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Lentil As Anything
Making the World a Better Plate

The colourful walls of the restaurant „Lentil As Anything“ invite guests to stay.
The colourful walls of the restaurant „Lentil As Anything“ invite guests to stay. | © Nina Trögeler

Sydney’s trendy suburb of Newtown could not be any more diverse. Be it students, labourers, artists or homeless people: they all contribute to the suburb’s urban flair. ‘Lentil As Anything’ is a place where they all come together. The restaurant’s name is derived from the Australian rock band ‘Mental As Anything’, and in addition to operating as a restaurant, ‘Lentil As Anything’ runs charitable social projects that benefit people as well as the environment.

By Nina Trögeler

The restaurant’s walls are colourful. Just as colourful as its guests and its team, consisting of many volunteer helpers and a handful of employees. Since opening its doors four years ago, hungry people who can’t afford a hot meal have been able to eat their fill here every day.

It all started in the year 2000, when founder Shanaka Fernando opened his first non-profit restaurant in Melbourne. The idea: Everybody pays whatever they think their meal is worth and whatever it is they can afford, a concept that quickly became popular. These days, there is a total of four restaurants in Australia, both in Melbourne and Sydney.
 

The Sri Lankan curry: The favourite of the locals. The Sri Lankan curry: The favourite of the locals. | © Nina Trögeler

Breaking down socio-economic barriers

“What do we need to do so that everyone can come together and eat? Obviously money is a hurdle for people, so I thought we take out the hurdle of money and allow people to contribute as much as they can,” Shanaka Fernando explains in an interview with PICKLE MagazineLentil As Anything’s “pay-as-you-feel” system breaks down socio-economic barriers, with nobody feeling excluded because of their lack of financial resources. “Pay-as-you-feel” means that each guest freely decides how much they think their meal is worth. Information flyers with suggested prices have been placed on the tables to serve as a guideline. A donation of ten Australian Dollars covers the cost of one’s own meal as well as part of the operating costs, and a donation of 15 Dollars covers all costs for one portion. Any amount beyond that means a hot meal for someone with little or no income. The donation box is located at the exit so everyone can decide how much they would like to contribute without fear of being judged.
 
The donations are collected in the magic box. The donations are collected in the magic box. | © Nina Trögeler
 

Paying with time

Instead of putting money into the donation box, people can also donate their time and help out with the restaurant’s day-to-day operation. Every year, more than 500 volunteers support the not-for-profit restaurant. Their motives vary greatly. Some of them do so out of necessity, lacking sufficient funds to pay for their meal. Others are looking to improve their language or culinary skills or meet new people. Regardless of their personal motivation, Lentil As Anything is a point of contact for everyone. “Everyone can be part of it. It’s all about inclusion,” community manager Nicole Khoury tells me during a personal conversation. She explains that there is no exclusion here. The tables have been arranged into long communal tables so that strangers can become friends. To be as inclusive as possible, the entire menu consists of vegan dishes. Regardless of religious values or special eating habits, vegan food works for everyone.

The meals on offer change daily and the food is prepared fresh. The chefs have the opportunity to express themselves freely and cook whatever they like. The Sri-Lankan Curry is a classic and very popular with the regulars. The about 500 to 600 meals going over the counter every day at Lentil As Anything in Newtown require a lot of groceries. Great emphasis is placed on sustainability. Next to social inclusion, it plays a key role in the restaurants’ day-to-day operations.

‘Food without Borders’ for sustainability

One of the projects initiated by Lentil As Anything is Food without Borders. The goal is to prevent good food from ending up in landfill. Every year, about 3.1 tons2 of good food are being thrown away in Australia alone. This enormous food waste entails a high cost factor as well as avoidable environmental impacts. In cooperation with SecondBite and Food Bank, groceries that local stores aren’t allowed to sell anymore are rescued and utilised in the Lentil As Anything kitchens. SecondBite and Food Bank are national organisations fighting hunger and food waste in Australia. They accept donations from farmers, wholesalers and others. These are then either distributed directly to people or passed on for use in the restaurant’s kitchens. The acceptance criteria for food donations are strict in order to ensure high quality and hygiene standards.

Another project is The Inconvenience Store in Melbourne, a supermarket that solely sells donated vegan foodstuffs that would otherwise end up in the bin. By shopping there, people are taking action against food waste, reducing environmental impacts and strengthening their local community. Here, too, the team consists of volunteers, and customers decide how much they want to pay for their shopping.

More than just food

Inclusion doesn’t stop at eating either. The Open Space on the upper level of the Newtown restaurant offers community activities on a “pay-as-you-feel” basis as well. The program reaches from salsa lessons to yoga classes and group meditation. No prior knowledge is required and everyone is invited to participate. In addition, artists can exhibit their works in the shop and musicians can treat the guests to live music.

For some, it may just be a restaurant with an interesting payment method. But for most people, it is much more than that. Lentil As Anything stands for community, charity and sustainability. Regular Cassy Judychair explains: “Lentil As Anything is a cross-section. A variety of people are meeting here, and some of them go through hard times in their lives. Lentil As Anything helps keep people together.”
 
The program in Open Space: salsa, yoga and meditation for all. The program in Open Space: salsa, yoga and meditation for all. | © Nina Trögeler

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