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  • by Lindy Schneider
At ten minutes to six, there are already twenty people standing, plates in hand, in the queue. Donna, a single mother, waits with her two children, a baby on her hip and a four year old hugging her leg. From behind the servery window she hears the clatter of spoons and smells the waft of food – dinner tonight is served by volunteers at the Koha Community Café, in Yarra Junction in the Upper Yarra Valley. The chalkboard details the vegetarian fare for the evening; a vegetable curry, rice pilaf, garden salads, pasta bake, calzone and apple crumble have all been prepared that day using seasonal and donated produce from the region. However, there is one noticeable absence – there are no prices on this menu – the Koha Community Cafe operates on a ‘pay what you can afford’ philosophy with patrons making donations in a large timber box at the doorway after they have eaten.

In the next 24 hours, 6% of Victorians will experience ‘food insecurity’, defined as ‘having run out of food (in the last 12 months) and could not afford to buy more’ (Community Indicators Victoria, 2009). In real terms, this equates to over 370,000 people not knowing where their next meal is coming from. Socially marginalized groups like the homeless, the elderly and the mentally ill are most prevalent in this figure; however, there is every likelihood that a person or family living down the street or  in your immediate community could tonight be that statistic.

In rural areas, this percentage is even higher, and two years ago when Warburton resident Suyin Chan heard this figure she felt urged to respond. While studying for her Diploma of Community Development, Suyin attended a lecture by Shanaka Fernandocreator of ‘pay what you can afford café’Lentil As Anything, and this seeded the idea for the Koha Community Café, which opened last February after 18 months of planning. ‘I was inspired by Shanaka’s vision,’ says Suyin, ‘and although his approach was focused on supporting migrants, I could immediately see how it could be applied to any marginalised group and was especially relevant in the community in which I lived.’

The ‘pay what you can afford’ café model is based on the principles of trust and generosity. Meals are prepared based on what is available and are nutritious, good quality and vegetarian. The not-for-profit café serves 50-70 meals every Thursday night to members of the local community regardless of status or financial circumstances. The ‘pay what you can afford’ model means that those who can’t afford a meal can be fed, while those that can afford to, contribute as generously as they feel. There are no expectations around price and every person is treated equally. Underpinning this model is a level of community consciousness that holds values, ethics and generosity in higher esteem than profit or economic success.

Suyin sees this ‘social inclusion’ model of food security as a vital link in improving basic access to quality food, an approach that augments the more established ways of providing emergency food relief such as soup kitchens, food parcels and food vouchers. ‘It’s a hand up, not a hand out approach,’ she says, ‘one that seeks to develop strong ongoing ties in the local community and be self-sustaining.’

Volunteers are the lifeblood of Koha Café. They are a diverse group of people who contribute to the day to day workings of the café and are the key to the sustainability of the café’s business model. Some volunteer to support the initiative and ideals of the Café, others as a way of contributing to the community or in exchange for what they receive. For some volunteers, work at the cafe has provided them with more than food in their bellies. At a deeper level, their contribution has provided them with a renewed sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging that transcends socio-economic measurements. Kathy now has experience as a kitchen hand and for the first time in her life is feeling confident about applying for ‘real’ jobs in hospitality. Volunteering at the Café is like a balm for feelings of isolation and for a person who might be feeling marginalized, a bridge back into life in the community.

The Koha Community Café is beginning to work with local food growers to establish supply chains that support local employment and sustainability. Training equips volunteers with necessary skills and adds to their employability in the region, and a few community gardens are developing food-growing programs to ensure a continued supply of seasonal produce to the Koha kitchen. Food sovereignty, where people are able to influence, work in and benefit from the production and acquiring of food to support not only their own needs, but also those of a broader population, is a guiding principle for these endeavors. For the people at Koha, the return to community-based food security is a return to a way of thinking that should never have been lost.

Australians throw out $5 billion worth of food per year (The Australia Institute). The Feed Melbourne campaign (2010), a joint initiative of food charity Fareshare, advocacy group Do Something, and Leader Newspapers, recently ran a campaign to help collect, store and redistribute ‘dumped food’ (often by major retailers) that was still fit for human consumption. At Koha a similar principle applies with local farmers, local restaurants and other food distributors being encouraged to drop off their excess at the Koha kitchen. ‘We had so many zucchinis and pumpkins one day,’ laughs Suyin. ‘that everyone who came that night left with vegetables to take home.’ Lundqvist estimates there is a ‘field to fork’ food wastage factor of approximately 50% – the redistribution of food could have many advantages including a positive environmental impact.

‘The truth is we wouldn’t be able to operate if it weren’t for the food donated to us, the volunteers who so generously donate their time each week and the fact that we rent the kitchen and dining hall space for only the time we need it, one night a week,’ says Suyin. ‘If we had to pay rent for premises a whole week, we just wouldn’t be able to manage.’

