An interview with the Hackney School of Food


Hackney School of Food

 Zoe McIntyre (Manager) and Emma Taylor (Programme Coordinator) at the Hackney School of Food were interviewed recently by Veryan Wilkie-Jones, Hackney CVS’s Programmes Manager (VCS Neighbourhoods).

Q: How did the Hackney School of Food come about? 

Hackney School of Food is a hub for food education located in Lower Clapton which is dedicated to enhancing the health and well-being of children and adults in our local community. 

Every day, we welcome children and adults to participate in a hands-on ‘seed to spoon’ approach to food production and preparation. Our goal is to empower them with the knowledge and skills to cook and grow nutritious and affordable food from scratch… quite literally from the ground up! 

Hackney School of Food was set up as a partnership between LEAP Federation (3 local primary schools – Mandeville, Kingsmead and Gayhurst) and Chefs in Schools who aim to reform state school food provision. These organisations had already worked together and wanted to establish a site to deliver a gold standard of food education. We opened our doors in March 2020 and then in January of last year the school set up independently as a CIC. 

Starting our journey during Covid certainly had its challenges. Yet the school became a haven with volunteers coming in to help with the garden which was completely re-laid and planted over as a community project. We soon began preparing food parcels for those who needed support in partnership with the school, and the rest is history.

Q: How many groups have you hosted and how many can you accommodate? 

Our kitchen classroom is set up for 30 kids, and sometimes we have had more than that! Our set up is very flexible so we can accommodate different numbers of children and adults.

Since opening our doors in 2020 we have worked with over 40 primary, secondary and SEND schools in Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Haringey and Islington, providing food education to over 8,000 children and young people. 

This year, we are funded by the council to offer a free cooking session to every Year 3 student in the borough over the course of a year. 

Aside from doing classes with schools, we also offer adult community classes and events, and also host corporate teams for away days, which all goes back into the running of our kitchen and garden. 

Q: Why is the work you’re doing so important? 

Our goal is to inspire a life-term passion for cooking in both children and adults. We believe that teaching people to grow and cook their own food provides a pathway to a happier and healthier life. Food education empowers us to take charge of our physical and mental well-being, contributing to a more resilient, healthy population – both now and in the future.

This is important because we are in the middle of a public health crisis – far too many people being affected by food poverty and diet-related health issues like obesity, against a backdrop of sky-high food prices (particularly the fresh, healthy options) and a food industry that bombards us with an abundance of cheap, tempting fast food. We are doing what we can to counteract this – by sharing skills and knowledge to help children and adults cook from scratch delicious food on a low budget. 

Bringing people together to cook and eat is very powerful as social bonds are formed in a joyful atmosphere. Because taste preferences are more flexible at an earlier age, often kids say they don’t like certain things but after making the dish they end up having a try and find they enjoy it! This is why we work mainly with primary schools as we feel we can have more influence on taste preferences at an early stage which lasts into adulthood.

We live in a food culture where there are lots of ‘shoulds’ and our aim is for kids to have agency, and to create positive experiences around food and cooking. Every child over the age of 7 should have access to food education as part of the national curriculum but many schools sadly don’t have the resources to deliver this – so we provide this service for them. 

Our vision is to become a community hub for different groups to share cultural and social experiences. With Hackney being such a diverse area, we wish to provide appropriately and the team has done a lot of training in this area.

The school’s mission is comprised of 4 elements aiming to:

  • Provide food education in and around Hackney 
  • Bring people together to share knowledge
  • Become a centre for research in food education
  • Develop a financially sustainable model

Having a garden also enables us to teach about food growing and sustainability, and provides an environment for children to enjoy nature and green space. Not to mention keeping an eye on the chickens and bees!

Q: Zoe, what led you to become the school’s manager?

I’d been working in food system change for a long time – since I studied sustainable gastronomy in Italy. I was a project apprentice at local community cookery school Made In Hackney which was inspiring and I loved the model they have there. I worked at a community kitchen in Earl’s Court before a stint at DEFRA. For the last few years, I worked at the Food Foundation on policy and advocacy in children’s food – particularly focusing on improving the quality of school food and increasing eligibility for Free School Meals. I had visited the Hackney School of Food on a staff away day and had been captivated, so when I saw this role advertised I knew I had to apply. I’m really excited about the future here.

Q: Who do you work with locally? 

We work mainly with primary schools in Hackney and nearby, and also some secondary schools, but everyone is welcome to our school. We work with corporate groups and run some free public sessions and community events. We’ve also had referrals from social prescribers.

Q: How and why did you get involved with the Neighbourhood Forums and do you feel it benefited your organisation?

We went to a couple of Hackney Marshes forums and thought it was a very useful localised meeting with a diverse mix of people who were really engaged. We wanted to be able to work with the wider community and it was a really good hub for making connections. The health inequalities focus aligns with us as we are passionate about addressing food access and food poverty. The forum we hosted recently was great and there were more people than we expected. People really trust the Hackney Marshes forum. We had asked people how they get local news and many they told us from the forum.

Q: What do you both love about Hackney? 

Emma – I’m actually a new Hackney resident. I feel like Hackney is its own world that’s really outward-looking – hearing 6 different languages walking down one road you feel you could be anywhere. I love the diversity and also the easy access to nature.

Zoe – There is a strong network of grassroots organisations here, it feels really well-connected and there are lots of opportunities for collaboration. 

Q: What’s coming up at the Hackney School of Food?

Based on feedback we’ve received from the local community, we have a pilot outdoor gardening session coming up on Monday 25 March from 3.30pm-5.30pm, which is aimed at families but anyone can join.

Please join us! We’ll also have some free food available for anyone who wants to come along. We’re doing our very best to listen to what people have to say! 

We’d love to know if you are coming; you can text us on 07515112177 or email us at

Otherwise, you can learn more about the Hackney School of Food by visiting our website or signing up to our newsletter where we share details on our events.