For hundreds of Aucklanders in need each week there is such thing as a free meal. It's a nutritious three-course dinner prepared by some of the country's top chefs, served with lashings of dignity and a side of humanity. Lee Umbers has a meal at Everybody Eats.

Some guests live under a bridge and it's their first time at a restaurant.

Others are young professionals who've just finished work in the CBD.

Each Monday, about 250 diners are treated to a "pay as you feel" restaurant service, Everybody Eats, at St Kevins Arcade in the central city's Karangahape Rd.

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Chefs from leading restaurants including Cazador, Mudbrick, Oyster Inn and SkyCity give their time to prepare delicious dinners using rescued food, served up by teams of other volunteers at sittings from 6pm-8pm.

The night the Herald on Sunday visited, Huw Thomas was whipping up culinary delights in the kitchen of Gemmayze Street restaurant, which hosts Everybody Eats.

On the menu is autumn root vegetable soup and bread, with a main of chili con carne with rice and guacamole, followed by a desert of baked fruits with Lewis Road sour cream with mint. A vegetarian main option of roasted eggplant with tomato ragout was also offered.

It's nice "to give something back - I've got the time to be able to do things for other people", says Thomas.

"And I think they appreciate the fact somebody is willing to help," Thomas said.

Thomas, who was executive chef for 13 years at The Spencer on Byron Hotel in Takapuna, also enjoys the challenge.

"You don't know what the menu's going to be," he said.

"There's a bit of personal pride for achieving. Being able to walk in dead cold [and] make a three-course meal for 250 people."

On any given night, about 75 to 80 per cent of diners are in need, says Nick Loosley who started Everybody Eats in June 2017.

Volunteers using food donated by supermarkets cook and feed up to 250 people on a pay as you feel basis once a week at St Kevin's Arcade, K Road. Photo / Dean Purcell
Volunteers using food donated by supermarkets cook and feed up to 250 people on a pay as you feel basis once a week at St Kevin's Arcade, K Road. Photo / Dean Purcell

Some are homeless, some troubled by addiction, some with mental health issues. Others are just struggling to make ends meet.

A discreetly placed donation tin allows those who can to make a koha. An average donation is around $15, the highest $150.

"We don't want people who can't afford to pay to feel anything apart from welcome," says Loosley.

Paying customers include families, young professionals, students and people from the hospitality industry.

People who might not ordinarily dine together share the same tables.

"I think the social benefit is almost greater than the feeding-people benefit," Loosley says.

"The reason that I've designed it in such a way that people share tables is that it socialised them. It asks them to share food at a table with different cultures and different people."

Diners have made lasting friendships from the sittings.

"I'm sure that there are people that have come that have never received table service before," Loosley says.

"If I go and say, 'Why do you keep coming back, what's good about it?', they'll say, 'I get treated with respect. I get treated like I'm special. I get smiled at, I get my water topped up, I get asked if I've got any dietary requirements'.

"We treat people like they're in a restaurant, like they're paying us lots of money."

One diner, who gives his name as Kom1k, says he is 50 and "living under a bridge at the moment".

"It's one of many I've lived under in the last year."

He says he has been coming to Everybody Eats for months, and enjoys "the vibrancy and the different types of people that come – [from] all different walks of life".

He adds: "You can sit at a random table and just talk to random people about random things.

"It's like a family atmosphere really, even though you're in among strangers.

"I've made quite a few friends - a lot of streeties but also a lot of people that work in the CBD area, and a lot of students."

The food at Everybody Eats is "primo" and "people treat you really well up here".

"You get a good greeting when you first walk in. If you sit down at your table someone comes and serves you water."

Another diner, Mercedes, is a sole parent on a benefit, who suffers from chronic pain.

She says rent has risen in her two-bedroom inner-city apartment, leaving her little money for food after paying other expenses.

She is on a Housing New Zealand waiting list, and has looked for cheaper accommodation but "I never get a call back". "It took me six months to get the place that I'm in now."

Everybody Eats provides her most nutritious meal of the week sometimes.

"My budget's so tight. Food's really expensive. I really appreciate the vegetables these days, because vegetables are so expensive."

Mercedes also appreciates that "the food is made with caring and love".

"When you've got a full tummy, you feel happy."

Loosley estimates that Everybody Eats' meals would typically cost $20-50 in a restaurant.

Staff from different restaurants each week volunteer to run the kitchen for Everybody Eats.

"It would be a very different model that we'd be running if I wasn't getting such amazing support from the Auckland hospitality community," Loosley says.

Meals normally begin with a soup, followed by a main course of meat (a vegetarian option is always offered), and a fruit-based desert.

For Aucklanders in need there is such thing as a free meal. Photo / Dean Purcell
For Aucklanders in need there is such thing as a free meal. Photo / Dean Purcell

Ingredients are almost exclusively rescued food, like a bag of mandarins where one may have gone off. Food which otherwise may have been dumped.

It is donated by food rescue charity KiwiHarvest and by New World Eastridge.

Donations go back into ingredients which can be harder to find in food rescue, like eggs, ice cream, butter – which help turn the meals into "a more special experience". The addition of around $150 a week for those extra elements stretches out over feeding 250 people.

