Collecting the ingredients
SecondBite, a large food rescue organization that redistributes surplus fresh food donated by farmers, wholesalers, markets, supermarkets, caterers and events to community food programs around Australia, is the first collection point for an average Open Table day. Founded in 2005, SecondBite now operates in the eastern Australian states of Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and New South Wales. In 2013 SecondBite rescued and redistributed over four million kilograms of primarily fresh fruit and vegetables to approximately one thousand providers (SecondBite 2013). SecondBite collects from hundreds of major Australian supermarkets, manufacturers and wholesale producers receiving a variety of prepared and fresh goods including: “… Simplot who do prepared meals, a bit more pastas and sauces. Montagues apples who have not just apples but also stone fruit” (SecondBite spokesperson).
SecondBite provides the bulk of ingredients for Open Table’s community feasts. Rather than accept any surplus food, SecondBite commits to redistributing 95% nutritious food, as defined by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (Australian Government 2017), and 75% fresh fruit and vegetables. While this produce may be nearing its best-before date, it is still edible with its ‘ugly’ appearance hidden by preparation and cooking.
SecondBite’s donation criteria includes the need to “support programmes, not individuals” where:
… at least a majority who access the food need to be people in need, and we are very on board with inclusion and people feeling part of a group and having it as a social occasion. So as long as it’s not more than 30% of people accessing the food could actually go out and buy their own food from the supermarket. (SecondBite spokesperson)
SecondBite recognise that the statement ‘people in need’ is subjective. They further explain:
Our role is to work out that the charities that we are supporting are doing all the right things and they are supporting people we believe are in need, but at the end of the day they [the charities] are making that call. … We are logistics. We are collecting the food. We are giving it out to the agencies, not to people. (SecondBite spokesperson)
In this respect, due to their size and dual purpose, Open Table differs to other charities in being able to receive donations without having to categorize—and hence discriminate—their attendees as ‘in need’. Likewise, Open Table are also eligible to receive produce from small food retailers being protected by the Good Samaritan law, a state law that protects retailers from possible recrimination, while their small size enables them to collect food from a variety of retailers. Hence care is taken by SecondBite to source healthy food for those in need, while Open Table takes additional care to build goodwill with suppliers receiving gourmet donations from florists, bakeries and organic goods. Open Table’s small size means they can sustain themselves on smaller quantities of food donations, enabling them to anchor within local communities, such as local stores and related food sharing activities. The Open Table General Manager describes this as a food sharing culture:
It’s about sharing things as a group […] which brings people together whether they know it or not. Some people come and they don’t know what to expect. And think it’s going to be intimidating where they are going to have to get up and speak in front of people and meet a bunch of new people. But you can kind of do what you want. You can come with a takeaway container and leave, or sit down and chat for an hour.
As a result, Open Table’s feasts are often healthy and nutritious. By providing healthy meals, Open Table is able to overcome the stigma of consuming bad quality food as “second class food for second class people” (Schneider 2013, p. 761). This fresh, and mainly vegan, food has the additional advantage of lowering the risk of food contamination as explained by Open Table’s Vice President:
For them if you donate to a place, and it’s not just us—there are many community meals programs around—if you donate to them and they cook it on the premises, in registered food premises that are designed for that who have people with food safety certificates working in them, a lot of the risk is gone. And of course that doesn’t matter a fig for rice, pasta, fresh fruit and veg. So say like SecondBite, they distribute mainly fresh fruit and veg, their risk is minimal.
Furthermore, by fostering relationships with luxury health food stores, eaters dine on a range of high quality ingredients that expand their dietary diversity, reminding them they are ‘worth it’. This valuing of diners beyond basic provisioning is symbolized by the addition of normally expensive flowers as table dressings. These flowers, like other ingredients, have lost their economic value outside of the marketplace yet through care-full collection and presentation assert value. Gourmet edible additions emphasise that feasts are special events, deserving effort, and should be celebrated.
As part of a global food rescue movement, Open Table’s ingredients are also sustainably coded extending care to an environmental, more-than-human arena, where key tenants include deep connections, reciprocity, and moral commitments between nonhumans and humans (Whyte and Cuomo 2016). Sharp (2020) drawing on Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) highlights the need to carefully consider the views of often neglected actors and their relationships to animate and inanimate others. In so doing, care in food scholarship has the potential to expand into many aspects, values and approaches. Regarding Open Table’s produce, aspects of care are considered in the many attributes of sustainable sourcing that include the logistical companies, vendors, farmer owners and labourers and environmental resources of energy, water, phosphate, agro-chemicals and fuel.
