It’s the sort of meal everyone can feel good about: Open Table is a scheme that brings communities together, helps those in need and reduces food waste at the same time.
Catering to a true diversity of cultures, ages and socioeconomic means, the volunteer-cooked lunches are held regularly in seven different community spaces around Melbourne.
Six years ago, Open Table started out as a small dinner, organised by a group of RMIT students who envisioned a way to simultaneously address food waste and social divisions. The first event was held at Brunswick Neighbourhood House in Melbourne's inner north, and its success saw the scheme grow.
Angela O'Toole, Open Table’s general manager, now oversees monthly lunches run in Fitzroy, Richmond, Collingwood, North Carlton and the largest, at the Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library. The not-for-profit organisation describes its events as “free and fair” – providing free meals for those in need and reducing food insecurity.
"Depending on the location, we welcome from diverse cultural backgrounds. The menu is influenced by the volunteers, their cultural influences shows through the food," O'Toole explains. "We make an effort to share an inclusive and diverse range of meals on our menu, however, we are bound by what food is donated on the day."
The October event in North Fitzroy recently saw a full house of attendees and volunteers feasting on “tip to stem” pink pesto (beetroot leaf, radish, carrot tops, lemon and vinegar), warm potato salad, roast sweet potato and parsnips, zucchini and corn fritters, spiced rhubarb chutney, banana cake with caramelised mandarin peel, apple and strawberry crumble and fresh fruit salad.
Open Table not only provides a means for communities to break bread together but also creates an avenue for the use of edible, safe food that would otherwise be thrown out. In the City of Yarra, which provides the majority of operational funding via the council, food is sourced from OzHarvest, The Vegetable Connection in Fitzroy and Loafer Bakery in North Fitzroy.
At a typical Open Table gathering, people young and old, students and young families, pensioners and professionals share meals at rows of linked tables, so that everyone dines ‘cafeteria’ style. “We see this as a very powerful act and we do our best to remove any barriers for people joining our events,” says O’Toole. “We endeavour to create spaces where everyone feels welcome. Even for those people who show up alone to our events, and a lot do, nobody eats alone at the Open Table table. We design our events to feel like one big dinner table.”
Lance, retired and living alone, came to Open Table for the first time in February after spotting a flyer in the North Fitzroy Library.
“It doesn’t matter to me that it’s healthy. I love the salads, though,” he admits. “I come here to sit and eat, to enjoy myself and go home.
“I enjoy it by myself, but coming here, I’m with everybody.”
Relying on donated food means that event coordinators and volunteers collaborate to create the menu on the fly. O'Toole sees the ability to get creative in the kitchen as one of the most enjoyable aspects of volunteering with Open Table. To cater to as many people as possible, all the food is vegetarian and much of it is vegan and halal, too.
At a recent lunch at North Fitzroy, 80 patrons dined on a menu designed by Hiroko Ooka. The talented volunteer combines seasonal fruits and vegetables with whatever surplus goods are provided. Potato has been the winter staple, but spring sees greater diversity infuse the menu.
Spanish-based Juan, 31, who has been in Melbourne for just a year, has both attended and volunteered at the North Fitzroy Open Table events. At the most recent event, he brought along three friends who had never attended before.
“It’s a nice place to meet friends and get involved with community,” he says, “and of course, the food is yummy. I made fruit jam when I volunteered.”
Flyers are distributed through the local neighbourhood to attract participants. "We use translations to suit the area on our flyers, but most of the time we see a lot of regular faces at each event. More and more, people are bringing along friends and family members,” O’Toole says.
She says the reason Open Table is not run Australia-wide is that to organise these events on such a large scale, and so regularly, is hugely expensive.
“Typically, community lunches are run by larger organisations such as Salvation Army or St Vincents. We are hugely efficient, though. We have donated flowers, donated food, donated space and volunteers who give their time generously.”
Up to 40 per cent of fruits and vegetables grown in this country never make it to the produce shelf due to imperfect appearance or logistical inefficiencies. As much as one-fifth of the food we are buying is being thrown in the bin. So, as well as bringing communities together at the table, the events are evidence of how food can be used creatively to prevent further waste.
Open Table, supported by Yarra Libraries and the City of Yarra, also runs the No Waste Cook Club – a series of monthly workshops to help people reduce waste in their kitchens.
On Thursday 7 November, Open Table will hold their first fundraising feast: a three-course vegetarian dinner. The organisation hopes to raise enough money to set up three more monthly community lunches.