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Jamie Oliver: ‘The power of democracy is measured by how we treat those at risk’

As part of this week’s special ‘Just Be Nice’ edition curated by artist Dave Buonaguidi, Jamie Oliver writes about the importance of kindness and his campaign to make sure children don’t go hungry this winter

Dave Buonaguidi (artist Real Hackney Dave) asked me to write a little something about kindness. It’s incredibly kind of him to even think of me as a kindness connoisseur! I think it’s probably because I was on BBC Radio 4 the other day asking the government to stop being mean and show more kindness when talking about the 800,000 hungry kids who are slipping through the net and not getting a free school meal.

Don’t get me wrong, I do my best to be kind, but you can always do better, right? If you’ll allow me to be philosophical for two sentences, kindness shouldn’t be a competition, it shouldn’t be a transaction and it shouldn’t be seen as a badge of honour. I genuinely think it’s something beautiful, intimate and something that means you can sleep well at the end of the day. When all is said and done, it’s what really matters in life. (And that’s three sentences, sorry!)

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I am old enough to know that when things get tricky you understandably look inwards to protect yourself and your family. This is normal, but in a funny kind of way it also means acts of kindness that have an impact outside of your family mean more.

We all know the coming year is going to be really challenging, so on a personal level, I’m making a real effort to think about what more I can do to make a difference. May I say thank you for your kindness in buying The Big Issue? It’s disgraceful that we still have homeless people, so thank you for your contribution. There are many countries where homelessness isn’t the norm. But that got me thinking: what epitomises kindness? The possibilities are infinite, but one example springs to mind.  

I’ll never forget filming in Palestine on a food research trip. I met this 13-year-old baker making this extraordinary flatbread. His talent and technique took my breath away. I spent an hour trying to make the same bread with him, with average results – I knew it would take me years to get there. The talent of this young man nearly brought me to tears. I was humbled and wanted to film with him. There was a poster in the camera shot and understandably we needed to be very sensitive about what it said, because of the tension between Israel and Palestine, so we asked our translator. He wrote it down and gave it to me. It said, “If you can’t afford bread, just take what you need.” Wow.  

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This really moved me. It was a powerful, simple act of pre-emptive kindness. To offer a practical solution to a possible problem with no judgement. I loved it and it inspired me to be a kinder person. I hope you feel the same way.

Back home in our wonderful sleepy market town Saffron Walden, nothing dramatic ever usually happens – but in 1795 it did. Massive riots, which required the military to be brought in to calm the chaos – and why? All because of the price of bread. Bread is profound, it’s the basis for nourishing our lives and somehow symbolic of how things are in the world. So that poster in Palestine really means more than simply being kind. That poster epitomises kindness and public service. I believe the true power of a democracy is measured by the way we treat those most at risk.  

Between us, we do have the power to share and sow the seeds of kindness, which in turn will inspire us to do more. Let’s call it a culture of kindness – conversely, our most recent run of government ministers have epitomised a culture of meanness that is as thick as treacle without the sweetness. 

Young campaigners from Bite Back 2030
Young campaigners from Bite Back 2030. Photo: Bite Back

One of your kind acts of the day could be to sign my petition to give free school meals to the 800,000 kids in England from households on benefits who don’t currently qualify. The petition is led by the amazing teenagers at Bite Back 2030, a charity I co-founded to give a voice to young campaigners who want to join the fight for a fairer food system. 

And we’re not alone – there are loads of brilliant charities and campaigners who are powered by our desire to help those in need of their daily bread.

Jamie Oliver is a chef, restaurateur, author and campaigner. He wrote this article to support Real Hackney Dave’s art exhibition Just Be Nice – a fundraiser in aide of The Big Issue.

Sign Jamie Oliver’s petition at change.org/free-school-meals

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