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February 10, 2023

Feed it Forward

Covid inspired a new wave of hunger-alleviating action on the part of the hospitality industry. How can we harness that energy and make feeding our communities an integral part of the culture?

Words: Max Brearley
Animation: Jacqui Munoz

In the aftermath of hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017, the most visible on-the-ground relief was not a government body or a well-known NGO – it was Jose Andrés. The Spanish-born chef, a massive success in America, served over three million meals in the months following the hurricane through his not-for-profit World Central Kitchen. Then and since, WCK has become adept at mobilising volunteers with an ethos of “just get in there and start cooking.” It’s born of a practicality that is baked in for many hospitality professionals. 

Andrés was not the first chef to provide relief when disaster struck: New York City’s best known chefs mobilised to feed first responders after the 9/11 terror attacks; restaurant benefits and charity-funding food festivals are decades old; and here in Australia it is often the hospitality community who rally from the outset when things get rough.

Initiatives to feed communities, and specifically the hospitality community itself, gave purpose to cooks, servers and owners who might otherwise have sat helpless as their businesses were closed.

That predilection to feed people in times of need was brought roaring to life during the dark days of the pandemic. Initiatives to feed communities, and specifically the hospitality community itself, gave purpose to cooks, servers and owners who might otherwise have sat helpless as their businesses were closed. This effort included everything from ad hoc offers of help on social media to large-scale arrangements. Industry heavyweights were a major part of the effort – Neil Perry got behind Hope Delivery (since renamed Hope Hospitality Foundation), and Ben Shewry launched the Attica Soup Project with a good deal of help from his team and the wider food community.

So where are we now? Is it back to business as (not quite) usual, until the next moment that we need to mobilise? Or will there be a lasting and sustained legacy of giving through action? The signs are that we’ve seen a shift, and that there’s an opportunity for hospitality to sustain its positive influence for decades to come.

Melbourne based writer and food activist (and A+ contributor) Dani Valent was on the front line of Attica Soup Project as it ran between April and October 2020. The idea was simple: customers purchasing an elegant Thai broth at $25 would see $5 go to feed an international visa holder. Eventually this aid extended to fresh fruit and vegetables for the week, public transport cards and even access to legal advice.

Valent says the Soup Project was based on the pay-it-forward concept, but perhaps made more explicit and structured in a different way. “People could have this idea that they were not just feeding themselves, but they were feeding someone else in the community that was in need,” she says. 

Something as simple as making soup on a Wednesday to give away on Thursdays was doubtless a source of inspiration for others as to how to show up, but it also went beyond giving: It was a political act. Temporary visa holders were the focus, says Valent, as both the backbone of hospitality and a group that was denied access to federal government assistance. Valent highlights two aims from the simple act of selling soup: one of practical assistance, to feed people. The other, shining a light on the political and social justice issues at play.

This idea of community feeding community is nothing new. You could say it’s as old as time, and it’s certainly an important part of the culture of First Australians. Pay-what-you-can joints have been prevalent in many communities for decades, but they aren’t easy to sustain, and a number of well-known establishments operating on this model have recently closed. But the industry’s efforts during Covid revived a sense of purpose, and gave operators new ways to consider making compassion and empathy core principles that drive their business models. 

Shaun Christie-David is the Sydney based founder of Plate it Forward, which grew out of the pandemic and is now described as “a food-based collective and movement that creates equal opportunity around the table.” At Colombo Social and now Kabul Social, the social enterprise has an impact locally and further afield. The model at these bricks and mortar outlets is that customers buy a meal as they would from any eatery, the competition here being seasoned hospitality venues, and that meal sees a further two meals donated to communities in Australia, as well as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Climate change is poised to create accelerating displacement and hunger, and – as we’ve seen time and again – governments can be incapable or unwilling to respond at speed.

Following the pandemic, Christie-David is looking at how Plate it Forward can continue to ensure quality and support countries suffering from food security issues. Specifically, “Afghanistan going through a humanitarian crisis. Sri Lanka going through some really bad things,” says Christie-David.

Kabul Social employs mostly newly arrived asylum seekers or refugees, with Colombo Social being “more of a universal thing,” says Christie-David. Employment and training are powerful tools beyond a wage, offering long term generational change, role models and representation for newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, says Christie-David.

In reviewing Kabul Social for Good Food, Lee Tran Lam, noted, “it's become an accidental embassy, too, drawing Afghan community leaders, families and, recently, a group of 22 refugees during an educational excursion.” She went on to observe that “for Afghan women forced to flee their homeland after the Taliban upended their lives, Kabul Social is a beacon – for staff in the kitchen and diners who seek solace in the menu's familiar flavours.”

Beyond the pandemic, at least in Australia, there cannot be any doubt that such initiatives and long-term structured charity are here to stay. Climate change is poised to create accelerating displacement and hunger, and – as we’ve seen time and again – governments can be incapable or unwilling to respond at speed. Inflation, energy price hikes and supply chain problems globally, exacerbated by issues such as the war in Ukraine, all play a part in a cost-of-living crisis that, for many, affects what and if they eat. Outside of those extremes there is the ever present, but often hidden issue of food insecurity (or poverty by another name). 

On opening OzHarvest Refettorio in Sydney, a joint venture with Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore’s Food for Soul, OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn said that 64 per cent of the people the food rescue charity serves have a job and a roof over their head, but they can’t cover costs like medical expenses, fuel, and food. Food insecurity is easily masked, and many Australians are making hard choices about what to prioritise. 

