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Good Humans: Loretta Bolotin of Free To Feed

Images by Emily Weaving @weaving & Sarah Pannell @sarahpannell

Welcome to the Good Human Series, a space where we celebrate the good in humanity by sharing the stories of impact focused individuals making a positive change in the world through their work.

We have made it to the holiday season, everything is looking a little more merry, feeling a little more bright. A time for gathering, for giving, and for really good food. So today we’re serving up a story with all three. We recommend enjoying it with a snack because it’s guaranteed to make you hungry.

Located in Melbourne’s North Fitzroy is Free To Feed, a social enterprise which uses the power of food to support refugees, migrants, and people seeking asylum. The idea being to hone individuals existing skills and stories into meaningful employment, while also creating a space for community and connection. Much like Outland, Free To Feed doesn’t exist to empower those who are vulnerable, it exists to provide the tools needed so people can empower themselves.

Since 2016 Free To Feed has provided over 21.8K hours of paid training to participants and distributed over $545.7K in employment wages to people seeking asylum and refugees. But what’s even more impressive is the program’s outcomes that are more difficult to communicate in numbers, but certainly are just as important. Like the boost in confidence and pride experienced by Free To Feed’s alumni, or the countless life-long connections sparked within the program’s walls.

Though their backgrounds are diverse, the program’s team and participants share a common spirit and resilience. As you’ll read below, this community wasn’t going to let COVID bring them down. They saw the pandemic as an opportunity to help bring food to those in need and spread their reach virtually to the rest of Australia.

As Free To Feed put it, “what better place to celebrate traditions and memories, stories and new experiences than over a feasting table? After all, for every one of us, these things are so often inextricably linked to sharing food and cooking with friends and family.” We couldn’t have said it better.

Today on the Good Humans Series, we chat to Free To Feed founding CEO Loretta Bolotin about the short and long-term, generational impact of Free To Feed, how her background informed what the program is today, and what’s on the horizon this Summer in the Free To Feed kitchens.

 

You’ve been working in the refugee sector for some time now and have always been passionate about working in the humanitarian space, but what was it that inspired you to use food as a vehicle to do this work?

Using food as a vehicle to create change was really inspired by countless interactions with refugees and people seeking asylum that would so generously invite me to gather and share a meal and break bread. Connecting around the dinner table makes conversation flow, It makes it easy. And it's also so adventurous and stimulating and interesting. And behind each recipe, or each spice is a story or a memory. So it sort of felt obvious, you know, to dip into using food, especially because it was so prevalent and important in the identities for all the people that I was supporting on the ground. And not to mention, I was invited to Afghan barbecues and Persian feasts where women would cook for hours and they had so much pride in their food even when everything else in their life was stripped away. It felt a bit like a no brainer, really.

Personally, has cooking always been something you are passionate about and enjoy?

You’d be surprised to know that I’m actually not the best cook myself. However I have had food as a part of my identity and my culture since I was a little one. My family migrated to Australia and they brought with them a very strong culture. Their Mediterranean instinct is to gather and to cook. I’ve always grown up in abundant veggie gardens and sitting around the table chopping vegetables alongside my grandparents and my parents. My parents started a food business when they migrated to Australia. So food has always been an important part of my life and I’m super passionate about it really mostly as a conversation tool.

I guess it’s important to note that actually, it was my curiosity in cooking, but not my skills in cooking that enabled me to do this work because the refugees that we work with, they come with incredible cooking talent. Really there is no space for me in the kitchen, there is only space for me to do all of the taste testing.

We imagine that there is a huge rush of confidence, pride and dignity that comes from not just being welcomed into a space, but having the opportunity to share your culture and lead by way of food and tradition. Has this been your experience in running the program?

