A community lunch made with food that would otherwise be thrown out is easing social isolation.
It's a warm Saturday afternoon in North Fitzroy. Up the stairs of Bargoonga Nganjin, the refurbished North Fitzroy Library, a flurry of volunteers are handing out surveys to a growing queue. This is a regular community lunch, free for attendees, that is the result of a collaboration between Yarra Council, Open Table and food rescue groups such as OzHarvest and SecondBite as well as local businesses that donate food.
Beyond the glass doors, there's a clatter of plates, knives on chopping boards and the cacophony of various accents talking and singing from a spacious room that opens to a grass-lined seating area and herb garden. The kitchen is being run by Hiroko, who has taken a delivery of food from OzHarvest that morning and has since devised a menu on the fly to feed 80 people.
Boxes of strawberries, watermelon, rye bread, sweet potatoes, mushrooms and fruit loaf await preparation by a team of apron-bedecked volunteers of various ages, ethnicities and kitchen experience.
Juan, a Spanish national who has lived in Melbourne for a year, has brought three friends who have no idea what they're in for. "We trust him," Elsa says.
Juan has been to four Open Table events at Bargoonga Nganjin this year, volunteering at the last one. "It's a great way to make friends," he says. "Last time, I made jam from apple and pear and it was the best meal I've had here so far."
We want to break down the barriers that marginalise people from the wider community.
Open Table has been running for six years. It was started by a group of RMIT students who saw an opportunity to use food that would otherwise go to landfill and to ease social isolation in areas of the inner north where there is a highly varied mix of cultures, ethnicities, ages and socioeconomic profiles. It now runs at six locations in Melbourne.
"We don't turn anyone away," says manager Angela O'Toole. "It's the nature of donated food that when the food runs out, that's it. If people show up late, we try to pad it out as much as we can, but it has happened once or twice that people have been too late."
In the northern suburbs of Glenroy and Fawkner, there's a more noticeable mix of Greek and Italian immigrants from the 1950s and '60s with the South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants of recent years. Here, at North Fitzroy, there's a mix of students, retirees, local families and couples. Some have planned to attend, having spotted a flyer in the library or heard via word of mouth about the events. Others have dropped by the library and followed the scent of roasting sweet potatoes to the third floor to join in.
"It's a real mixed bag because of it being a library and a public space. You'll see older retirees, young, multicultural students," says O'Toole. "I think that, particularly because it's so open and there's no defined menu, a lot of people feel welcome and not intimidated."
As I watch kids run around throwing grapes at each other, or peering with bewilderment at the massive plates of food to choose from, I marvel that the community I live in embraces shared meals and shared time in an age where loneliness is rife and people are more likely to order UberEats than strike up a conversation at their local cafe with a stranger.
Lance, in his late 60s, retired years ago and lives alone in Fitzroy. He is adamant that he loves to eat alone, yet he has only missed two of the regular lunches since he began attending in February. He has no interest in making friends, he says. He just wants to come and sit with everyone, eat his food, enjoy himself and go home.
"Do you care that it's all healthy, vegetarian and nutritious?" I ask.
He looks over my shoulder to eye off the mashed potato.
"It all tastes good, that's all I care about."
Food transcends language, which perhaps explains the sense of harmony. While there are groups that have kept to themselves at tables, for the most part the white trestle tables adorned with vases of donated flowers host a mix of people that are eating, chatting, insisting upon sharing their vegetable patties or glancing with curiosity at the plates of their neighbours.
"We don't want to be a soup kitchen," says O'Toole. "We want to break down the barriers that marginalise people from the wider community. Everyone eats as much, or takes away as much, as they need or want."
O'Toole likens Open Table to the approach of a Sikh guru nearly 500 years ago in Amritsar in north-western India. The Sikh Golden Temple provides a volunteer-served free lunch. Roti, rice pudding, dhal and vegetables are served to about 100,000 people daily. The philosophy of Guru Nanak was that there should be a place where people, regardless of religion or social status, could sit together as equals, eating the same food.
Revolutionary 500 years ago, this free lunch still feels rare and special today.