Free Café movement

Ivanka Annot and Rachel Tillotson started the Free Café as a place to save wasted food and bring people together. The concept is so popular that they sometimes have to turn guests away.

It’s raining heavily on a Sunday afternoon, but people are gathering in front of the oven in the cosy common room of the Free Café, chatting over a cup of tea. In the kitchen, vegetables are being chopped in preparation for the day’s vegan menu: Brussels sprout soup, a large salad with nuts and fruit, a vegetable curry, and dips with a lot of leftover bread.

The Free Café came into existence in November 2014 and was a hit right away. The initiators – Ivanka Annot and Rachel Tillotson – wanted to create a magical atmosphere where people could come together to share food and knowledge with each other for free, regardless of their financial situation or social status.

Saving food

Saving food that would otherwise be thrown away was the basis for making a free café work. Ivanka and Rachel quickly found a host for their café in ‘Tuin in de Stad’, a location at the Friesestraatweg 137A.

‘The first time I heard about the idea of a sustainable food sharing initiative was at a party’, says psychology student Anna Koslerova, who was actively involved in setting up the Free Café. ‘I loved the idea of a café where free food would be served, where everybody would be welcome and where money would have no value’, she says.

The Free Café opens its doors every Wednesday and Sunday. Since an incredible amount of food is thrown away every day even though it is still good, the Free Café decided to try to save it and turn it into free meals. Around 20 people are currently involved in saving the food, looking for leftovers at about 20 different places in the city.

‘Not perfect enough’

‘The whole food chain is very questionable. It is even calculated within the market that a huge amount of food will be thrown away every day. There is way more food available in the shops than can possibly be consumed’, Ivanka says. ‘And a lot of food does not even make it to the shops. It gets disqualified and thrown away because it does not look perfect enough.’

In the Free Café, everything has a purpose. ‘Even if we have leftovers that cannot be frozen or are too much to be taken home, they will still be used as compost and turned into fertile soil. Nothing here is treated as pure waste and everything has a value.’

The food savers have learned that many people working for grocery stores or other businesses don’t want to throw away all the food, but they often have to follow certain rules that forbid them from handing it out. As such, the food is given to the food savers unofficially. A change in the system leading to more possibilities for businesses to hand out food legally would make the work of the food savers a lot easier.

Sharing knowledge

One of the pillars of the Free Café is sharing and generosity. It is not just about sharing food that would otherwise be thrown away: it’s also about getting together and sharing knowledge with each other for free.

Every first Sunday of the month, a workshop is offered – the goal is to eventually have such an event every week. Everyone who wants to share his or her knowledge or skills can give a workshop. During this visit, Bram de Vries is sharing his knowledge about how to create stop-motion animation.

The café is a place where everyone is welcome, and Ivanka wants to make sure that is an option for all groups. Recently, a collaboration with a retirement home made it possible for elderly people in need of special transportation to regularly visit the Free Café. Another plan is to extend an invitation to refugees to visit, too.

Future plans

The Free Café has proven so popular – at times attracting a crowd of 150 diners – that they sometimes have to turn people away. That is unfortunate, but it is inspiring future plans to build a second, self-sustaining Free Café completely for free with the help of everyone who wants to participate. Everything should be made out of natural materials such as straw and loam, or materials that are otherwise thrown away.

Ivanka says, ‘We invite everyone to think along and join the development. We need to gather a lot of enthusiasm and skills to create a self-sustainable new café. Perhaps students can even combine their participation with school or university projects, such as developing water filtering systems, bicycle generators, or rainwater systems that make music.’ The project is still at a very early stage, but brainstorming meetings are being held weekly to develop a plan.