The Refettorio model, which Bottura and Gilmore have repeated across the world since opening their first in Milan in 2015, isn’t designed to feed the needs of hundreds at a time. The Sydney-based incarnation offers a dignified dining experience in a community hub setting for up to 300 guests per week. Bottura says when people ask what a Refettorio is he describes it as “a cultural project that shares beauty and hospitality in a different way, where we treat our guests like we do at our restaurants. It’s a warm hug we give as guests are welcomed into a beautiful space with delicious food, and we say this is your place and we are here for you.”

Individuals, governments and corporations all have their own degree of social responsibility, and there must be a degree of balance, where one doesn’t absolve the other.

Charity initiatives are meeting a “real need” in many areas, says Gyorgy Scrinis, an Associate Professor of Food Politics and Policy at The University of Melbourne. In looking at student food insecurity he says that 40 per cent of students in Australia, many of them international students, experience some level of food insecurity. While he understands that there’s often an immediate need, he says we should question the nature of food charities in how they're set up, how they distribute their food, and where they source their food from. Are the organisations where food is sourced from – supermarkets and corporate food manufacturers –  “reinforcing the very dynamics that are creating food insecurity in the first place?” asks Scrinis. “They may be reinforcing the existing structures of the food system which are generating food insecurity, affecting the price of food and who has access to it.” 

There’s a complex web of relationships at play, as well as responsibilities. Individuals, governments and corporations all have their own degree of social responsibility, and there must be a degree of balance, where one doesn’t absolve the other.

The act of giving is the “most rewarding and most unbelievable thing,” says Shaun Christie-David, but “instant gratification” isn’t forthcoming. “Changes that need to happen, you may never see, and you’ll never get a thank you for,” he says. What’s crucial is “knowing your place in the ecosystem of change and allowing it to come to fruition when it’s going to come to fruition.”  

“The difference between hopelessness and hope for the future can be one good meal.”

Valent has worked with and been an ambassador for food rescue not-for-profit FareShare for a decade. She says that anyone looking at how they can have an impact should do their due diligence. “I can only really speak to FareShare, which I've had a lot to do with over a long period of time, and just to say that it's incredibly well-run. It does good at every level: environmentally, socially, the way food is culturally appropriate, it's got a really amazing reconciliation action plan.”

Valent also says "don't reinvent the wheel.” Has someone else already done the groundwork, and could you contribute to what they're doing? Would that be a more effective way of giving or helping than starting from scratch? Think grassroots, and easily within your own control. She gives Kazuki’s on Lygon Street as an example, which offered free food during lockdowns and in more recent months served a casual Sunday afternoon offering of Japanese curry, “because they just felt like it was a bit of a down time and everyone was feeling a bit sad and perhaps in need of food, or perhaps just comfort.”

Whether a meal is given as a casual offering when a business has capacity or it’s one of the over 550,000 meals provided by Hope Hospitality Foundation, there is a simple truth, expressed by Neil Perry: “The difference between hopelessness and hope for the future can be one good meal.”

How Can I Help?

If you're feeling inspired to take action, here are some simple steps to get you started.

Words by Deborah Monrad-Hunt

Donate or volunteer with an existing foundation.

With the rising cost of living, the need for food relief has never been greater and even a small donation to organisations like Food Bank Australia or Sacred Heart Mission helps to provide the dignity of a good meal when it’s needed most.

If funds are tight, give the gift of time. One of the best ways to fight food insecurity is to get hands-on. Whether that’s preparing food, serving meals or participating in fundraising events, organisations like Hope Hospitality Foundation, Alex Makes Meals and FareShare, or open access centres like Canice's Kitchen in Sydney, St Mary's House of Welcome in Melbourne and Dig In in Brisbane, offer plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Reduce your food waste by donating your excess produce.

The hospitality sector is a significant contributor of large scale food waste. OzHarvest, SecondBite and Food for Change will accept your excess produce and then distribute it to food relief agencies across the country. Alternatively, you can call to organise a once-off or regular pick-up through St Mary's House of Welcome who will use your leftover stock to create meals for those visiting their not-for-profit centre.

Start a community fridge.

Community fridges gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as a simple solution to food waste and food insecurity. These brightly coloured, outdoor fridges are a place where anyone can take or donate food anonymously, and can be anything from a repurposed kitchen refrigerator to a large cooler.

Logistically, you’ll need a power source or host, an accessible location, the right permits and regular donors (if you don’t have access to kitchen facilities to make the meals yourself). Mashable has all the information you need to get started.

If that feels like too big of a project to take on, consider throwing your support behind Shop Bảo Ngọc and their community fridge in Melbourne.

Eat and drink your way to social change.

Sometimes the simplest ways of doing good are the most enjoyable, and by supporting establishments that are giving back you can enjoy a meal while also making a positive impact in your community.

Plate it Forward's profit-for-purpose venture Kabul Social provides employment for Afghan people seeking asylum, and every meal purchased means a donation of two meals in return – one to someone in need in Sydney and one to a family in Afghanistan. Likewise, you can grab a coffee from a STREAT cafe to provide a hot meal and on-the-job training to a young person in need, or make a booking in December at a DineSmart affiliated venue where a small donation from every bill is distributed across a number of grassroots organisations.

For your next date night, pick up a bottle of vino from SMHOW’s Homeless Grapes Project where 100% of the proceeds are funnelled directly back into programs tackling chronic homelessness.

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