up year upon year.
And the common thread running throughout every Christmas Day, in so many families, is food. It is a day where we come together over a meal in a way that many families do not for 364 days of the year. Yes, we may fight — but we also laugh, we sing, and of course, we eat.
The meals you look back on and remember all your life are not the ones you ate sat in front of the television alone. They are the ones where you are joined by the people you love: husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers — and while most of the year many do not even think about this, when we think of Christmas, we think of those joyous days with our family and friends.
It was the fear of missing out on this that weighs heavily on the minds of millions as we approached to tier-4 restrictions; losing out on the love that they experience in that one meal, on that one day, that drove thousands upon thousands to say: “No, I must leave”.
From the perspective of controlling this pandemic, it is not right, but it is understandable because the power of love overwhelms all of our other primal urges.
Despite this, many will still miss out on seeing their loved ones this Christmas. They will not be reunited with their families for this very special meal, and they will experience Christmas in a way they may never have done before.
For some, this is out of choice — the love of their family and the fear of putting their health at jeopardy — but for others, it is because they have no means of travelling.
Let us not forget that 14 million people in this country live in poverty. Only last week, UNICEF revealed they were providing humanitarian aid to feed the children of the United Kingdom, only to be accused by the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg of “playing politics”.
It is scandalous that this can happen today in one of the richest countries of the world and it is important to remember that for many of these 14 million, Christmas is not a day associated with lavish meals. It is another day where they must rely on the kindness of others to ensure they are well-fed, or even fed at all.
For those who have been able to reunite with their families this year, think of all of those less fortunate. Those who could not go home and face the prospect of this day alone for the first time, and the millions for whom Christmas is just another day of surviving off whatever they can get.
The ‘haves’, ‘have nots’ and ‘temporary have nots’
But I want to look deeper at these three groups: the ‘haves’, the ‘have nots’ and shall we say, the ‘temporary have nots’. In these three broadly labelled group, I see all of the reasons I started Mercato Metropolitano.
Firstly, the ‘have nots’. At Mercato Metropolitano, we are dedicated to ensuring they are provided with everything they need. Throughout this pandemic and our four years operating in London, we have offered a range of initiatives to ensure our community is fed adequately with good, healthy, nutritious and affordable food. From summer holiday camps to cooking classes for refugees, pandemic food deliveries and Christmas meals for the vulnerable, we want everybody to eat and live well.
And why? Because we believe that every person can be a ‘have’. There should be nobody in this country who cannot afford to eat, and they should have access to food that is nutritious and natural — not the additive-filled, nutritionally empty, processed junk served up by fast-food restaurants and on supermarket shelves.
But this is why I celebrate those who do have enough: the people who had the privilege and the love-driven desire to return home for Christmas.
Their dedication to ensuring they can share a meal filled with love and good food on that day is a representation of what I want our entire global food culture to become. One where we understand that eating is an enriching experience and that great meals are eaten together, not alone.
I understand fully that we do not live in a world of people who are lucky enough to enjoy this on a regular basis, but it is exactly why I created the microcosm of Mercato Metropolitano; because I believe our values of bringing people together over a plate of food and ensuring everyone has access to this food, could ignite a movement and in turn, a revolution.
This brings me to that third group: ‘the temporary have nots’. Those who usually would get to enjoy a family meal on Christmas Day but this year must suffer the consequences of government indecision and ineptitude.
The experience many of them faced on Christmas day is precisely the experience we rally against each and every day. They may well eat nutritious food, they may well eat enough food — it is not the same problem as the long-term have nots — but what they will miss out on is the love-fuelled experience of eating with others. Our model of operations at Mercato Metropolitano has always been to offer a shared community space for people to not only eat well but together.
The governments’ global pandemic dilemma
Over the course of this year, governments around the world have done their supposed best to limit the impact of this virus, only to create new pandemics in its wake: a mental health pandemic on the one hand and an economic pandemic on the other. Businesses are falling by the wayside day-by-day, predominantly in the hospitality industry, because they have been forced to keep their doors closed for as much as six months of this year in some areas of the country.
Every time any hospitality business shuts, so do opportunities for people to experience connections, community and care. Or more simply, their opportunities for love.
What is happening with the mess over Christmas regulations is the most extreme example of a tragedy that has run since March. A situation where politicians think only of the social negatives of hospitality — the risk of disease spreading — and one that forgets all the social positives that come with eating a meal alongside friends and family, at a table surrounded by the love of others in the room doing the very same thing.
Hospitality businesses, despite taking inordinate measures to make their premises ‘COVID secure’, have been punished repeatedly because of the Government’s own failings to control the virus. With these failings, people have suffered through job losses, the loss of community staples, the loss of social interaction.
Now, the same people who have lost so much must lose even more and again; it is because of slow government decision-making and poor communications.
And the collateral damage in all of this? Love: specifically, the love created through food and the resulting memories of those meals that for millions will never be realised.
But love never dies and nor will the powerful purpose of a meal that is shared between loved ones. Spirits and livelihoods may have been crushed this year, but they will never be defeated for good. We will be back together again soon, you will be back together with your family soon, and your plates will be full again soon.
Let us take this Christmas period — whether we are with family or not — to reflect on love lost, love sustained, and the future love we will find when all of this is over. And if Mercato Metropolitano has anything to do with it, if more of us act in a responsible way for our planet and our communities, then more people will have the opportunity to experience the love that drove thousands onto trains on Saturday night for the very first time — the love of a shared meal.
I wish you all a safe festive period and let us look forward to a year of love in 2021.