Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The U.K.’s Real Junk Food Project is bringing its network of pay-what-you-can cafés, stalls, and grocery stores to the U.S.
It’s not just the concept behind Britain’s first “waste supermarket” that’s impressive, it’s also the project’s sheer scale. Run by food-waste-busting nonprofit the Real Junk Food Project, this pay-what-you-can store housed in a Leeds warehouse connects local shoppers with food donated by supermarkets, restaurants, and wholesalers that would otherwise end up in the trash. Set up this summer, the store is already channeling a remarkable volume of otherwise wasted resources to people who need them, according to co-founder Adam Smith.
“One wholesale supplier alone recently delivered 11.3 tons of noodles to us,” he says. “It came in on twenty piled-up pallets. We're intercepting between two and ten tons of food a day at the moment just in Leeds—and that's with links to only half the city's supermarkets.”
What the Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP) has dubbed an “anti-supermarket” is really just the tip of their vast iceberg of discarded provisions: The group has a created a network of 126 cafés across seven countries, all serving meals on a “Pay as You Feel” basis. The project fixes no prices to goods, but many patrons contribute, and both the project’s main website and sites run by individual cafes accept donations. TRJFP set up their first café in Leeds in 2013, serving meals made with food destined to be thrown away by stores or restaurants. The U.S. is next on their expansion plans, as the project has already opened a pop-up café in Buffalo, New York, and hopes to expand nationwide in 2017.
Last December, the project also began setting up stalls selling fresh produce and other goods in elementary schools. “A local headmaster and me realized that hunger was a barrier to learning in primary schools” says Smith. “He asked us if we could deliver food once a week and set up a market stall where young people and their parents and teachers could have access to perfectly good edible food—and pay whatever they wanted for it.”
The program also comes with an education package delivered by TRJFP teaching kids about expiration dates, food miles, and food and waste management. It’s now spread across the U.K., with 32 elementary schools participating in Leeds alone. This summer, however, the scheme ran up against a problem of sorts: the summer vacation. “When the school holidays came one of our biggest cafés in Leeds was closed for refurbishment at the same time that the schools all shut” says Smith. “We ended up having tons of surplus food a week that we didn't have an outlet for. So we put up posts on social media telling the public: ‘Come down, pay what you want, take what you need.’”
The success of such efforts is cheering, but it also reflects the enormity of the food waste problem, which is estimated to devour about a third of the edible food produced each year globally. Britain’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, threw away the equivalent of 119 million meals last year. And Smith is outspoken about the needless, grand-scale squandering of resources that is built into the business model of the grocery industry. “I’m sick to death of the media and supermarkets who say it’s all to do with consumers,” he told The Guardian. “It’s nothing to do with them. We didn’t want this saturation of supermarkets on our high street selling food 24 hours day, manipulating us into purchasing more.”
The Real Junk Food Project takes in so many perishable goods from supermarkets—particularly unsold bread—that is struggles to give it all away in time. Some of the goods they stock have passed their official sell-by date but have been deemed safe to eat. TRJFP’s website acknowledges that the project is indeed “challenging the grey areas within food laws and regulations in order for common sense to prevail when dealing with food.” (U.S. campaigners Save the Food estimate that 90 percent of Americans throw away food before it’s spoiled.) Predictably, the project has nonetheless found a way to put even the truly inedible stuff to good use, composting it to create fertilizer and methane gas for use as fuel.
Smith may judge the food industry harshly, but when it comes to TRJFP’s customers, he goes out of his way to be inclusive and nonjudgemental. When asked who shops at their warehouse, Smith snaps straight back: “Human beings. We only feed human beings. We don't stigmatize anybody. We don't care where they're from, what color they are, who they sleep with. They come to the cafes and the warehouse, they take whatever they want, they pay whatever they want in return. And we don't measure them whatsoever. That means we have an incredible, inclusive environment for anybody who wants to come in because what we’re offering is a human right—we should all have access to food.”