It’s 5.15pm on a Tuesday in Herne Hill, south London, and in a cafe under the railway arches the countdown to dinner is well under way. Orders for cottage pies, pasta bakes and fish-finger sandwiches have been placed and are being processed in the kitchen next door. Meanwhile, six very hungry children are expending as much energy as possible – swinging from door handles, batting balloons in all directions – as they wait for the food to arrive.
At a long table decked with flowers and colouring books, their parents are doing their best, amid screams and laughter, to conduct an intelligible conversation. The topic is takeaway food: its conveniences, its letdowns, and the increasing sway that online delivery companies such as Just Eat and Deliveroo are exerting over our family mealtimes.
Serena Cunningham, who lives in Lambeth, is a regular takeaway consumer – she orders a delivery via Uber Eats about once a week, when the demands on her time make it impossible to cook at home. “I’m a single mum, I’ve got four kids, and life is very hectic with work, doing the school runs daily and bringing the children to their activities, and still having to prepare a meal… it’s a lot,” she says. Ordering takeaway is by no means a perfect solution. “Something goes missing, something’s cold, something doesn’t taste right, you find a piece of hair – and home-cooked food to me always tastes better,” she says. “For some reason I’m still ordering. They make it so easy.”
Among the considerations Serena weighs up while scrolling through takeaway menus on her phone – such as whether to let her younger children Noah-Isaac, nine, and Naila, four, indulge their ardent love of melted cheese – healthy eating isn’t necessarily top of the list. “You can get healthy food,” she says. “For example, McDonald’s let you choose carrots or chips, so we do have a choice. But, we end up going for the chips – my children prefer them.”
We’re here to taste-test a new takeaway which claims to offer healthier options across the board. Medleys, which launched last November from the commercial kitchen next door, is a delivery-only service available via Just Eat and other platforms, and its menu looks nothing out of the ordinary. Bright-red, with a jaunty logo and stickers promising discounts on orders over a tenner, it advertises dishes – peri-peri chicken and lasagne – that you’ll find in takeaways all over the capital.
Take a closer look and you’ll notice the emphasis is on homely classics, many with veg or salad. And the prices are competitive: cottage pie with greens costs £5.99, while veggie curry is under a fiver. Amid the parade of fried temptations that saturate the lower end of the takeaway market, this seems like a point of difference.
To understand what’s truly different about Medleys, you have to look further afield, because neither the menu nor its online profile gives any indication that this fledgling enterprise, with its core staff of two and its modest cooking set-up, is part of an ambitious initiative to tackle childhood obesity in the UK.
The organisation behind it is Shift, a London-based design charity that builds social ventures as well as physical products. They’ve been working on food-related projects since 2012 – one, in east London, attempted to create a healthier alternative to high-street chicken shops. With this challenge they really do, as project leader Patrick Bek admits, “have a mountain to climb”.
A complex problem with many interlinking causes, childhood obesity is on the rise. According to the NHS, 20.1% children aged 10-11 in England now qualify as obese, up from 17.5% in 2006. The prevalence more than doubles in the most deprived areas, compared to the least deprived, and in Camberwell Green, just up the road from the Medleys kitchen, obesity rates are among the highest in the country, rising to 34% at ages 10-11.
Among the initiatives trying to address obesity through diet, this one stands out for its counterintuitive approach: Shift wants to use low-cost takeaway food, a sector much maligned for its poor nutritional standards, to boost healthy eating.
The logic becomes clearer when you consider how much eating habits have changed. Between 2009 and 2016, spending on takeaways rose by 34%, to £9.9bn a year. Much of this has been fuelled by online delivery: last year, according to the analysts Kantar, the UK hot-food delivery market grew by nearly 20%.
This has particular bearing on young adults and parents with young children, who are most likely to be frequent users of food delivery services. According to research by Shift in south London, low-income families are increasingly reliant on takeaways, with some households ordering in three or more times a week.
Bek points out the problem is that takeaways, particularly at the cheaper end of the market, are designed not as an everyday option but as a treat. Research published in Nutrition & Food Science in 2014 found that the majority of takeaway meals were excessive for portion size, energy, fat, carbs, protein and salt.
Instead of trying to encourage regular takeaway users away from their habit, however, Shift decided to follow the trend. “Our challenge,” says Bek, “was to ask: How can we populate the market with everyday takeaway that’s just as convenient, appealing and affordable, but better for families?”
Bek, who is 38, grew up in a working-class suburb of Birmingham and was a furniture designer, before co-founding an online luxury watch store. Looking for a way to make a greater social impact through design, he went back to university in 2016, doing an MA in innovation management at Central Saint Martins, and joined Shift the following year. When we first meet in May 2019, he is full of enthusiasm about the food-delivery project, if a little daunted by the scale of the task.
