A Way to The Heart: The Community Plant Based Lunch Program

by | Apr 21, 2023 | Heartivist Of The Week

1 in 200 Australians don’t have a safe or affordable place to sleep, Australian Human Rights Commission. 

“My hope for the future is for people to care more about connecting to each other, as well as our planet and all the species that inhabit it. When profit is not the main driver in society then resources can be better managed and shared so that it can reach more people in a sustainable way that doesn’t contribute to the destruction of our earth,” Jolene Gailitis, founder of Project Fresh Start.

Human beings have an inherent need for connection. Although we may not realize it, every interaction with another person has the ability to bring us closer or further from one another. Metaphorically speaking, a connection such as this is akin to making one’s way to someone’s heart. Sharing the same interests is an organic way to connect with a person but, what if you have opposing ideas? According to logic those differences may create a breach too big to overcome but not always, as Jolene Gailitis has experienced.

Jolene Gailitis is a social worker, vegan chef and an activist for human and animal rights. She lives in Frankston, Australia, where she has established a community lunch program called Project Fresh Start Inc. which serves free vegan food to up to 400 people in need each week.

“There is a stigma that vegan food is only for people with high incomes and I wanted to change the perception of that,” explains Jolene, overjoyed with the success of her initiative. “The program has become much bigger than we expected and a lot of people are relying on this service now because all around the world the cost of living is rising and those kinds of basic necessities are something that people are having to reach out for.”

Passing on Kindness

Jolene first experimented with veganism when she was 16 years old because she didn’t want to harm animals. When Jolene was 19, she decided she wanted to be a chef and gave up this lifestyle while she trained for many years and used her career to travel to many different communities around Australia. Eventually she transitioned to vegan again, moved back to her hometown and spent the last three years of her career working at a vegan cafe where the profits were used for the owners sanctuary for farmed animals.

“I felt good about that but I realized this food wasn’t reaching the people it needed to,” remembers Jolene, who felt strongly about the importance of nutrition and food security. “I left my career as a chef to retrain in social work and now I work in the homelessness sector, helping people in my community access housing. Actually, a lot of them come to my lunches and it has been quite satisfying.” 

Caring for people has been a part of Jolene’s family tradition. She recalls how her grandmother used to cook and share food constantly, giving her time and efforts to improve the community. Jolene remembers what a fun and inspiring person she was, who ultimately, taught her to cook. Jolene’s grandmother’s kindness was passed on to her mother as well.

“My mother and my grandmother were just naturally caring people. My mom used to make school lunches for the kids that didn’t bring any food to school. So I guess I kind of grew up with that ethic, just being really grateful with what I have in my life.” says Jolene. 

Homelessness in Australia

Homelessness is an important issue in Australia. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the country’s population reached 26,124,814 as of September 2022. Yet, the Australian Human Rights Commission states that approximately 1 in 200 people don’t have an affordable or safe place to spend the night. Furthermore, The Salvation Army reported that from 2020 to 2021 over 278,000 Australians requested aid for the Specialist Homelessness Services, that is over 10% of the total county’s population.

According to the Australia Human Rights Commission, the main cause for homelessness in the country is domestic violence. Other issues such as poverty, family disintegration, addictions, mental health and sexual abuse are also drivers. However, Jolene believes the real culprit is the lack of safe affordable housing as Australia is currently facing a housing crisis that is pushing more people towards homelessness or living in unsafe, inappropriate dwellings. Even more tragically, the organization also reports that 33% of homeless people in Australia are minors. 

Jolene explained that Frankston is an urban seaside community with a population of 37,000 that was once well known for providing government housing and cheap rentals. Unfortunately, a lot of the government housing has been sold back to the private market and the rental prices are rising along with the cost of living.There is no social or community housing in Frankston where it is desperately needed so homelessness, poverty, poor physical and mental health, alcohol and drugs are prominent issues in the community. Despite this, Frankston has a strong sense of connectedness and many of the public try to support and advocate for their less fortunate neighbors.

Project Fresh Start

Project Fresh Start began in April 2021 with the purpose of using food waste to make healthy plant based meals for their community and now it has about 15 volunteers and several organizations partnering with them. It serves free food for about 40 people at The Uniting Church every second Saturday, using donated fruit and vegetables destined for landfill and cooking up to 7 different plant based dishes that guests can enjoy in an unlimited quantity and even take home. Food is also cooked twice a week to service the plant-based community fridge in a central location in Frankston which people can access during the week; it is refilled every Monday and Wednesday feeding up to 400 people a week. Aside from producing healthy plant based meals and reducing food waste, Jolene and her team want people to feel welcome and safe.

“The volunteers and I very much enjoy what we are doing and people can feel that. There is always a joyful environment. Our Saturday lunches are like a big family dinner to us, where people feel safe and welcome,” Jolene says, enthusiastically. “We have musicians and we encourage our volunteers to come and sit with our guests; so they have really built up great relationships.”

For many of Jolene’s guests, this has been the first experience eating vegan food and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“What I’ve tried to do is normalize plant based food and make the food as close to the regular dishes that someone might eat,”  explains Jolene. “They have no problem about the fact that the food is vegan, and they can tell we put a lot of effort into what we do. They are enjoying it and it’s fantastic!”

A Way to The Heart

Jolene has been a social, animal and environmental activist for a long time, but for her this had always felt like a fight of “us versus them”, something that didn’t seem to make a real difference in people’s convictions. Yet, the possibility of engaging in an honest conversation with people while they were sharing a meal surprisingly showed Jolene a way to connect with the heart of people.

“It was a revelation, really, because I have always been involved in animal rights and social justice activism; and it was like trying to tell people how to live their lives and what they should care about, which is never received very well. Now I have found that food opens a door to discussion, when you are having actual conversations with people it feels a lot more natural to exchange ideas, two people listening to each other, rather than one person telling the other what to do,” says Jolene.

Aside from many accomplishments, this project hasn’t been an easy task. Biodegradable packaging, insurance and operating costs can be high and Project Fresh Start rely on donations and fundraising to keep it afloat. That is what prompted Jolene to reach out to The Pollination Project in order to buy a food warmer that would make their service much easier and allow them to feed more people.

“I was looking for grant opportunities and started reading stories from around the world from TPP. I was so inspired by it, I decided to apply. Receiving the grant was just amazing. To be recognized by someone across the world was incredible. And we are very grateful to have been accepted into this program,” remembers Jolene.  “My work has got me to listen more to people, and the only way you can remove the barriers is by listening, being more empathetic and open to hearing other people’s hearts.”

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