Chef-turned-social-entrepreneur Adam Smith runs The Real Junk Food Project pay-as-you-feel café in Leeds, which is fuelled by ‘intercepted’ waste food. Besides feeding the world, he’s passionate about raising awareness about food waste.
A couple of years ago, I was travelling around Australia with my girlfriend, Johanna, when we realised that we were seeing food being wasted on an astronomical scale.
Over just a few days, we saw several tonnes of fresh vanilla, apricots, courgettes and squash – all in perfect condition and fit for human consumption – being given away by the producers to neighbouring farmers to feed their pigs. The supermarkets had cancelled contracts for this food at the last minute, so the farmers had no option but to give it away.
Johanna and I were on a tight budget, so we intercepted some of the pigs’ courgettes and ate them raw. They were delicious, even after being left out in the sun for weeks. The pigs were eating better than we were!
As we sat there, we came to the realisation that this level of food waste was only a tiny percentage of the problem that must be happening everywhere. It was shocking.
Cooking up awarenessI’ve been a chef for nine years, and I’ve cooked in restaurants all over the world. For a while, I was head chef in a restaurant in Melbourne, and during that time, I came across a restaurant called Lentil as Anything, which pioneered the pay-as-you-feel (PAYF) restaurant concept.
This appealed to me straightaway; it felt like the right thing to do. Johanna and I have been living off ‘old’ stuff for years. Sometimes we eat food that’s two or three weeks past its sell-by date, as long as we can tell it’s still fresh.
So, when we came back to the UK, I decided to start a café run along the same lines. I've always felt that the restaurant industry is the wrong way round: it’s too conformist for me.
With the help of the Healthy Living Network Leeds, we soon found premises in a community centre and got family and friends on board to help. As word spread about the café, the donations started to flood in. We were given everything from tables and chairs to crockery and cooking equipment.
How our café worksThe PAYF café is run and staffed entirely by volunteers. I’ve been working for The Real Junk Food Project since February 2013 and I’ve never taken a wage; nor have the four other directors, or my partner.
Johanna and I are working 50 to 60 hours a week on this project. Our baby, Joshua, comes to work with us. Our rent is paid by housing benefit, but we need to find out whether we’re eligible for working tax credits. We’ve been very lucky that, as well as donating food to the café, people have also donated baby clothes and other items for Joshua, so we haven’t had to spend much money on him.
The café opened for business in December 2013. At first, we only served food one day a week, but now the café is open every day, from 9am until late. We started off charging people £1 for a cup of coffee, but then we realised that if we stopped charging them £1, people would donate £2.50!
Now, we don't charge for anything. People donate what they can, what they have, what they feel. We’re not here to make money and the only reason we ask for donations is to cover our hidden costs, such as utility bills. In 249 hours of service, we’ve received £1,018.62 in donations from people who’ve eaten here. The average person donates £2.42.
It’s a completely unorthodox restaurant. I’m not ‘in charge’ and we don’t have a hierarchy. Because we’re all giving our services for nothing, it’s not just a transaction where people hand over money.
The atmosphere is very informal and relaxed and the PAYF set-up makes it easy for us to sit down and talk to people in the café, and start a conversation about food waste. That’s the whole point. Some of our volunteers come here solely to chat to our customers.
Our customersWe have an open-door policy. We’ve fed teachers, solicitors, asylum seekers and bankers. People who are food insecure come here – the homeless, those on income support, students and the elderly. We also feed people who are dependent on alcohol or drugs: we’ve had people in here taking a hit of methadone and sweating in a corner, drinking coffee and sugar and then they get up and say, “Thank you, there’s nowhere else I could do this.”
As well as cooking food in the café, we also grow food in a community garden. When we can, we put out veggie boxes for passers-by to help themselves to.
The fact that we're doing this for free means that more people come to us, and more people share stuff with us.