He’s already done a lot of groundwork. The previous year, Bek and his colleagues spent more than 200 hours with 44 parents and children in low-income households in Lambeth and Southwark, observing their cooking and eating habits and joining them on what they termed “shop-alongs”
Alert to environmental triggers – such as fast-food advertising and sweets next to supermarket tills – the researchers attached cameras to the children’s chests to track exactly what they were looking at, noting how they homed in on particular brands or food types. Each participant kept a food diary for a week, recording what they ate and how it made them feel, and they also consented to having their phone’s GPS data logged.
Their testimonies provide a vivid sense of how challenging it can be to feed yourself and your children healthily, or at all, in circumstances limited by budget, cooking facilities and affordable eating options. “After having my boy I went through a period where we stopped eating, because we was in a shared-kitchen, hostel-type place and I wasn’t really keen on going, especially because I wasn’t a good cook – I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” recalls Donna, a single mother in her 20s. “I just remember buying crackers and things like that and just eating crackers in my room.”
They also illustrate how takeaway food can become a default in times of stress. “I got days I love cooking,” says Meryam, a 35-year-old single parent of three. “Sometimes my body shuts down – those are the days when I can’t really get up and cook, so I will end up either getting takeaway or cooking oven food.”
Having identified the challenge, the next step was to “stress-test” the concept. With funding from Birmingham City Council, Shift created a brand called Family Feeds and launched it as a pilot in summer 2018. Over 10 weeks, Bek and Louise Cooper, neither of whom had any catering experience, ran the takeaway from a “dark” (delivery-only) kitchen in the deprived suburb of Erdington, where, as it happened, Bek grew up.
The focus in the menu was calorie reduction. In testing, Shift had found that the average adult takeaway portion contained 1,155 calories (the NHS recommends a daily intake of 2,000 calories for women, 2,500 for men). The aim for Family Feeds was to reduce it by half: 500-550 for adults and 300-350 for a child portion. “If the most regular takeaway consumers were to substitute one high-calorie meal each week with one of ours, then we’re starting to move the needle,” reasons Bek.
Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy at City University, has reservations about the calorie-focused approach. “This is a crude measure,” he says. “Most processed food has trans fats in it, what about that? And the key issue here is vegetable intake.”
Bek acknowledges Caraher’s concerns, pointing out the quantity of vegetables already on the menu and stressing that calories are just the first step. “As we learn more about the types of food that our customers want to eat, we can continue to design the menu in such a way that we can build in more nutrition without losing them,” he says.
The Birmingham trial wasn’t a money-spinner by any measure – they had four or five orders a night – but data from Just Eat suggested they were reaching the right audience and the feedback was positive. Returning to London, they approached Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and were granted £350,000 to realise the concept.
The stakes this time are much higher: Bek and his team are aiming to create a not-for-profit social enterprise which, by the end of the two-year funding period, will need to sustain itself financially in a highly competitive market.
Bek is aware of the pitfalls. “A lot of the pushback from parents,” he says, “is this idea of a waggy finger” – the condescending voice berating poor people for not eating healthily enough. Bek’s response has been to remove all surface evidence that Medleys is anything other than a commercial enterprise.
The decision to enter the takeaway market is another possible source of criticism – that by encouraging parents to order in, they are discouraging them from cooking at home. When I ask Bek if he feels compromised by Shift’s association with Just Eat, which supported both the Birmingham and London projects, he frowns. “How else are we going to reach our customers? Our job is to understand people’s behaviours and work with those behaviours. To fight against it seems just counterintuitive.”
Before they can reach those customers, however, Bek and his team have a business to build from scratch. Over the next six months, I keep a close eye on their progress, from brand and menu development to finding a local chef and a place in which to cook.
In August, I visit the Waterloo headquarters of Food Innovation Solutions (FIS), the menu development company Shift have hired to commercialise a selection of 12 dishes. This is the first time Bek and his team have had a chance to taste the results and they’ve invited a number of people, including Jennie Crossan, a dietician from Evelina London children’s hospital, and Steve Pooley, an ex-Jamie Oliver chef who drew on consultation with local parents to devise the initial menu.
It’s FIS’s job to ensure that targets for nutrition and calories, portion size, flavour profile and price point are being met. As in-house chef Alex Dome brings each dish to the table, the assembled tasters pick apart everything from the salt content of the sweet and sour chicken to the exact fineness of the grated cheese covering the pasta bake.
That pasta bake may look innocuous, but hidden inside are seven vegetables including peppers, tomatoes, squash and courgettes, blitzed into a smooth red sauce. I’m surprised by the menu: most of it does feel like a treat. The fish, butter-bean and pepper stew has depth of flavour and a spicy kick, while the lasagne is so comforting that I fail to notice, at first, that lentils have been used to pad out the beef. (“This is a dish where we can’t afford to have just meat, either from a calorie or a cost perspective,” explains the head of FIS, Nicola Swift.) The one disappointing note is the falafel wrap, the clagginess of which is explained by the falafel being baked instead of deep-fried, for reasons of costs as well as calories.
