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Waste not, want not cafes

In Ethical Investing and Social Enterprise by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

The Real Junk Food Project is a world-wide effort to prevent food waste, and diverts many tonnes of food from the tip each year.


According to the best estimates, about a third of the world’s food production is wasted. Attitudes to this issue have shifted significantly in recent years, and now it is frequently seen as an offence against humanity rather than an unavoidable fact of life.

‘Waste not, want not’ is a typically English term that dates back to the 18th century, but best reflects a frugal British attitude that was born out of wartime scarcity and food rationing. Today, food is abundant, but there are different types of scarcity on the scene. These include the increasing prevalence of neo-liberal driven economic deprivation, plus a limit to the capacity of the planet to handle the CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide greenhouse emissions associated with wasted food.

The Real Junk Food Project

A few years ago, a British chef named Adam Smith became concerned about food waste after working on an Australian farm for a year. At the end of 2013, he was inspired to start a café in the northern English city of Leeds that finds ways to use food that would otherwise have been thrown away, despite being safe to eat. As other similar initiatives appeared around the country, they have morphed into a network called The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP).

This has expanded to 120 projects, is growing fast, and diverts many tonnes of food from the tip every year. TRJFP has gone international, with overseas cafés appearing in several countries including Australia, where the Rowville Community Kitchen operates in Melbourne’s suburbs.

How it works

Food waste cafés tend to share several similarities. The menu is often slightly limited, and depends on what has been recently donated. Many are run by volunteers, although some also benefit from having experienced chefs on the staff. Most noticeable seems to be a friendly, upbeat energy that is not always encountered in regular cafés. Perhaps this comes from the participants doing something that they believe in and which aligns strongly with their own values. Often such places double up as community hubs.

Seasonal fruit on a plateCustomers are told to ‘pay as you feel’ by choosing how much to contribute, which is usually in the form of money but might also be an energy exchange or volunteer help. These community cafés work well for people who are homeless, given that there is no stigma attached to being unable to pay more than a small token amount, and nobody will be turned away. Clientele is however diverse, and includes a broad cross-section of society including diners who are just looking for somewhere convenient to have lunch.


Food waste supermarkets

The British online supermarket Ocado has started diverting orders that had been cancelled by their customers to TRJFP cafés, to save them from being binned. While other supermarkets have been slow to get on board, many food donations are being sourced from restaurants, cafés and events. London network member Save the Date has found that the quantity of food coming in exceeds their capacity to utilise it, and some of the surplus is passed on to other charitable organisations.

In 2016, a couple of food waste supermarkets were opened in Copenhagen, backed by government support. WeFood sources its offerings from the supermarket chain Føtex, fruit importers, a butcher, and an organic fruit and nut bar manufacturer. Prices are 30 to 50 per cent cheaper than in regular supermarkets, and shoppers targeted are those concerned about food waste, or who are just looking for a bargain. Another is planned for Arhus, Denmark’s second largest city.

Meanwhile, the TRJFP has launched the UK’s first food waste warehouse outlets in Leeds and Sheffield, selling food that is unwanted by supermarkets and other businesses. It has ambitious plans to open one in every major British city.

In another inspiring development, the efforts of one man led France to curb its supermarket food waste. Councillor Arash Derambarsh was instrumental in French supermarkets being required to donate their surplus to food banks and other charities.

The trend continues

Food producers are starting to get in on the act too. Snact is a British food maker that saves fruit from being chucked, and turns it into a range of chewy fruit snacks. In Leeds, Northern Monk makes an ale called Wasted from unwanted croissants and pears.

Perhaps the most important take-home message from food waste cafés is a DIY ethos. Corin Bell is today a trustee with The Real Junk Food Project. When she first approached Adam Smith about adopting the name and using it in her home city of Manchester, she received an email back with the word “YES”, followed by multiple exclamation marks.



The Real Junk Food Project 

Rowville Community Kitchen

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