Until a couple of months ago, Denis O'Reilly had every reason to expect that 2020 would be another good year for his Wild Wicklow Tours business, established in 1997. The company brings tourists from Dublin on a whirlwind tour of the garden of Ireland that takes in Glendalough, lunch in a pub in Laragh and a stop for a tot of whiskey while admiring the scenery at the Sally Gap.
"In 2018 we were voted the Travellers' Choice No 1 experience in Ireland and the No 2 day tour in the world on Trip Advisor," says Denis. "At the height of the season we'd have five or six drivers employed."
But just as this year's tourist season was getting going, Covid-19 hit and the tours ground to an abrupt halt.
"Our last Wild Wicklow tour was on March 13 and at the very earliest we won't be doing another until March next year," says Denis. "We're like the airlines, we can't just have 14 seats out of 40 on the bus occupied and it make financial sense. The cancellations started piling in back in March and since then we've refunded thousands of euros."
Denis's other business, Difference Days, which organises team-building days for corporate clients whose employees work together on projects in the community, and which he runs with his wife, Angela, is also on hold.
Not a man to hang around moping, Denis decided to put his unexpected free time to good use.
"I thought: what will I do? I rang the principals of some of the DEIS schools that we had done Difference Days with to see if they had any ideas. [DEIS is a national programme that addresses the needs of children and young adults in disadvantaged communities.] They told me that they had been advised that the €10 per week that usually goes to school meal providers to supply a breakfast bar and a nutritious lunch for each child in their schools - there are 100,000 such pupils in the greater Dublin area - could be reallocated to packs of either perishable or non-perishable foods which the schools could then distribute to the children's families.
"In the perishable box there are things such as wholegrain bread, milk, butter and cheese, and in the non-perishable box it's pasta and sauces, tins of beans, rice and so on. The majority of these boxes go to DEIS schools and either teachers deliver to families that they know are in need or the parents collect them from the school. I could see that what was missing from these packs were fruit and vegetables, and I thought that perhaps I would be able to do something to help."
Denis called his friend Greg Begley of Begley's Fresh Produce. "I chanced my arm and asked if he could give me enough vegetables for 1,000 families. He said that he'd think about it overnight, which I took to be a good sign."
The next day, Begley's delivered half a tonne of vegetables to the side gate of the O'Reilly family's house in Sandycove. "We wheel-barrowed them in to the garden, and me, Angela and our sons Billy, Charlie and Luke, and Greg's son Harry, packed them into bags, loaded them into the back of my jeep and I delivered them to the DEIS schools with which I had connections. The schools sent them on to the families and reported back that they were delighted. The principals told me that the need is so great at the moment, that even families who they thought wouldn't need the additional support did, and that it's getting more challenging as the weeks go on.'
That was five weeks ago, and Denis says that "it's been 24/7 ever since".
"After that first week, I couldn't ask Greg again, so I sat down and strategised with Billy, who's a final year student of business and marketing at TU Aungier Street and has a good creative brain. We came up with the name Good Grub and set up a Go Fund Me page on April 10 and working all over the Easter weekend we had the website live on April 12 with the help of a great bunch of volunteers."
The idea is that the Good Grub initiative, which is not-for profit, and has an advisory board of heavy hitters including Tom Kennedy, the founder of Hostelworld, will deliver nutritious fruit and veg parcels directly to families of disadvantaged school children in Dublin who attend DEIS schools and who would be getting a nutritious meal in school if the schools were open.
"Our initial goal was €100,000," says Denis, "and by April 14 we had reached it, so then we increased it to €350,000."
Until the schools closed, Glanmore Foods, an Irish family business, was supplying 400 schools and 50,000 lunches around the country each day. When the schools were shut, Glanmore pivoted to supplying the basic food packs of fresh and non-perishable food to which school meal funding has been diverted.
"We instructed Glanmore Foods to prepare 2,000 bags of fruit and vegetables in the first week and it's been growing ever since," says Denis. "The schools are in charge of where the bags go and as of last weekend we had distributed 15,000. We are getting the fruit and vegetables at cost price, and each bag costs us €5. The dignity issue is huge, but the principals are telling us that the embarrassment disappears when the need is so great. Our aim now is to keep going until the schools return in September."
In between completing his college assignments and studying for exams, Billy has been managing the social media side of Good Grub and coming up with innovative fund-raising ideas. One that has captured the imagination of bored people in lockdown and gone viral is an Instagram challenge that Billy and his brother Luke came up with to throw three tea bags into a mug from a metre away - harder than it sounds. Meanwhile a neighbour of the O'Reillys, Oisin O Meara, did a triathlon within 2km of his house and the TY students at Blackrock College have also made a significant donation.
Corporate donations have already come from BOI's Community Fund for Covid, Avoca parent Aramark, and basis.point, the Irish Funds' industry's response to C19 and Denis hopes to get more companies involved to sustain the project through the next few months. Good Grub's charity partner is The Aisling Project, a registered charity that runs after-school projects in five centres in Ballymun and helps children aged between seven and 16 with homework and meals, and through which all donations are routed thus ensuring that tax allowances can be claimed.
