The Real Junk Food Project: How it REALLY feeds the world

trjfp.final_.logo_.design2_0Last week a review of the most exciting anti-food waste campaigns across the UK appeared on my blog. Today I want to talk about one particular initiative – firstly, because I had a rare chance to get a first-hand insight into the project and personally meet the people behind it and, secondly, to highlight our own – Leeds-based – food waste warriors.

The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP) is a young but rapidly developing initiative tackling the ever-pressing food waste problem as well as addressing such crucial social issues as food poverty and food insecurity. Within just several months since its inception, the project has become a tangible success and is now attracting a significant amount of publicity and media coverage with The Yorkshire Evening Post, Daily Mail, BBC Radio 5, and The Guardian learning TRJFP’s story and telling it to the world. This Tuesday, the project team gathered at a community centre in Headingley, North Leeds, to give their first public talk and share their story with the general audience. Adam Smith, the founder of TRJFP, gave an inspiring speech highlighting the scale of the global food waste problem and a specific solution he and his team are successfully implementing in a small café in Leeds.

Adam and his partner Johanna first recognised an urgent need to address the food waste scandal while working on a farm in Australia, where they witnessed huge amounts of perfect quality food being rejected by supermarkets and going to waste on a day-to-day basis. Realising serious environmental and social implications of such massive squandering, Adam and Johanna came up with a better solution for the produce doomed to landfills – for 8 weeks, they were cooking delicious meals and giving them away to the hungry on the streets of Melbourne. The initiative was greeted with enthusiasm not just by the poor – it has attracted numerous volunteers willing to contribute to the good cause. Realising its potential, Adam and Johanna decided to bring their charitable undertaking back home – in December 2013, the Pay-As-You-Feel café was opened at The Hub in Armley in Leeds. The Pay-As-You-Feel concept, although a trailblazing idea in the UK, was pioneered in Australia back in 2000 by Shanaka Fernando who founded a vegetarian pay-as-you-feel restaurant Lentil as Anything (now a chain) in an attempt to create a seemingly utopian place where money is not the crux of everything. However attractive, the idea was quite hard to implement in Leeds, where it took Adam as many as 5000 emails to find supportive people and finally pave the way for the project. With the first food donation from a local organic producer Suma (a well-known brand among ethical consumers) and a growing army of like-minded people (now there are up to 150 registered volunteers working for TRJFP), the café opened its doors to all in need of a hot meal, but also – a sense of self-worth and respect. Donations are welcome but never asked for, and the visitors can truly pay as they feel – as much or as little money as they can or want, or no money at all – many return their gratitude by donating time, labour or things they no longer need (none of the furniture, kitchenware or even works of art in the cafe has ever been paid for).

Presently the café operates as a community interest company and a food bank. TRJFP intercepts food destined for landfills from a variety of sources – supportive individuals (e.g. a food stylist taking photographs of luxury produce for Harrods, M&S and the like), a freeman community, and has established partnerships with a variety of food businesses – from producers and retailers to restaurants and markets (Kirkgate Market is has been on board for the last several weeks and has once provided the cafe with 750 kg of unwanted food). For businesses, donating surplus food is not just about developing a positive public image and enhancing CSR, it is also a cost-effective opportunity to avoid significant costs associated with disposal of food that can no longer be sold to consumers. Realising the good cause for, as well as the benefits of the initiative, more and more actors are getting on board with the project with the amount of food that is currently donated to the café starting to exceed the capacity of the staff to actually deal with it. In the last several months, the café:

–       Has witnessed 8 tons of intercepted food

–       Fed 1145 people

–       Created 2715 meals

–       Generated £6115 income (from entirely voluntary donations)

But it’s not just the feeling of satiety that the café provides its visitors with. By sharing some heart-breaking real life stories, Adam highlighted the enormous social impact that the project has had on the community during just several month of existence – putting people off crime, suicides, and drug and alcohol dependency by providing them with a place where they are always welcome to have a plateful of food, do something useful and feel themselves valued members of society. While prevention of adverse environmental impact of food wastage is the main focus of the project, the team uses every opportunity to educate their visitors and provide them with practical skills and knowledge about how to minimize food waste, recognize good quality food, make the most of the produce and put whatever is unfit for human consumption to a better use than sending it to waste bins. The Leeds team has set an example that enthusiastic people all across the UK are starting to follow – another PAYF cafe has been recently opened in Swinnow and TRJFPs are now established in Brighton and Manchester. While delighted to see that their initiative is receiving public endorsement, the biggest hope of TRJFP team is for the project to eventually outlive its cause, for the people to recognise the value of food and where it comes from, and for the industry to take necessary measures to prevent food wastage as well as to channel the surplus towards those in need so that no one has to rely on food banks and pay-as-you-feel cafes to feed themselves and their families.

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P.S. Being based in Leeds, I feel I can’t miss the chance to a pay a visit to Armley and glimpse inside the now famous Pay-As-You-Feel café. Watch out for my next post if you too want to get a first-hand insight into the work of amazing TRJFP team!

Connect with The Real Junk Food Project on Facebook to see what they are up to!

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