Where our food comes fromYou name it, we intercept it. There’s nothing that we haven’t been able to acquire through interception. We intercept food from supermarkets, restaurants and private households, which would otherwise end up in landfill.
People come and donate things to us every single day. Besides food, they bring plates, cups and jars, because we also make chutney and jam from the excess produce.
Of course, there are times when the food we’re given really is on its last legs. When that happens, we compost it in a bin, along with worms and a lot of oil matter. Then after three or four months or so, we sprinkle it all on our garden.
Food waste worldwide is a problem beyond measurable scale. The figures we’re given by governments are completely underestimated; there’s no way on Earth of measuring food wastage because there’s just so much of it.
The UK wastes 7.2 million tonnes of food every year. In this café, since we’ve been open, we’ve been given 1,269,000 kg of intercepted food.
Taste not wasteWhat we cook is different every single day, depending on the food donations. There’s usually some sort of chicken-oriented dish because we’ve got a contract with Nando’s to intercept their food waste. But we cater for everybody. I’m a gluten-free vegetarian, so I understand allergies and dietary requirements.
We’re happy to cook to order. That might sound like hard work but it’s not because the staff here have a completely different mindset to working in a kitchen in a normal restaurant. In other restaurants, if a customer wants something special, you’ve got other jobs to do, you’re set in your ways and you probably don’t really want to do it because you need your break… whereas here, you get so much more out of it. You’re not conscious of working hard. You’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.
If it’s not off, it’s on the menuSell-by, use-by, best before: these dates and numbers are just nonsense. Lots of food came in today that was past its sell-by date. It’s absolutely perfect produce. In fact, we’ve got a lot of fruit and vegetables that aren’t even ripe yet.
Supermarkets have taken away people’s ability to tell whether food is off. We need to trust our sensory judgement instead of just throwing stuff away once it’s past its use-before date, regardless of the condition of the product. We’re trying to get people to understand that they need to form their own opinion.
There is food in our kitchen that’s probably past its shelf life, but as long as it’s fit for consumption, we’ll use it. Don’t worry: if it smells off, looks off or has mould on it, we won’t serve it!
Health and safetyThe health and safety inspectors have been on the phone because we’ve been accused of selling out-of-date meat. But we don’t sell anything! That’s the thing! The law states that you can’t sell anything past its sell-by or use-by date, but we don't because our café runs entirely on PAYF donations.
People get food poisoning at some of the best restaurants in the world. That hasn’t happened here yet, despite the fact that what we do could be seen as far more high risk than most restaurants and cafes. It’s all about how we approach our food, how we store it, how we keep our due diligence in check, and how we cook it.
We follow all the correct safety procedures. Every single thing we do in this cafe is recorded to the gram. Every single item of food is weighed out. Every person we feed is recorded. Every meal we make is noted down. Every menu we’ve created is logged.
Our future in foodWe want to expand as soon as possible, and have pop-up, Real Junk Food Project-related cafes everywhere. People from all over the world, including Uruguay, Cape Town, Perth, Poland and rural France, have contacted us because they’ve seen what we’re doing and want to start similar projects. We could link up and have a huge network of RJFP-type, pop-up waste food cafes, where people are intercepting waste food and feeding their own communities.
I always ask people, do you understand what the problem is? Do you understand what we’re here for? We don’t want our café to be here in 20 years’ time; we don’t want this problem to exist.
There will always be food waste, but if all the food in the world was intercepted, we’d solve a lot of the world’s problems. We want to get into grass-roots education as soon as possible, by creating programmes for schools that allow children to have a hands-on experience with their food, by bringing in food scraps to make compost and growing food. Schools could become self-sustainable.
I don’t know where my drive comes from, it just feels right to me to use food waste to feed people. We’ve realised that we get so much more from giving more.
Adam’s banana pancakesBeat two eggs, add a mashed banana and mix together well. Pour the mixture into a frying pan and cook. You’ll have the most amazing pancake ever. It’s sugar free (the banana contains natural fructose) and gluten free.
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