Some paying customers worry they may be taking a meal off someone who needs it, but donations are necessary because Everybody Eats does not receive any agency funding or grants, Loosley says. "We want to prove that the community can support itself."

"If you come and spend $20 (in a donation) on a three-course meal, it's pretty good value. The food is restaurant quality most of the time. And that helps us to feed three or four other people that can't afford it. Everyone wins."

Everybody Eats is usually full by opening at 6pm. Most of the first wave of diners have gone by 7pm, when another full sitting of around 95 is served. Diners can arrive at any time between 6pm and 8pm.

Queues were already forming by 6.10pm when the Herald on Sunday visited. Diners were offered tubs of yogurt and bananas as they left.

Around 25 volunteers a night prepare and cook the food, serve it from the kitchen, and clean up including washing the dishes. About 15 in any given week will be regulars.

Volunteers "like the concept" of Everybody Eats, Loosley says. "And the feeling in the arcade is really amazing.

"People are really, really polite … really gracious and happy and friendly. It's quite obvious to the volunteers that these people need feeding and socialising.

"[And] a lot of people have a real dislike for food waste."

September McNabb began volunteering last year, and now helps Loosley coordinate food rescues and run the Monday night dinners.

She enjoys that Everybody Eats tackles multiple issues, including social and environmental, "in a way that's bringing people together".

Diners are constantly appreciative. "We have all the compliments to the chef, and always lots of 'thank you for doing this'."

"Last week, which I thought was really touching, there's a young single mum that comes in with her daughter. And the daughter did a little drawing and the mum wrote a beautiful letter of thanks."

The drawing was to the "dear restaurant people". It shows three people together, two adults and a child – "like a feeling of family that maybe the daughter feels when she comes here".

Last year, the Restaurant Association presented Everybody Eats with the Good Neighbour Award.

Loosley, 32, who owns The Gables Restaurant and Hone's Garden in Russell, came up with the concept of Everybody Eats while researching his Masters in Economics for Transition.

For his dissertation, he drove around the United Kingdom for three months visiting and volunteering at food projects, including two using surplus food - FoodCycle and The Real Junk Food Project.

"I had this hypothesis that if we cook and share food together, we might solve problems that we have within the food system, whether they're nutritional or environmental or whatever."

Loosley begins crowdfunding on April 24 with PledgeMe, aiming to help other such ventures establish throughout New Zealand. Everybody Eats, which has been taking a break for the fundraising, re-opens on April 30.

He is seeking community funding rather than government or local authority, to prove the pay-as-you-feel model works financially, and can solve problems environmentally, socially and food-poverty-wise.

"There's definitely people that are hungry. Have a look on the streets, there's more people surfing through rubbish bins than I've ever seen. And there's definitely food going to waste.

"And there's definitely people that want to volunteer and be part of something that's doing something positive."

To keep up with their crowdfunding campaign, or to volunteer for Everybody Eats, like and send them a message on www.facebook.com/everybodyeatsnz and www.instagram.com/everybodyeatsnz or email everybodyeatsnz@gmail.com.

Solving two problems

Rescuing food - nourishing communities.

Those are the driving principles of food-rescue charity KiwiHarvest, which has delivered enough food which otherwise would have gone to waste to make more than four million meals for those in need.

"Food rescue is about solving two problems," KiwiHarvest's Auckland manager Maria Madill says.

"One is the excess food that is going to waste. That is then solving the problem of food insecurity – by redistributing that good surplus food to people in need."

KiwiHarvest began in Dunedin in 2012 and in Auckland in 2015.

Each month it rescues more than 40,000kg of food from more than 200 donors, to deliver to 215 charities and social service agencies nationally.

Food includes surplus fresh produce from markets, supermarkets, wholesalers, growers, farmers, prepared meals from cafes, corporate events and caterers. Sometimes it's food they can't sell – "bananas with a freckle" – "sometimes it is purely their excess".

The rescued food is then delivered to community groups including Auckland City Mission, South Auckland Christian Food Bank, Ronald McDonald House, emergency housing shelters, women's refuges, youth mentoring services, and also to schools.

Often agencies they deliver to are those that provide wrap-around services, Madill says.
"Generally, if people need food, there's lots of other things going on in their life where they need help."

KiwiHarvest has rescued and delivered more than 1 million kg of food – enough to make 4.2 million meals.

Food-safety-trained drivers, "deliverers of goodness", collect fresh perishable food in refrigerated vehicles and redistribute it the same day.

Around 50 volunteers help out in any given week. They are of all ages and with different skill sets, Madill says.

"The thing that they have in common, none of them can bear food going to waste. That's the lightbulb moment, when you see the food that we rescue, and to think that was going to landfill.

"And they care about their communities."

Food waste is damaging to the environment and adds to food poverty, Madill says.

"When you throw out food, think of all the resources that are being wasted – from the seed, to the grower, to the transport, to the packaging, to the people that have run the cool store.

"All of those resources are being wasted. [And] ultimately food waste is also driving up the cost of food because food producers are having to build in that cost."

To help or find out more, visit kiwiharvest.org.nz or phone 0800 601609.