The Real Junk Food Project is undoubtedly one of my favourite anti-food waste initiatives of the past couple of years. You might have heard of it. It started as a single café in Leeds, but went on to inspire another 40 odd to open across the UK. They all operate on a pay-as-you-feel basis, all from food that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Luckily, one of them opened in my neighbouring Dalston in East London a bit over a year ago. Set up by a really lovely couple, Ruth and James, Save the Date café was built entirely from scratch using reclaimed stuff they could get their hands on. The kitchen is an old shipping container. I’ve been up there to help out a couple of times, and it’s a real eye-opener. The first time, I was greeted with about six boxes of slightly overripe cherry tomatoes, one massive box of courgettes, and more of aubergines, peppers and cauliflowers. They all came from a local grocery. There were sacks of slightly stale sourdough bread, and about 30 iced buns from a local café. It was mental. We made a full menu of food with leftovers.
It’s obvious the idea has really captured people’s imaginations. The project has popped up in the media a lot since it started, and it’s easy to see why. Even on a small scale, these cafés intercept and transform huge amounts of would-be wasted food into delicious meals, and in the process they show just how dysfunctional our food production and distribution systems have become. Their menus demonstrate simply that food waste is avoidable and unnecessary.
Their ‘pay-as-you-feel’ ethos just adds to the whole example that they’re making. Anyone can turn up and have a good, home-cooked meal whether they have money or not, and from what I’ve seen, that does mean literally anyone. You get homeless people, hipsters, women from the local church, and Alan, a nice man who has managed to get by without any money for a year (he basically exchanges his skills to eat, live, travel, etc). By opening it up to any and everybody, it goes to show that using and giving away food “waste” is not solely the job of food banks – something that seems to be happening a lot more these days, and rightly so! But I feel like that paints an image of ‘waste’ food that’s not good enough for people who can afford it, and that’s simply not true. All this food, as we all well know is basically fresh and edible and really delicious.
All too often, food is packaged as a commodity to be bought and wasted in abundance. What these guys are doing is showing that it shouldn’t be that at all. Yes, food businesses must make a profit and they’re not suggesting otherwise, but actually food isn’t just a product to be created, marketed and spat out in a supermarket. It should be nourishing, natural, tasty and available to everyone. I’ll stop going off on one now. Here’s a great BBC Radio 4 programme on food waste if ya interested.
PS. Since writing this, Save the Date café has moved from Dalston to 460 Hackney Road, and they’re now open all week. And they’re looking for volunteers…