24 October 2017Last updated

Making a difference

Junk the attitude, not the food!

With The Real Junk Food Project, planet lovers and waste haters have proven that expiry dates on perfectly usable ingredients need serious rethinking. Colin Drury talks to volunteers on the revolutionary campaign that has taken the world by storm

By Colin Drury
1 Jul 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:iStock Image 1 of 3
  • In less than three years, The Real Junk Food Project has grown from one café in Leeds to 126 outlets across Europe, Asia and Australia.

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 3
  • Adam Smith, founder of The Real Junk Food Project, and a chef, kick-started this drive with free barbecues that he’d rustle up with waste food.

    Source:Supplied Image 3 of 3

We are halfway through a lunch of lasagne, salad and garlic bread with an apple and rhubarb crumble to follow when Jo Hercberg details exactly where her café gets its ingredients from.

‘Supermarket bins, restaurant left-overs, cancelled shop deliveries, spares from a local green grocer, even from food photographers,’ she says. ‘From anywhere, essentially.’

The garlic bread, I’m informed, was best before two days ago; the minced beef was frozen on its expiry date two weeks previously, and the cheese and pasta were both so close to their display-until limits that a supermarket had chucked them this very morning.

With the crumble, the apples had been earmarked for the bin because they were not aesthetically pleasing enough. The same with the rhubarb. The sugar and flour had come from a nearby food producer who, because he had kept them for longer than three months, was no longer allowed to use them in his own baking.

‘In fact,’ says Jo, who runs the eatery in Sheffield in the UK, ‘the only thing you’re eating, which wasn’t set to go to a landfill was a pinch of salt.’

There are four other meals on the menu and all are the same. ‘Is it nice, though?’ she asks. And it is, reader, absolutely delicious. 
I finish every last mouthful.
So, this is The Real Junk Food Project, a concept that was first started in the UK and which has now spread across the world, with ambitions of changing the relationship we have with what we eat.

As a recent Friday investigation detailed, every year across the globe, some 1.3 billion tonnes of perfectly good food is thrown away, causing incalculable damage to the environment and wasting vast natural resources. Conversely, about 800 million people across the world are malnourished.

The project aims to address both these issues simultaneously, so, its network of cafés collects food, which would otherwise go to landfill, and then transforms them into restaurant-quality meals. These, in turn, are sold at pay-what-you-feel prices so everyone can afford them.
Now, less than three years after the first such diner was set up in Leeds, there are 126 across Europe, Asia and Australia. They are staffed by more than 1,000 volunteers (including a disproportionate number of professional chefs), feed an estimated 2,000 people every week and save untold amounts of edible food from being dumped.

Not bad, all in all, for an idea first dreamed up by a then 27-year-old backpacker called Adam Smith. The level-three qualified chef was travelling around Australia at the time. 
He would spend weeks on end working on farms and slowly started to resent seeing the sheer amount of perfectly good produce getting dumped.

In Melbourne, one day, he witnessed a particularly large delivery get cancelled and watched in horror as hundreds of dirhams worth of fresh fruits and vegetables were sent to the skips because there was no system in place to resell or donate them anywhere.

‘I decided right then that I wasn’t going to stand for this anymore,’ Adam, now 30, later said. ‘I was going to do something to change this system that seems set up to exploit both humanity and the environment.’

In his spare time, Adam connected with a bunch of restaurants, asked them if he could collect the edible food they would normally throw out because of expiry dates, and then started hosting free street and beach barbecues. ‘They were really popular,’ says project development officer Sharon Danes. ‘That’s what inspired him to start this full time as a not-for-profit company.’

Adam returned to his home town of Leeds – where 22,000 people are officially classed as in food poverty – and set up the first Real Junk Food Café in a suburban corner building. Working with a small band of volunteers, he got in touch with various supermarkets, restaurants, food banks and allotments and told them what he was doing.

To his surprise, few needed persuading to let him take their waste. Many managers felt the same way as he did about seeing good food go to the bins; they just didn’t have a way to stop it from happening.

‘Adam offered them that way,’ says Sharon, who joined the company last year.

He arranged to collect the disposables every morning. Then, as a chef, he took these seemingly disparate bunch of ingredients and created a daily menu of meals, which included curries, risottos, pastas and roast dinners. Since the produce came free, and the only proper expense was the fuel needed to collect it, the prices for customers were set at pay what you can afford.

