Real Junk Food Project, based in Leeds, is an anti-food waste initiative acting to ‘bring about radical change in our food system’. The aim of TRJFP is to ‘intercept’ waste or unwanted food from retailers and restaurants, which is still perfectly good to eat, and to serve it up to customers at the project’s cafés, which are run on a pay-as-you-feel (PAYF) basis. I spoke to co-director Adam Smith who has spearheaded the project.
With numerous TRJFP cafés throughout the UK, the project’s reach is expanding internationally and many more cafés will soon be added to the list of those already established overseas in Malta, Ghana, South Africa and the US. Smith’s overwhelming energy and commitment to this work, which has both a positive environmental and social impact, is undeniable:
“I set out to feed the world, I haven’t even started yet!”
TRJFP was set up in December 2013. Coming from a background as a trained chef, Smith is well-placed to understand the volume of food that can be wasted by businesses. Smith worked his way up in the restaurant industry by chance: “I had walked out of a job in a call centre as an operator and needed work ASAP to pay the rent, and so my closest friend offered me a position washing pots for a large American chain restaurant. I worked my way up and finally decided to train how to be a qualified chef rather than a line chef, so it was all accidental, or fate.” He spent time in Australia, during which he had a $125,000 p/a job as a chef and also worked on a farm; the point at which, he says, was the beginning of TRJFP:
“I was working on a farm in Victoria and saw tons of perfectly edible food being fed to pigs, and instantly came up with TRJFP.”
Smith enjoys creating food from the assortment of intercepted ingredients that alters day to day: “I hate cooking with recipes or set-menus, but that is the non-conformist in me. I love just throwing something into a pan and experimenting. However, I was taught my basics incredibly well, so I fully understand what I am doing.” When I asked him what type of food he found retailers disposed of most, he replied: “BREAD, we’re bloody sick of seeing so much bread being wasted!”
Between the start of the project on 16th December 2013 and 15th December 2014, TRJFP has achieved the staggering feat of making 9789 meals and serving 7531 people with 22.4 tons of intercepted food. Smith says that his passion for recycling this food comes from: “Passion for the environment and also the fact that I have to look into the eyes of another human being who needs food and cannot get access. For me, this is criminal, I just don’t understand how it is allowed to happen.” Smith feels the pay-as-you-feel policy to be fundamentally important in the work that he is doing: “I strongly believe this concept is all about humanity and equality, and I believe that EVERYONE has the right to have access to food. The PAYF concept I had seen works wonders in Australia, so I adopted it and evolved it to deal with ‘waste’ food.” The PAYF policy means that diners are welcome regardless of how much money they have in their back pocket. If they are unable to offer financial contribution to their meal, they can offer their time and skills to help with the washing up or intercepting of ingredients, for example.
Smith and the rest of the team have created a real community around the project’s original café in Armley, Leeds. Smith states: “It was purely accidental that the concept began in Armley”, as he was invited to trial his PAYF concept in the newly-fitted kitchen of a community centre. The building housing the café became at risk of being sold, and through monumental fundraising efforts, supported by people far and wide from the project’s social media following, TRJFP is working to buy the café: “We’re still in negotiations with the landlord, but we’re extremely hopeful the café will be ours very soon.”
Until 8th February TRJFP will have another home in Leeds as they join the vendors of Trinity Kitchen every day, and serve up ‘rescued food’ to shoppers from their vintage food ambulance. Smith has been very much welcomed by the venue: “It has been an amazing response, and I’ve even managed to persuade all the non-permanent vendors to go PAYF on the last day so that 0 waste is generated, and if it proves to be successful, it’ll happen every change-over of vendors every 6th week.” The food ambulance, adorned with fairy lights and positive hand-written messages, looks inviting with its line-up of fresh prepped veg and herbs on the counter. It seems very much at home in the ‘unique mix of vibrant restaurants and street food vans’ of Trinity Kitchen.
I had the pleasure of sampling their genuinely delicious food on a Saturday lunchtime while the stand was receiving a lot of interest from punters queuing up behind me. Their menu that day rivalled that of any chic vegan bistro offering ‘of the moment’ dishes including refried beans, quinoa, butternut squash and potato stew. The roast pepper and tomato soup was wonderfully tasty and warming, and the expertly-cooked tofu stir-fry had great textures and flavours. Their adjoining ‘Food Boutique’ boasts an array of items from well-known high quality brands that would otherwise ‘never make it to plate’. In reference to the customers that they have served in Armley and Trinity, Smith highlights the idea that people may find themselves disassociated from the real value of food when he comments: “The demographic that we’re exposed to is very much polar opposite to Armley. We’ve experienced CEOs and managing directors of multi-national companies, and it’s great to see these kinds of people being stumped when you react after they ask ‘What do I pay’, with ‘It’s pay as you feel’, and they just don’t have clue.” Of the other vendors in Trinity, Smith says: “They’ve all taken to us, and we were slightly anxious that the concept would be seen as a threat, but we’ve proven that it isn’t and will never be viewed that way.”
Make sure to catch TRJFP’s Conor Walsh and Sam Joseph at 8pm on Friday 16th January (or on 4OD) as they feature alongside Jamie Oliver on Channel 4’s Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.
If you would like to get involved with TRJFP or help the volunteer directors with shifts in Trinity Kitchen, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your availability.