Bill Knott | Action Against Hunger Ambassador

Bill Knott wins international aid hero award

Our ambassador, food writer Bill Knott, has won the ‘International Aid Hero’ award at the Charity Staff and Volunteer Awards and we're delighted. We caught up with him...

 

By Leah Oatway

Mar 2 2015

Since 1997, food writer Bill Knott has worked tirelessly to support our work to end child hunger. He has played a key role in establishing our relationship with the British food industry - a relationship that now raises more than £1 million annually for our work.

Bill is the brains behind some of our most successful events - including Too Many Critics, an evening where food critics (led by him) cook for a room full of top chefs and food industry professionals; and our flagship event, the Fine Wine Auction.

We’re delighted that Bill has been short-listed for the ‘International Aid Hero’ award at the Charity Staff and Volunteer Awards, run by the Charity Staff Foundation. We caught up with him for a chat about his involvement with Action Against Hunger…

 

Congratulations on your nomination for International Aid Hero, Bill. How does it feel?

It's been an absolute pleasure and a real privilege to help Action Against Hunger over the years, but of course it's nice to be nominated.

 

Can you tell our supporters how your relationship with Action Against Hunger first began?

Action Against Hunger UK sent me a letter - a long time before email: 1997, I think! - asking me if I could help the charity through my job writing about food and restaurants.

I remember that I'd had a particularly good dinner the night before, at one of Marco Pierre White's restaurants, and that letter tweaked something in my conscience. So I said I'd be delighted to help, if I could.

 

Why does child hunger in particular resonate so strongly with you as an issue?

I think everyone involved in the hospitality industry - and I was a chef for 10 years before I started writing about food - feels an instinctive empathy with people for whom nutrition means the constant, precarious business of keeping themselves and their families alive. Those of us who make our livings cooking, serving, eating and writing about food can count ourselves very lucky.

 

What motivates you to keep fundraising for us year after year, success after success?

I can't imagine my life without Action Against Hunger now. Every time we put together an event and talk about the amazing work that our staff do around the world, I get a huge kick out of seeing new people enthused about what we can all do to help end child hunger.

 

You’ve visited our programmes so you’ve seen our work up close and met the people who benefit from the money you’ve helped raise. Can you tell our supporters a little about your first field visit?

The first trip I went on was to Macedonia in 1999, during the Kosovo conflict. Sophie Noonan - the woman from Action Against Hunger who had recruited me a couple of years before - and I flew to Skopje and joined our team on the ground, helping pack trucks of aid to take into Kosovo, visiting the camps on the Kosovo border, and driving to Gostivar, where I saw something that made me realise just how brilliant the work that Action Against Hunger does can be. 

Many Kosovan Muslims who had escaped the fighting made it as far as this small Macedonian town. Gostivar was overwhelmed: as many refugees as possible were accommodated by locals, but there was an overspill of hundreds sleeping in the town's mosque.

Feeding them was another problem. Our team on the ground came across a soup kitchen - serving goulash, Kosovo's national dish, a soupy stew of meat, paprika and vegetables - which was a great idea... but the soup had been prepared, of necessity, in highly unsanitary conditions and was being stirred with old wooden canoe paddles.

Action Against Hunger managed to rent a much better kitchen and hall not far away, recruited more helpers, and soon we were serving a hygienic version of goulash to even more refugees. It made me realise just how important it is to help people to help themselves: of course, emergency food aid is often necessary, but to see that soup kitchen thriving was extraordinary.

Also, I understood for the first time that, while the horrors of war show the worst in human nature, a crisis like the Kosovo conflict can also demonstrate the human race at its most caring and resourceful.

 

And a little about other trips since?

While Action Against Hunger's work during the Kosovo crisis was mainly a response to short-term problems of malnutrition amongst displaced populations, many of my eight subsequent trips - especially to the sub-Saharan countries of Malawi, Ethiopia and Chad, where water is habitually scarce - dealt with chronic malnutrition, often severe in nature. 

Action Against Hunger gets involved in every aspect of medium and long-term strategies to alleviate hunger in communities, from identifying the people most at risk to helping them with seeds and tools programmes to grow their own food, taking over and refurbishing wards in hospitals to help children with severe malnutrition, educating mothers about breastfeeding, and so on.

What impresses me most is how highly other NGOs working in the same countries value the dedication and professionalism that Action Against Hunger's staff display. Many of our protocols for treating child malnutrition have been adopted as "best practice" by the UN's agencies and others: I have no doubt that Action Against Hunger punches well above its weight in the international aid community.

 

Are there any stand-out memories from your field visits that you can share with us? 

I remember visiting a village in Malawi a dozen or so years ago. The ravages of drought and disease had taken their toll, but one elderly woman, who had lost most of her family to HIV, insisted on showing me the small vegetable garden that Action Against Hunger had helped her cultivate in an old river bed.

We walked for more than half an hour across pretty much desiccated maize fields until we found her garden. She proudly picked a few vegetables, and we walked back to her hut; later, as I was leaving, she insisted on giving me a couple of her vegetables to take with me. A simple pride in being able to fend for oneself is so important to people's quality of life, and Action Against Hunger had helped this woman to keep at least a little dignity in appalling circumstances.

 

And what have been the highs and lows from the events? What are your stand-out memories from them? 

At the first Too Many Critics dinner, in 2001, roast suckling pigs were the main course: but there was a mix-up about delivering them. They eventually arrived, with only a couple of hours to spare, in a minicab from Gloucestershire, and were a great success (which is more than can be said for Matthew Fort's ominously-titled "offal mash").

Jay Rayner and Lucas Hollweg escaping the kitchen to perform a duet for piano and trombone was a definite highlight, but perhaps the most gratifying moment was seeing the huge queues for our "5-star Burger" at Taste of London a couple of years ago. And seeing Raymond Blanc - an Action Against Hunger UK Ambassador - in the kitchen, chatting to everyone and flipping burgers, was wonderful, too.

 

What can we look forward to from you this year (re: events/challenges)? 

Another edition of Too Many Critics (there's one in Manchester this year, too); 5-Star Kebabs at Taste of London; and the Fine Wine Auction and Dinner, in November, which has turned in to our biggest fundraiser of the year. 

I might even get back on the bike: in the last few years, I've made it from London to Paris and Agra to Jaipur. Maybe I have another one in me before I hang up the cycle clips.

 

If you could share anything you’ve learned from your time working for this cause, what would it be? 

That there is an enormous amount of goodwill in our industry towards Action Against Hunger. When I started with Action Against Hunger all those years ago, I worried about whether people might find it somehow tasteless that smart London restaurants were trying to help malnourished children; in the event, almost everyone I talked to understood it instinctively. They still do, and Action Against Hunger UK's work goes from strength to strength.

 

And if someone who was considering fundraising for us was to ask you if it’s really worth it, if what they do here in the UK really makes a difference to children far away, what would you tell them?

There are many worthwhile charities across the UK and beyond, dedicated to all sorts of amazing causes, and they deserve our support. I sometimes feel, though, that when people say "charity begins at home", they often mean that it should end at home, too. 

Thanks to Action Against Hunger, I've seen first-hand how the money we raise in the UK transforms the lives of children who live thousands of miles away. We are all global citizens now, and it really is within our power to end child hunger in our lifetimes.

I think future generations will hold us accountable if we don't grasp that chance.

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