The Australian social enterprise offering shared food experiences from around the world as a way to give refugees the chance to ‘create their own future’

The tops of those cream-coloured fins, as with some of the brown tiles lower down the building, bear graffiti, and the facade has some flaking cement render.

Hong Kong charity helps asylum seekers tell their stories through food

The building itself serves as a metaphor for the work the organisation does.

After decades spent servicing the automotive industry as a garage and later a tyre shop, it now has a fresh purpose. Inside, renovation has transformed it into a contemporary hospitality venue.

Red brick walls and exposed ceiling trusses remain as a nod to the building’s industrial past and create a hipster aesthetic.

Free to Feed’s event space, in an old building in Melbourne’s Fitzroy North suburb. Photo: Free to Feed

There’s a full bar, a long dining table, breakout seating and a commercial kitchen where today’s feast has been prepared by Free to Feed participants.

Dishes from the new menu are laid out before us on a grazing table and include vegan, vegetarian, and gluten- and nut-free dishes, as well as options for omnivores. It’s an inclusive banquet with flavours from around the world.

The highlight is an Ethiopian dish of Berbere roasted sweet potato with hazelnuts, fresh herbs and orange dressing.

A Free to Feed catering event with diverse dishes laid out on a large grazing table. Photo: Free to Feed
The Ethiopian dish of berbere roasted sweet potato with hazelnuts, fresh herbs and orange dressing was the highlight for the author when she attended a Free to Feed event. Photo: Joanne Brookfield

There is also Lebanese fattoush with fried pita and a chilli sumac dressing; fresh and charred seasonal greens with Middle Eastern za’atar puffed wild rice; ta’ameya – Egyptian falafel; Turkish dolma; Persian jewelled rice with saffron, pistachios, almonds and barberries; and more besides.

Melbourne has a well-deserved reputation among epicureans.

With a large migrant population, the city’s cafes, bistros, bars and restaurants serve an array of authentic foods from various cultures, and fusion dishes too.

Free to Feed represents the food and cultures of over 40 countries, according to Bolotin. Photo: Instagram/@freetofeedmelbourne

Free to Feed is a one-stop shop that brings them all together, from Iraqi to Somali, Burmese to Iranian, Afghan, Syrian, Colombian – you name it.

According to Bolotin, the nationalities represented by the organisation number almost 40.

Bolotin has spent her adult life in the humanitarian sector, having worked with organisations and groups including the Australian Red Cross; Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice in The Hague, Netherlands; people held in the Australian Immigration Detention system; and Syrian refugees in Cairo, Egypt.

Every day we see that transition from a pretty harrowing experience to hope and optimism, and it’s really exciting

Loretta Bolotin

Bolotin’s parents emigrated from southern Italy as a result of economic hardship, and as a child growing up in the family delicatessen, she saw first-hand the power of food to unite.

She started Free to Feed in 2015. Initially it offered pop-up cooking experiences at “borrowed cafes and market spaces” in inner city Melbourne, at which refugees would teach participants how to cook traditional dishes from their country.

These weren’t your average cooking classes, nor were they intended to be.

The Free to Feed events team. Photo: Free to Feed

The classes struck a chord with locals, and this helped Free to Feed find a permanent location in Northcote in northern Melbourne.

The organisation offers accredited and pre-accredited hospitality training programmes for new arrivals. These are guided by trauma-informed practice and theories of acculturation, psychosocial rehabilitation and empowerment in the context of the resettlement experience.

“Free to Feed has been designed to be a stepping stone,” Bolotin says, “so success for us looks like people that are able to fully transition out of our programme into steady jobs, [with] the ability to support their families and the ability to be active agents in creating their own futures and participating in their own community.”

Free to Feed’s Loretta Bolotin (third from left) with staff and participants at Free To Feed. Photo: Free to Feed

Rituals around cooking and the sharing of stories around the table create meaningful bonds, and that idea underpins Free to Feed, where the focus is as much on community interaction as it is sharing cooking secrets.

Bolotin says the spring menu is a reflection of Free to Feed’s ultimate aim. “We want to be able to bring a new beginning, a new season of growth, of vibrancy, of colour into the lives of those that have recently arrived in our community.”

Free to Feed’s approach has a positive impact on participants, according to Bolotin. “Every day we see that transition from a pretty harrowing experience to hope and optimism, and it’s really exciting,” she says.

Colombian chef Verena prepares food at a Free to Feed event. Photo: Instagram/@freetofeedmelbourneT

The organisation continues to expand its offerings, especially given the size of the Fitzroy North venue. “We can operate on a much larger basis,” Bolotin says. This in turn increases the numbers of lives Free to Feed can help transform.

Although intimate group cooking experiences remain one of its bedrocks, Free to Feed also offers experiences for larger corporate teams.

It also provides a wide range of catering services.

Members and participants of Free to Feed. Photo: Instagram/@freetofeedmelbourne

The event space is available to hire for functions and weddings, and has hosted pop-up bake sales and sold-out seasonal “Feasts”, where people dine in from a set-price menu.

There are many more plans in the pipeline.

Free to Feed achieved a milestone in October 2022 when the sum in wages paid to people seeking asylum and refugees it had helped surpassed A$1 million (US$644,000).

“Since October, we’ve reached A$1.6 million,” says Bolotin. “So we’re just getting started.”


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