After meeting randomly in Kenya, Australian couple Loretta and Daniel Bolotin have co-juggled the mammoth tasks of starting a family while creating a food-sharing social enterprise to support refugees and asylum seekers, Free to Feed. Earlier this year, Free to Feed received a Social Enterprise Grant from Westpac Foundation to help its expansion and increase participants’ employment opportunities. Loretta also received a 2020 Social Change Fellowship through Westpac Scholars Trust.
This is their story.
I met Dan when we happened to both be part of a volunteer trip to East Africa in 2010.
We were volunteering in a small primary school in a village in Nairobi, Kenya, and started hanging out almost instantly.
Both of us were drawn to spending a lot of time with the kids in the village. We read books with them, Dan had brought over all these chess boards, we let the kids lead us around the village which was hilarious. He was very playful and funny, unusual, deeply contemplative, obsessed with chess, and just this really interesting person.
I was excited for the prospect of having six weeks of travelling together.
And that turned into a few more years of travel and other humanitarian work – and getting married (in 2014) and having the first of two sons (now aged 3 and 7) in the same year.
We came up with the idea for Free to Feed when we were living in The Hague.
I’d had a job there in a big humanitarian-based organisation that was frustrating me because I wasn’t having a direct impact on the refugee communities I was trying to help. Plus, we had a newborn, and my hours were intense and inflexible. Daniel, being naturally entrepreneurial, said: “Well, why do you have to work for someone else? Why not do your own thing?”
Slowly, he convinced me that it wasn't such a ridiculous idea.
Basing the employment model of the enterprise around food made sense to me – in all the refugee communities I’d worked, there was always passion and pride around sharing food, and the food was always exciting.
Dan is not really a “foodie”, which is quite funny. He loves eating, but he’s always seen it as fuel for when you’re doing other more interesting things! But he’s come to see how acutely important – and symbolic – it can be for people who have been separated from their home country.
In the early days, Free to Feed was mainly my thing. Dan enabled all of that by being a ridiculously hands-on, supportive, active father to our kids, but also helping to grow the business – and that has continued the whole way through.
Dan’s family's heritage has shaped him quite profoundly.
His parents were refugees from the USSR, now Uzbekistan, fleeing anti-Semitism in the 1970s. They are incredible people, so resilient, stoic, such a high tolerance for hard work, living simply and creatively, and passionate about carving your own future, not working “for the man”. A lot of that comes from living in a really oppressive culture and starting again from scratch as non-English speaking refugees. So much of that has infused Dan and, now, our own family culture.
We started Free to Feed in 2015 as a little pop-up cooking school – we didn't even have a fixed space. We used literally all our money to buy the equipment, didn't have charity status or a strategic business plan. We knew we could run out of money, but we also knew it was better to do that than wait for someone else to believe in us and our concept.
And the community just really embraced the idea. We couldn’t have imagined it would grow so much and achieve the impact it has.
Growing it at the same time as having kids has been hard work, and we certainly haven't nailed it. But it’s been incredibly positive and so great to have Dan as a collaborator, who understands me and my strengths, so often comfortable working hard behind the scenes to prop me up or make sure my dreams are achieved, with never a doubt that it was possible.
Some people in the team call Dan The Lighthouse. He makes sure our mission is front and centre, always heart-focused and driving impact, always with integrity.
Given the last seven years have been so action packed, I don’t have any grand vision for the next few years beyond seeing Free to Feed thrive and nurturing our own family.
And getting some sleep!
Before I met Loretta, I’d always been meandering.
I'd tried different things – an Arts degree, research, I was interested in the world – but nothing was really fixed or enduring.
I think I needed the counter-balancing presence of Loretta to activate the social entrepreneurialism within me. She gave me this close window onto the area, a purpose, direction.
We’d always talked about the issues that refugees and asylum seekers face, but the human drama of it became all very apparent, at both extremes, when we were living in The Hague. There was a huge influx of refugees into Europe, and on one hand you had all these beautiful human responses – people with welcome hampers, setting up great initiatives like AirBnB for refugees – and on the other, a lot of discontent, a high rate of arson in refugee shelters and anti-social acts.
It was very daunting to consider setting something up ourselves.
But we wanted to confront the palpable sense of helplessness we felt at the toxic nature of the discourse in Australia about refugees, while the voices of the people seeking asylum were not being heard – their experiences, their challenges, their opportunities. So, the initial impetus for Free to Feed was to set up spaces where those conversations could happen.
There are a lot of overlaps between the parenting we do for our actual kids and the parenting for this nugget of an idea that needed nurturing, love and attention and kept us up at night.
Loretta has stratospherically transformed, in lots of tiny ways, as she’s risen to the challenge of leading and growing Free to Feed.
It's been incredible to watch.
Whereas I tend to overcomplicate and potentially over-emotionalise things, I'm always impressed by how grounded and level-headed and pragmatic she is. I definitely think our differences have been part of the success. That tussle of different reactions and ideas is not always a recipe for pleasantness, but when we do tussle, five minutes later, we usually realise that we've resolved something quite tricky.
In some ways, our work with newly arrived people is an amplification of her childhood experiences. She grew up in a very multicultural area in Melbourne with social and economic challenges. Her parents migrated here from Southern Italy and she saw them build up a small business – a deli – from the ground up.
At the heart of it, Free to Feed is very simple.
It's just about people being able to support themselves through skills they have. And she saw her parents do exactly that with their deli.
I'll always treasure the fact we stumbled across each other, so randomly, in Kenya. We never would have met otherwise. We're quite different; we were living in different cities – I was in Sydney, she in Melbourne. It was a really interesting way of meeting someone and a great context to get to know her. I'm forever grateful that she sticks with me.
I can't pretend to know what the future holds. We’ve been flying by the seat of our pants for a while.
But beneath Free to Feed, what's at the basis of us is intense curiosity, awareness that life is short, and wanting to do something meaningful, and I hope we'll always be hungry for that.