Nguyen et al. (2014) analyse how freegan’s behaviour becomes symbolic of reverse stigma: consumers are no longer considered to be cultural dupes succumbing to market-driven forces of material consumption but instead actively contest the paradox of hunger versus waste. The emergence of formal food waste organizations and businesses have converted the re-use of ‘waste’ into a respectable, and even fashionable, act. By preventing food from going to waste, eaters are not only personally benefiting from free meals but also contribute to environmental sustainability—beyond themselves and beyond the meal—by reducing demand for further waste and pollution.
Healthy, gourmet, culturally appropriate, site-specific and sustainably-coded ingredients represent the first steps to re-valuing discarded produce and championing the people who consume it. Through this process of selection, collection and by placing local consumption as part of a global environmental movement, the meal takes on social and environmental “regimes of value” (Appadurai 1986, p. 4). This layering of values through practices of care displaces echoes of stigma to reframe the meal from threat of famine to feast.
Assembling the meal
Everyone—coordinators, volunteers and eaters—is welcome to arrive early to help prepare the meal in the community centre kitchen. This act of contributing, if they are needy or not, promotes a cyclical form of dignity as “when people engage in dignity work intended to promote others’ dignity, they often find that their own dignity is enhanced as well” (Jacobson 2012, p. 151). Importantly, there is no judgement or expectation for eaters to participate in the meal preparation, while alternatively everyone is welcome to suggest and cook dishes for the shared menu. A key job for the local venue coordinator is to find something for everyone to do, should they wish to participate. Both low-skilled contributions to encourage participation, or support to skill up are on offer, as explained by Open Table’s General Manager:
So we do have a lot of people that will help in their own way, sweeping ‘or doing the dishes. And then there’s some people who really want to help out with cooking, who have limited cooking skills. Particular in Brunswick, we have a lot of people in supported housing nearby to help us. But maybe we just get them peeling fruit or helping the table decorations or things like that.
There is no ‘right’ way to make a dish as people respond to the haphazard ingredients at hand. The process of sorting jumbled produce at different stages of deterioration from the boxes, combined with its preparation, elicits demonstrations of skills and stories, embedding personal, material and experiential values into the anticipated feast. Most people ask what needs to be done, grab a knife and start chopping, while others peel, stir, bake, clean, arrange flowers and set the table. Simple tasks grant an easy access point for people to participate, especially important for those who are shy or unsure. For example, a frequent attendee is an elderly Italian gentlemen who participates at three venues (many people only attend one) who chooses not to design meals but only to chop, cut, grate, pluck, stir and sauté for others. This kitchen camaraderie resonates with a feminist ethics of care that is based on interconnection and relationality (Askins 2015; Beasley and Bacchi 2005; Lawson 2007) where participants are learning a capacity to care through watching interactions by others. Opening opportunities for connections to be made, assembling the meal is guided by an understanding that “people need each other in order to lead a good life and that they can only exist as individuals through and via caring relationships with others” (Sevenhuijsen 2003, p. 183). This exchange of roles blurs power relationships where “a donor transforms his or her status in the relationship from the dominant to the generous” (Hattori 2001, p. 640).
Kitchens vary in autonomy with some volunteers choosing to acquire more leadership over time. For example, volunteers at the Brunswick site have participated for more than 4 years resulting in little need for support from the Open Table General Manager. This duration has enabled a strong bond between attendees and volunteer chefs to develop.
I think that a lot of people really enjoy the communal aspect. And I think the guys who come to Brunswick, that have been coming since the very first week. They have taken a lot of ownership over the events. They all know all the dates … and who’s going to be there. (Open Table General Manager)
Alternatively at the Fawkner site, a new arrival to Australia started making Pakistani food to share. Her chicken biryani quickly became extremely popular, attracting donors who supplied specialist ingredients to ensure the dish remained on the menu. The volunteer chef’s confidence in her cooking grew through volunteering where she has since taken on similar roles in the broader asylum seeker and refugee community. Hence, care to not only facilitate entry to the meal but to also grant flexibility for skilling up, to take on new responsibilities, and for reciprocity within and across roles are essential factors for empowering volunteers to grow their own sense of self whilst also sustaining volunteer-dependent initiatives.
Offering the kitchen as a shared, equitable space provides another possibility for social inclusion and dignity as many people feel safer in the familiar kitchen than in the open dining space (Martin 2017). Ahmed (2000, p. 279–280) recognizes that “collectives are formed through the very work that we need to do in order to get closer to others”. Here the kitchen becomes a shared space of constant gentle negotiations as participants offer help and provide instruction, chipping away at the boundaries between giver and receiver (Askins 2015). An Italian grandmother who is a new arrival to the Coburg Open Table offers a good example, as recorded in the author’s field notes:
S. tells us that she has cooked all her life and does not want to cook! But she remains within the kitchen to watch us work and as I begin to cook the pasta, she says that I have no idea how to do it! It needs salt! Salt! Oil – put oil in! You must stir it! Time it! Test it! Test it with the sauce! Her input is relentless. I start to tease her a little, in a good way, and her response is to further torment me with instructions! Both our efforts finally pay off as she pronounces the pasta a success and when I go to leave, she blows me a kiss and asks if I’ll be back.
