The eclectic, homely interior of the Thornbury Lentil As Anything.
It’s like having a meal at a friend’s house. In return for a delicious vegan meal, you’ll repay them with whatever you can afford, whether that’s $10 or a few hours of your time.
It doesn’t sound like a regular restaurant, and it’s not. It’s Lentil As Anything (or to its regulars, Lentils), a not-for-profit, volunteer-run organisation that sees community involvement as its currency. Its values revolve around community, compassion, hope and human dignity rather than money.
The rise of poverty, as witnessed over the past few years in Australia, may push more people to seek alternative ways to live in the city as living costs continue to rise. With 50.6 per cent of those receiving Youth Allowance (which caters to 16 to 24 year-olds) living under the poverty line, it seems as though the younger generation will have to think creatively, as Lentil founder Shanaka Fernando did 13 years ago.
Beyond the basic needs of food, clean water, shelter and clothing, humans need social participation and equal opportunities. Recognising this was the first step of Fernando after noticing the homeless and refugees on the streets of Melbourne. They couldn’t afford to pay for meals, but they could repay with their time instead.
“We get people from completely different walks of life sitting next to each other on a table and talking to each other, and that’s probably one of my favourite parts of [Lentils] because it brings people together,” explains Jenny, a Lentil volunteer.
Social exclusion has been recognised as a major detrimental effect of poverty, affecting the well-being of those who aren’t able to engage in the social or cultural activities they would like to. For some, this may be going to a restaurant with friends.
A diverse range of regulars frequent Lentil As Anything.
Tootsie, like many other Lentil volunteers, found her life transformed when she started participating in the organisation. Now a manager at the four Lentil locations, Preston, Thornbury, Abbotsford and St Kilda, her history of unemployment, depression and social anxiety feels like another life.
“When everyone comes in the door I greet them happily because that’s how I was greeted when I first came here and I want other people to feel that same welcoming and wholeness I got,” she said.
Under her red apron, Tootsie’s t-shirt proclaims the Lentil philosophy: Everyone Deserves a Seat at the Table. Having experienced poverty first-hand, Tootsie believes that the problem goes much farther than money.
“To be poor… is to be alone. If you’re not involved or a part of anything, that loneliness creates the poverty,” she said.
The word ‘poverty’ is not synonymous with Australia, which ranks as the 15th richest country. But the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) found in its 2014 poverty report that 13.9 per cent of Australians are living below the poverty line. Or, in other words, a shocking 2.5 million Australians are surviving on under $400 a week.
The reason this issue is neglected may be because Australia’s social standards make it near impossible to compare our poverty to that of most developing countries. But that’s the key point: there is no comparison.
Poverty can be assessed through two frames; absolute poverty, which refers to a set standard regardless of the country, or relative poverty, which is based on the society of a citizen, and therefore the country and timeframe. The misconception that the standards of absolute poverty applies to every country has led to the general disregard of poverty as an issue in Australia, as it is not extreme in the same sense as it is in developing countries.
Yet for 2.5 million people, getting through the week is a struggle.
Since moving to Melbourne from North-East NSW for the wider job opportunities, 21 year-old Sapodia has struggled to pay the rent and make her money last through the week. For her, poverty effects more than her bank account.
“It’s something that really effects my wellbeing as everything seems so overwhelming and hard to deal with,” she said. “It makes me depressed, loathsome and self-hating when I’m not ordinarily that way.”
Similarly, Jenny found herself with few prospects after dropping out of Year 12 last year before discovering Lentil As Anything.
“I was feeling really unmotivated and not active in my life or in the community and I started volunteering here and it just completely changed everything,” she said.
“I found a place where I felt motivated and driven and welcomed and included.”
It is Lentil’s acceptance and diversity that inspires so many to join their network of volunteers.
“We don’t pay people to be here,” Tootsie explains. “People are involved because they want to be part of the community.”
You can’t help noticing a buoyancy of spirit as you walk out the door with a full stomach and a feeling that there is good in the world.