So, how have the bags of fruit and beg been received?
"At first the bags were filled with carrots, potatoes, onions, parsnips and cabbage," says Denis, "but the feedback was that no one likes parsnips or cabbage and they'd prefer to have some fruit, so now they contain carrots, onions, potatoes and apples."
Mary Lyons lives with her husband, son and grandson, Cillian (10), a pupil at Virgin Mary Boys' School in Poppintree and cooks each day for her family and for a neighbour. She's been getting the veg boxes for the last few weeks.
"I think they are absolutely fantastic," she says. "I was one of 16 children and years ago, I remember we used to go to the stew house with our cans for soup or stew. I never thought that we'd be like that again. But it's a real help for the community with so many of the husbands out of work."
Mary says that she wouldn't call herself a great cook, but she's made stews, curries and coddle with the contents of the veg boxes.
Now that Good Grub is properly up and running, Denis has drafted in some help from some well-known figures on the Irish food scene to come up with some simple recipes to include in the packs. You mightn't expect to find a Michelin-starred chef such as Ross Lewis of Chapter One cooking Dublin coddle or pasta bake, but those are the two dishes he's devised from the contents of the perishable and non-perishable food packs combined with the fruit and vegetable bag.
"I was delighted to get involved," says Ross. "This is a strange, contemplative time for me.
"For the first time in my life I don't have to get up in the morning and head into work. It took a bit of getting used to but I'm in a routine now. I take some exercise in the morning and I get to spend more time with the girls - Molly (18) who's studying for her leaving, Eabha (16) and Sheana (13) - than I ever have, because I've been absent a lot more than I would have liked over the years. I stay in touch with the crew from Chapter One and keep tabs on the administrative side of things. Osteria Lucio is open for takeaway so I keep an eye on that, and I cook dinner for the family five nights a week.
"When Denis asked if I would come on board, I didn't hesitate. He's is a force of nature, he's working on it morning, noon and night; I do think all this is making us realise who are the really important people in society and he is one of them.
"I asked my daughter Sheana to help me. We came up with two recipes - the gratinated pasta bake and Dublin coddle - and Molly shot a couple of little videos of Sheana and I making them that are up on the Good Grub website. Sheana took to it like a pro - it's all the practice she's had taking selfies!"
It's clear from the videos that Sheana is her father's daughter.
"There's always room for more butter!" she says. "Open up the windows and let the neighbours smell that," says her father, when the coddle is completed to his satisfaction.
Also lending their support to Good Grub are David and Stephen Flynn of The Happy Pear, who say that the message behind the initiative chimes perfectly with their mission to get everyone in the country eating more fruit and vegetables.
"Early this year we took a week out and went on a tour of 20 schools around the country, mainly DEIS schools, to talk to the kids about eating more fruit and veg," says David. "We saw 5,000 kids in a week. Our message is that eating more fruit and veg makes you happier and healthier. We really want to get education about healthy food on the school curriculum.
"A big focus for us is getting people to include more fibre in their diets, because nine out of 10 people don't get enough. One school principal told me that she has kids going home sick with pains in their tummies all the time because they have constipation, which is something that never used to happen but is a consequence of a poor diet lacking in fibre."
The Flynn twins have recorded radio ads to support Good Grub's fundraising and devised a few simple recipes to be sent out with the fruit and vegetable packs. "Our recipes are for simple things like potato cakes, an easy curry, paella and pasta sauces with vegetables," says Stephen.
"There's a real need for Good Grub."
To donate to Good Grub go to https://ie.gofundme.com/f/9yuctw-Good-Grub
Covid-19 Meal Support for Emergency Responders
Redmond Fine Foods, an ingredients procurement and distribution business based in Naas, is working with chefs Mickael Viljanen, Mark Moriarty and Paddy Lee to prepare, package and deliver wholesome meals to frontline workers in and around Naas and Co Kildare working from the kitchen of Fallons in Kilcullen; ie.gofundme.com/f/covid-19-meal-support-for-emergency-responders
Chef Aid Donegal
Non-profit organisation of four chefs providing free hot meals to the elderly and compromised in the local community. www.chefaiddonegal.com
St Pat's Football Club has teamed up with Frontline Make Change and Dublin South City Partnership to open Richmond Park as a food bank. To make a donation, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Cork Penny Dinners
Donate over the phone to the Chicken Inn's Poultry-in-Motion home-delivery initiative and the company will supply sliced meats for sandwiches at cost price to Penny Dinners - (021) 427 9550. Donate direct at corkpennydinners.ie
Non-profit Lone Parent Resource Centre is providing meals and food parcels for lone parents and vulnerable families in Coolock. dorasbui.ie
The social-support agency of the Dublin Archidiocese is seeking donations to fund its food banks. crosscare.ie
The chefs from Overends Kitchen are cooking meals for delivery to the elderly and vulnerable in the local community. Airfield is a charity and accepting donations. airfield.ie