Over the next couple of months, a brand comes together – the name Medleys is intended to evoke both variety and greatest-hits-style popularity. Originally slated for late summer, the launch gets pushed back till mid-November – the initial kitchen site, at a community centre in Myatts Field, fell through because Lambeth council were concerned about scooter noise. The current kitchen, in Herne Hill, is less than ideal – it’s a shared space, with a full commercial rent, and they have to wheel their gear in and out of a storeroom every day – but nevertheless, on 14 November, I’m on hand to witness the first evening of proper service.
It is, inevitably, a slow start, though we all jump up when the first order comes through – cheesy cottage pie with a side of greens, and peri-peri chicken with rice, totalling £16.97. The chef, Charles Johnson, springs into action, heating pre-cooked components and making sure the final dishes are properly seasoned.
Johnson, whose previous job was cooking in a nursing home, came on board a couple of months earlier, drawn by the hours – he has small children and his partner is a nurse – and the social angle. “I like the idea of providing an option that’s healthier than what people would otherwise go for,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be fancy to taste good, look good and appeal to people.”
Right now, most of the dishes come pre-prepared by Food Innovation Solutions, but Johnson is working to bring all food production in-house. For the first three months, Bek acts as Johnson’s sidekick, taking orders, packaging dishes and delivering some orders himself on his single-speed bike. When I next see him, at the family tasting in late January, he looks exhausted. “It’s been a hard slog,” he says.
Business has been slow to pick up: they had four or five orders a night in the run-up to Christmas, but early January has been dead. Keeping up morale is a daily struggle. Working in a shared space has been challenging, too, but Bek has been able to identify a variety of unforeseen problems. “Every day we’re tweaking things,” says Johnson.
The challenge this evening, more immediately, is to impress the six now-ravenous children and their parents who have gathered in the next-door cafe to give feedback on the Medleys menu. Mohammed and Naheed Suleman and their children Hassan, 10, Hussein, eight, and nine-month-old Aisha, who ordered pasta bake, fish stew and three “posh” fish finger wraps, are full of praise. “The fish is fantastic,” says Mohammed. “It’s totally different from how we eat at home, but it’s good to have a change. We would definitely order again.”
Serena Cunningham is less convinced. “It was really fresh and reasonably priced and the portions were the perfect size.” But would she order again? “Probably not,” she says. “Only because it’s the type of thing I can cook anyway. I could make pasta bake and cottage pie at home, because I’ve always got the ingredients.” Takeaway, for Cunningham, means food she can’t make herself. “Literally, I don’t know the recipe for Kentucky,” she says. “It needs to feel like a treat for the kids.”
The kids, however, are more positive. “I loved it,” says Naila, who screams “yeah” when asked if mummy should order it again. “Five out of five,” is Noah-Isaac’s verdict, even though he left half his cottage pie uneaten due to the presence of lentils. “I only like green peas,” he murmurs.
The analogy that keeps coming back to me, each time I call in on Bek and his team, is that of taking small steps up a big mountain. Professor Martin Caraher underlines this when he says: “I don’t think there’s any one solution to obesity. Obesity is complex: it’s nutrient intake, but it’s also activity. No one thing will solve obesity.” Shift’s project is part of a solution, he goes on, “but it’s not the solution. Though I do applaud what they’re doing.”
Bek acknowledged this on our very first meeting, saying: “A single takeaway in Lambeth is not really going to change childhood obesity. What will change it,” he went on, “or what we’re all hoping for, is a networked approach and a density of options in local areas.”
In our final conversation, at the end of January, Bek is still focused on making this one takeaway commercially viable – they’re getting up to eight orders a night now but need many more than that to break even; Bek hopes that plugging into Uber Eats and Deliveroo in the months ahead will put them in a much better position.
But he has been having thoughts, too, about what a more networked approach and a greater density of options might look like in practice. For Bek, hot-food delivery is just one among several ways of making healthier food available to his target audience. Another option is a subscription service for ready-to-cook meals, which parents could collect from local pick-up points – outside the school gates, for example.
Even if the takeaway picks up, Bek is aware that he could still be doing more. “The next thing is local catering,” he says. “If somebody said, we’ve got a 40-person event, can you cater it? Absolutely, we can. We’ve got a space, we’ve got the equipment, we’ve got the people – let’s do it.”
What really interests him, though, is joining forces with like-minded organisations, and creating an example that others – entrepreneurs as well as social enterprises – will want to replicate.
“My hunch is that to really make something like this work, it’s a collective effort,” he says.”
“We really don’t want to be doing this on our own,” Bek’s colleague Rachel Stephenson chips in. “We want other people to be doing similar things and collaborating more. It’s hard enough if you don’t have a social mission to do a food business,” she adds. “But when you do, it’s definitely worth us all clubbing together.”
• Patrick Bek has now left Shift to become head of new product development at Birmingham City University’s innovation hub Steamhouse. He has been replaced as venture lead on Medleys by Alice Wilson. Medleys will launch on Uber Eats later in March.