Open Table: using surplus food to foster community


Open Table uses surplus food to create wholesome community feasts, bringing together people from all walks of life. We spoke to Angela O’Toole, who coordinates the regular lunches and dinners that happen in different neighbourhoods across Melbourne, about the wonderful work Open Table is doing.

What is important about the work that Open Table does?

Officially Open Table has two core purposes, reducing food waste and fostering community connectedness. The food waste issue is a huge one, given that the estimates of food waste annually in Australia is around $8 billion. That is edible food, not scraps! For me getting that message out there is more important than physically reducing that amount of waste, and that is what our dinners do indirectly, let people know that this food that is destined for the bin can actually be transformed into a delicious feast! And then there is the community cohesion aspect of Open Table dinners. It is what our name describes about our organisations. We create a welcoming space for anyone and everyone to come and share a meal together. Around our communal table at any given event there might be a student from Fitzroy sitting next to a pensioner chatting about whatever takes their fancy. We aren't there to set an agenda, just bring people together, where everyone is equal. We sit down for lunch too so it is very much a 'shared meal' not a 'soup kitchen'. This is a really important aspect of our events, and for a lot of our regulars it is a really special social activity.

Why is fostering community pivotal in today's society?

We have lost those community meeting places. Once we had town squares and institutions like churches where the community congregated on a regular basis. We have moved away from that model of living and what we are seeing in our cities is huge amount of disconnect from our communities. Where we operate in the northern parts of Melbourne, there are huge disparities between people within the communities. As areas have gentrified, disadvantaged people have been pushed further and further towards the margins of our society. It is easy to ignore that in a busy city like Melbourne, but I don't believe we as a community want to see these divides widen anymore. Connecting with each other is a good start to bridging that gap and food is the perfect way to connect people.

Tell us about the importance of using waste as a resource.

When it comes to food waste, the environmental impacts of waste are huge. Not only are there all the wasted resources that went into creating the food (water, energy, time) but the damage that decomposing food in landfill can cause is also very alarming. Without proper composting, food decomposition will cause the release of methane gas. This is 25 times more potent than carbon pollution from cars. It ends up in our atmosphere, compounding the greenhouse effect to our planet, not to mention its contribution to climate change. So given all that waste it seems pretty important we try and change this cycle.

What do you love about Open Table?

I love getting creative with food and in a sense Open Table is the perfect fit for me. We don't know what food will be donated to us until the day before an event. Our job as volunteers is to create something delicious from what we have and I think we do an amazing job! I am constantly surprised by people’s creativity and I love that! We don't need the latest celebrity chef cookbook or the most expensive ingredients to create beautiful food that brings joy to the people who eat it. I love hearing someone commenting on what dish they liked best or asking who made what. It is really heartwarming and I can't imagine ever not wanting to bring people joy through food.

Head to the Open Table website to find a community lunch or dinner near you.

And check out ABC's three part series called War On Waste, starting this Tuesday. It's sure to be a cracker with comedic presenter Craig Reucassel.