The Inconvenience of Compassion
When was the last time you turned on your screen and it greeted you with anything remotely positive? A headline that didn’t trigger an apocalyptic sensor in your subconscious? Good stories are becoming increasingly rare because they just don’t sell. Our attention spans are so fleeting that only world-ending disasters can shake us from the digital hypnosis (and even then, momentarily).
But we need to remind ourselves that humanity isn’t dead. Regardless of any looming apocalypse, we’re all still here, struggling and sweating and wasting away. It is crucial, now more than ever, that we hold on to this common humanity. We’re losing ourselves in the digital age and we need to get back on track.
Shanaka Fernando is a leader in this simple philosophy. The motto of his Lentil as Anything restaurants is that everyone deserves a place at the table. The Lentils crowd is wonderfully diverse- from high court judges, to refugees, to homeless people. The restaurant staff are volunteers from every walk of life, who work for their meals.
Lentil as Anything has been around since Fernando opened the original St Kilda restaurant in 2000. There are two other venues in Melbourne, Abbotsford and Thornbury. And if you haven’t heard of it, Lentils operates on a “pay as you feel” basis. Astonishing, right? The fact that the businesses are not only sustainable, but expandable… How does it add up? When you think about the rate of hospitality venues going bust, the fact that Lentils has been around for 18 years, without charging people a set price… It truly is a testament to human generosity, compassion and hard work.
The restaurants are unlike anything you’ll ever experience. After visiting the Abbotsford venue last month, I was struck by a tangible buzz of love and community in the air. Loads of waiters bustling around, seats and tables squeezed with people, laughing and sharing their meals. It’s busy, but not like the aggressive hustle of peak-hour traffic. Time slows down. There is the rare sense that something truly good and uncorrupted is taking place. By removing their prices, Lentil’s erases the significance of status. Anyone can enjoy themselves without the uncomfortable burden of what they have in their wallet.
This humbling sensation is translated remarkably well through their wholesome, vegan menu. With volunteer chefs sharing their experiences from all over the world, the food is quite literally made with love. There is a heavenly fusion of ranging cuisines; from Indian to Italian to Japanese. Eating should not be a peacocking exhibition of wealth, but an opportunity to reconnect with nature and the people around us. As he pointed out in his 2012 Melbourne Ted Talk, food is one of the simplest and most compelling vehicles in bringing people together. Sharing a meal with loved ones is one of our oldest and most sacred rituals.
According to 2016 report by Foodprint Project, 900,000 tonnes of edible food is wasted every year in Melbourne alone. Anyone that has worked in hospitality will be aware of the disgusting amount of waste produced in a single night. The Lentils team are true leaders in minimising food wastage. They rely heavily on the generous donations of local businesses and farms. The food is often rescued and recycled. They have also been donated land around Melbourne that is now used for organic vegetable gardens that volunteers kindly maintain. Any excess cooked food is always donated to nearby homeless shelters.
Lentils also started Food Without Borders, an Australia wide food rescue program. In June this year, they were able to open the first pay-as-you-feel grocery store using rescued food (this generally means food destined for the dump because of dented packaging or slight bruising). Over 100 food boxes have already been sold, which means they’ve saved 600kg of food that would otherwise be landfill. The Inconvenience Store is located in Thornbury, behind the Lentils as Anything restaurant. There are no set prices (but a limit of up to 6kg) and customers are simply asked to contribute what they can afford (money or otherwise). As Fernando puts it, “it’s dumpster diving delivered!”
This incredible team of volunteers serves about 1.4 million meals a year, barely leaving a trace on the environment. The Inconvenience Store has already rescued over 20,000kg from going into landfill. But it hasn’t been an easy road for Fernando and his compassionate group. Last year, the Footscray restaurant was forced to close down due to lack of funding. On some nights, patrons were only paying an average of $2 a head. The summer and festival season are renowned for busier nights and lower spending. We must uphold the Lentils tradition of generosity and inclusion. Taking advantage of their generosity could threaten the livelihood of something truly hopeful. Human kindness must prevail.
Their philosophy might be simple, but it should not be overlooked. An uncomplicated gesture of kinship and togetherness. In these increasingly fragmented times, our most valuable moment is in the shared, physical present. Beneath all of our arbitrary labels and distinctions, we’re all equally human.
If you would like to donate to Food without Borders or join the Lentils family, click here.