‘When we consider the concept of success in a community café such as Koha the reality is that, by economic standards, it doesn’t make much sense. Western culture wants to see dollars in the bank,’ says Suyin. ‘We want to be measured by how many people we have been able to feed, and the other services or value we bring to the community. This month we have been able to provide two part time employment positions through a government training scheme. We provide opportunities for work experience and accredited training in areas like food safety, and in the future we hope to offer hospitality training as well. There is even the opportunity for local artists to take to the stage and provide the entertainment for the night. We are seeking grants so that we can provide cooking and nutrition classes to the members of our community in most need and see this kind of community interaction extending to all sorts of activities that support self reliance, not just in food and nutrition but in all aspects of community life.’

Beyond initial ‘seed’ funding via a grant from the local Community Enterprise Foundation (funded by local branches of the Bendigo Bank), the Koha Café has been wholly reliant on donations. ‘If ever there was a situation of “money in the bank” we would be able to reinvest it into funding other community activities, but right now we are thankful to earn enough to stay viable for another week,’ says Suyin. ‘We get so excited if there is just one fifty dollar note in the donation box at the end of an evening.’ says Suyin. ‘Every dollar given at the end of a meal is critical to our viability–to our ability to continue to feed the people.’

The cafe has been in trial operation for six months and by all accounts has proven the need for its existence. The steep and sometimes difficult learning curve has reinforced the value of what is being offered. Each week, Suyin and her volunteers are encouraged by the looks of contentment on people’s faces and the rising volume of conversation in the café which is experiencing steady patronage in excess of what was originally envisaged. In all her Australian research, Suyin could not find another example of a community restaurant (aside from Lentil As Anything) operating the same way as Koha.

It is clear that the Upper Yarra Valley community wants the Koha Community Café to prosper. Alan Seppings, owner of Warburton’s Wild Thyme Restaurant, is a strong supporter of the Koha Café, regularly sending excess food from his coolstore or lending kitchenware. His family has eaten at Koha several times and he has been impressed with the meals. ‘The kitchen staff work really hard to send out food of that quality and nutritional value,’ he says. ‘I see many people there I’ve never met in my restaurant and that says to me that Koha is drawing people out of the isolation of their homes and into the community. There’s a lot of need up here (in the valley) and I see first hand how the Koha project is doing more than just providing meals – people are developing skills ranging from food growing to hospitality. Socially and vocationally, that supports people to reintegrate into the community.’

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states ‘everyone has the right to a decent life, including enough food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services.’ Dr Beverly Wood (Victorian Local Governance Association Food Security Officer) in her paper Narrowing the Gap: An integrated approach to improving food securing for the vulnerable and homeless people states that it is ‘imperative we are working toward ensuring that everyone of us can always obtain food in socially acceptable ways, through non-emergency food sources.’ She goes on to say ‘…we can all expect to experience food insecurity at the time in our lives when we are most vulnerable…lack of food produces the same patho-physiological and behavioural changes in all people…’

Donna and her family sit at a shared table in the communal dining room. The hall is warm and comfortable, homely even, with its Laminex tables and mismatched crockery. Her children have been fed and entertained and she spends a few moments chatting to some new friends she has made that evening. Donna is not considered ‘poor’ but with grocery costs rising over 10.3% (ABS) in the last year and a few other unanticipated expenses, Koha provides her with some relief. Many emergency food relief services in Victoria, and the Yarra Valley, have been faced with increasing demands on their services – some by more than 100% (Salvation Army Project 614). Life is harder for many families regardless of their social strata, and Donna is just one example of the kind of family, the ‘new poor’, that now finds it necessary to use relief services. At Koha, when she can’t afford to pay much, she stays behind and helps to clean up, that way she feels she is contributing.

Dr Wood’s research considers ways to ‘promote concurrent and equitable social and food connectedness and inclusion for the vulnerable and homeless people in local areas.’ She says, ‘The opportunity now exists to use the concept of community and individual food security in a human rights framework.’

The Koha Community Café is an inspiring example of how this might be achieved.

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Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010, ABS Consumer Price Index March Quarter 2010. Accessed 29/4/2010 from

Baker D, Fear J and Denniss R, 2009, ‘What a waste’ The Australia Institute.

Chan, S 2009, Report : Proposal to establish a ‘Lentil as Anything’ restaurant model in the Yarra Valley, Prepared for Diploma of Community Development, Swinburne University.

Community Indicators Victoria, Accessed 22 September 2010

Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, Accessed 22 September 2010

Feed Melbourne, Accessed 22 September 2010

Lundqvist, J C de Fraiture and D. Molden 2008. ‘Saving water: From field to fork – Curbing losses and wastage in the food chain’. SIWI Policy Brief.

Second Bite, ‘More hunger, more waste’. Accessed 22 September 2010

Woods, Dr B 2004, ‘Narrowing the Gap: An integrated approach to improving food securing for the vulnerable and homeless people.’  Council of Homeless Persons, Accessed 16 September 2010,

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