Bedore (2018, p. 220) speaks of how dignity is ascribed through “a person’s enjoyment of having status, rank or being of ‘merit’ compared with others. It is through individual or collective ‘dignity work’ that people work to rescue, repair or promote their own dignity, in either affirmative or defensive ways”. The Italian grandmother’s knowledge of how to produce good spaghetti symbolises affirmative dignity work. From being initially nervous, she was comfortable to enter via the kitchen, which, after sharing and asserting her skills, said that she would return to join future activities.
A seat at the table
Finally, the meal is served. The author’s field notes describe a typical Open Table feast:
When I arrived, dinner was at least halfway prepared, with salads and bits and pieces chopped and being used for this and that. It was all quite random with people just creatively doing what they could with the ingredients on hand. (…) There were the normal dishes nicely done – a fruit salad sprinkled with pomegranates, kiwi fruit and mint, a salsa salad finished off with lemon, a broccoli dish, some sautéed Chinese greens.
Open Table respects their eaters’ specific needs. While Open Table generally serves vegan meals due to food safety factors, depending upon the preferences of attendees, meat and dairy may also be served on occassion. For example, as there is high multi-cultural attendance at the Fawkner venue, Open Table also offer halal meals, and even separate dining rooms for the women and children. As explained by a volunteer local coordinator: “Yes, we do always share something that will meet every criteria. We get a lot of vegetarians, vegans”. Another local coordinator states: “So it’s about catering for your community and being culturally appropriate”. This consideration evokes what Spring et al. (2019), drawing on Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy (2013) and Hayes-Conroy (2017), refer to as ‘visceral food access’ where Open Table acknowledges that attendees have “specific bodily histories and prior and current affective/emotional relations with alternative foods” (Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy, p. 82) that “comingle with embodied sensations of food handling and eating to (re)shape visceral access, body–food relationships and encounters” (Spring et al. 2019, p. 845). To make participants feel comfortable they both invite them to prepare, and prepare for them, specific foods that are healthy, enjoyable and suitable for their backgrounds. This eclectic meal not only follows bodies’ needs but also acknowledges “experiences of social position(ing), norms and difference” (Hayes-Conroy 2017, p. 51). A flexibility to accept ingredients to mark special moments is also appreciated, such as the gold coins and Christmas cake illustrated in Fig. 1.
Open Table volunteers often take care to invite local people to attend the meal by walking to nearby public spaces, doing a letterbox drop, and knocking on neighbors’ doors. This strategy is effective and essential for people who are socially or physically isolated or for whom social media does not reach. The North Coburg Open Table is one such example where Open Table volunteers door-knocked a nearby housing complex to personally invite elderly people to participate.
Each venue appeals to different attendees (see Table 1 above). Like the meal’s ingredients, attendance is unfixed, dynamic and sporadic—sometimes many people will attend, at other times, only a few. Participants’ often reflect a mix of motivations, ages and backgrounds. Open Table is adaptive to social difference where people are not forced to integrate with each other. Choice is important as not everyone can tolerate the same degree of social interaction. For example, one lady at Coburg was too shy to eat with others so she eats her lunch in the quiet kitchen, while at Fitzroy a homeless man shows up regularly before the meal to receive a take-away container packed with food to go on his way. For those who chose to stay, eaters sat either together or apart. Dining tables may be arranged as one large table, as a series of tables placed from end-to-end, or as clusters of grouped tables. While not demanding people to sit together, Open Table offers an opportunity for diverse people to share a physical space in a safe, respectful, joyful and well-fed atmosphere. Here too no judgment is made — people have the option to stay, sit and eat together or to grab food and go. This adaptability allows people to maintain their dignity where: “To be dignified or have dignity is first to be in control of oneself, competently and appropriately exercising one’s power” (Sayer 2007, p. 568). Rather than restrict or judge an individual, Open Table’s focus remains on care for the individual, the environment, and on the meal itself. One amusing incident occurred at the Carlton Open Table where a very large group of elderly Asian people entered the dining room, grabbed take-away containers, took a majority of the food that had been carefully prepared, and then immediately departed. Rather than be upset, the General Manager was happy that the food was appreciated and was no longer going to waste.