Participants in our leadership, empowerment and communications program learn so much about communication and about storytelling that when it comes time to complete their recipe development sessions and welcome guests into their very first cooking experience they are so proud and honestly the training is quite transformative in terms of confidence and their sense of pride in their culture. Unanimously everyone that i’ve met is so proud to stand up there and say I’m Persian, I’m from Iran, and this is my food, or I am Palestinian, and this is my culture. So, there is a great sense of pride but also really just a sense of welcome. It’s a way they can extend welcome and be welcomed which is a lovely thing.

How do you hope Free to Feed will positively impact your Alumni’s children and grandchildren? Have you already started to see this generational change?

Free to Feed has created a space, a home, in North Fitzroy that is so important to the refugee community. It’s a safe space, a space that actually despite all the challenges of the pandemic has remained constant. They’ve been able to come to work, but more than that there are counselling rooms, cozy nooks, piles of cookbooks. They feel welcome in the space and that welcome also extends to their family members and to their children. So our alumni form lifelong connections even beyond our program - those social connections with each other from Free to Feed have remained intact.

Our alumni go on to do, whatever makes them feel happy, secure and empowered. That’s what it’s all about. They go on to live lives that are connected. They secure jobs in hospitality or they start thriving businesses located within refugee communities. But most of all they have the confidence, and they are seen and they are known, and that’s massive

Behind each recipe, or each spice is a story or a memory. So it sort of felt obvious, you know, to dip into using food, especially because it was so prevalent and important in the identities for all the people that I was supporting on the ground..."

How did COVID-19 and limitations to gathering in-person impact Free to Feed? How did you pivot and how excited are you to get back in that kitchen?!

COVID meant that we couldn’t gather together around the dinner table, but that’s ok. We spent 18 months working with our cooks to hone in on recipes that really provoked resilience, that were about nourishment and we did this through our Brave Meals Program - home delivered meals all across Victoria that were heartwarming, you know spicy Sri Lankan curries and Lamb Kofta, enriched and fragrant tomato broths, so we certainly kept busy. We also did lots of virtual classes and recipe kits that we sent all around Australia, so it was a great opportunity to go national too.

But we did feel sad everyday as we walked in and we saw, you know, our tables and our space empty. We’re so desperate to gather people, to light the candles, to put out fresh flowers, to set the table with beautiful linens, to put music on and welcome people back into our space. And we’ve just started doing that, so we’re running small dinners and activating our beautiful North Fitzroy home and our cooking experiences are just about to start as well. So there is an amazing program with cooks from Palestine to Iran, to Iraq, to Columbia, lebanon. They are so vibrant and they are going to be running between Thursday and Sunday every single week so we are super pumped to be back and to be getting the opportunity to gather again because, you know, we need it, we need that connection and our most vulnerable community members need that connection and that inclusion too.  

What makes you feel hopeful?

I always feel really hopeful when I see and hear directly from our program participants what it had meant for them to have a platform, and a confidence transformation, you know, that makes me feel uber hopeful. But is also makes me feel hopeful seeing the community, the local community extent welcome to new arrivals and go beyond the rhetoric and the politics which is all about fear and exclusion and the ‘other’, and just be like really curious, interested, and also to, to choose to spend their time and eat food from a social enterprise with a mission such as ours and to choose to invest their, say whether it’s business dollars on catering that comes from Free to Feed, it makes me feel really hopeful to see even that consumer power being leveraged to do good in the world.

What's on the horizon?

On the horizon is the end of year! Which we’re super pumped about because everyone can get gathering. Businesses and colleagues can reconnect after 18 months of separation and isolation. We’re just excited about getting in there, having our classes reinstated, launching our North Fitzroy venue once more and actually having a chance to set the table and throw open the doors and let all that beautiful breeze and sunlight come in. Our Summer menus are going to be gorgeous. So, I’m really just so excited about Summer and being able to do what we do best.

To learn more about Free To Feed, or to book catering or an event experience click HERE.

"We’ve always seen business as a force for good and our approach to Thankyou when we first started still remains the same today - it wasn’t about starting a business that could also do some good in the world. It was about using business as a means to right a social injustice."

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