It’s packing day for the Mazi Project. Inside the organisation’s North Street premises, root vegetables dangle over crates and an earthy aroma of fresh thyme and parsley fills the air. In the kitchen, parmesan is being weighed and pre-portioned, ready for today’s dish: lentil bolognese.
“It’s slightly chaotic,” project founder Melanie Vaxevanakis laughs. “Everyone’s working in a small space but packing day is a beautiful indication of hope as we’re all working together. People really come together to make a difference.”
Vaxevanakis set up the Mazi Project in response to the free school meals scandal in January 2021. A private firm was shamed for the food parcels it provided to the country’s poorest families during lockdown, which cost the taxpayer £30 per parcel but were roundly criticised for being stingy and low quality.
Then 24, Vaxevanakis started a fundraiser to provide families eligible for free school meals with food vouchers. Within five days, she’d raised £1,000 for more than 20 children and provided £450 worth of food vouchers to refugee families through the Bristol Refugee Rights charity.
Following this success, she refocused the project to provide meal boxes to young domestic abuse survivors, asylum seekers, care leavers and recently homeless young people, aged 16 to 26.
So much more than eating
With one in eight households experiencing food poverty in Bristol’s most deprived wards, the Mazi Project is determined to address the city’s food inequality. It now supports 70 young people through its meal boxes and has prepared more than 10,000 individual meals and delivered more than 4,500 meal kits across Bristol.
Young people are referred through partner organisations such as Caring in Bristol, which works with people at risk of homelessness, domestic abuse support organisation Next Link, and the council.
“We’ve had a 45% increase in referrals in September , which is huge,” Vaxevanakis explains. “We had personal messages from people saying they are desperate for food,”
The project is funded through private donations, fundraisers, grants, endorsements and corporate sponsorships. It depends on volunteers for packing days.
“Food is a massive part of my life,” adds Vaxevanakis, who grew up in Greece where food and culture are inextricably linked. “Food is connected with my memories and my experiences now, but not everyone has access to a dining table and fresh food.
“For me, food is so much more than eating, it’s about fuelling self-worth.”
The meal boxes and recipes are designed in collaboration with the young people and local chefs for fresh, diverse flavours.
“We provide the young people full autonomy over the food they like to eat,” Vaxevanakis says. “We want everyone to feel fabulous and empowered by the recipes we send over, and having choice over the food we eat is such a simple way of offering this.”
Each week, the young people receive a text with a selection of recipes they can choose from for up to three meals. In the meal kits, the ingredients are pre-portioned and also include oil, spices, a sweet treat and a recipe book. Each meal is made of two portions, enough for both lunch and dinner.
“2022 has been a huge year of growth,” Vaxevanakis tells the Cable. “We’ve cemented our position with our new premise in North Street [and] worked with amazing chefs and restaurants hosting cooking workshops.”
In December, Bristol-born Game of Thrones actor Maisie Williams also became an ambassador of the project, helping raise its profile.
‘We need community action’
By the end of 2023, the organisation hopes to double the number of young people who receive boxes to 140, and transition from its current status as a community interest company to being a charity.
The Mazi Project aims to use food as a foundation to create change and champion young people through increasing awareness of sustainable food and packaging, and using locally sourced ingredients.
“Our goal this year is to create sustainable menus and empower marginalised young people in the fight against climate change,” Vaxevanakis says.
From March, the project will be running a supper club for young people to discover new flavours, gain accreditation and experience working in a kitchen.
It also continues to provide research and work alongside Bristol’s Food Equality Action Plan, a strategy aiming to tackle food inequality by 2032.
“We have to show that people within city organisations are accountable and do make a difference,” Melanie says. “In order to change, we need community action.”