‘Not everyone even pays with money,’ says Sharon. ‘Some people volunteer their time instead. In the early days, we needed the place rewired and a guy did that for us after eating here. That was absolutely invaluable.’

The café was an immediate success. After opening in December 2013, customers were soon packing the place.

‘It became a kind of social hub,’ says Sharon. ‘People came here for all sorts of reasons – because it was affordable, because the food was really good, and because they appreciated what we were doing in terms of cutting down local waste and helping the environment.

‘But they also keep coming back because it has a community feel, because you can share a meal with like-minded folk, because it’s a movement.’

Among the early food they received were 70 1kg bags of sugar, which a food bank no longer wanted; 6,000 bars of chocolate just a week past their sell-by date; and 15,000 buns from a charity that had been attempting to make the world’s longest line of cakes. ‘They’d been due to be binned,’ says Sharon. ‘But we collected and distributed them to people within 24 hours.’

It was a couple of months after that first café opened that Adam received a call from a stranger in Bristol, four hours away by car. They’d heard what he was doing and asked if they could start a similar diner under the same name, there. After some consideration, the proposal was agreed.

‘And it’s just kept growing from there,’ says Sharon, one of four staff members who work at the headquarters.

‘Our cafés are in countries like France, Germany, Australia and Japan. There’s also been interest in the US, India and the Middle East. There’s no reason this can’t work in every city on the planet.’

Each new project is given some basic rules to follow – at least 90 per cent of all food used should be designated waste, for instance – but, largely, they’re left to their own devices.

‘We trust local people to know best how to run local cafés,’ says Sharon. ‘This is an organisation that believes we can change the world, but the best way to do that is by having lots of people changing their home towns.’

All of which brings us back to Jo in the Sheffield branch and that lasagne we’ve just polished off.

She first spoke to Adam in early 2015 after reading about The Real Junk Food Project online, and set up this eatery in her home town in June last year.

‘I’d been working in business development and I was looking for a challenge,’ says the 33-year-old. ‘I’d gotten to a point where I wanted to do something that made a difference to people and my neighbourhood. I’ve always loved to cook, and getting involved with this seemed perfect.’

She quit her job, came to agreement with a bunch of local shops and supermarkets to collect their food marked for waste, and set up shop three days a week in a space rented from a local community group. Here, there’s seating for just 16, but most days the café will do 40-50 meals over its nine-hour opening times. On average, diners leave about £3.50 (about Dh18) a dinner, ‘which we’re really happy with’, says Jo. She has also just got a contract to supply a local school’s breakfasts.

‘People are excited because they see it’s sustainable, environmentally friendly and holistic,’ she says. ‘Plus, I don’t like to boast, but we serve up some really wonderful food.’

Of that, there is little doubt.

The large number of chefs who volunteer their time and skills at The Real Junk Food Project across the country is pretty interesting. ‘We have a young lad who comes and helps us out who actually works professionally in a Michelin-star restaurant,’ says Jo. ‘But he’s still training so he spends his days doing a lot of chopping and things. He comes here because it gives him a chance to practise, experiment and improve.’

Financially, it works similar to a franchise. Each café is expected to be self-supporting, and manage its own budget. The café manager generally takes a small wage from the income but everyone else is a volunteer. Jo, for example, works five days a week, but draws a salary for just two. ‘The other three I consider my volunteer days,’ she explains.

Still, as we start to finish up our crumble, I’ve one question that’s been playing on my mind: if these cafés are all using produce that is beyond its best, has anyone ever gotten ill after eating there?

‘Well certainly not here and apparently not at any of the cafés,’ replies Jo. ‘Even the best restaurants get cases of food poisoning so I won’t say it would never happen but, because we are dealing with food that is a little older, we are absolutely alert to any potential issues that may arise.

‘We use our human senses; we smell and look and touch, and I would say that makes us even safer than restaurants that just rely on an arbitrary date to tell them if something has gone off or not.’

As I finish my meal with a hot drink – one-day expired milk and coffee, which was part of a cancelled delivery – that sounds entirely reasonable to me. Especially as The Real Junk Food Café is feeding people instead of bins.

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury