Every dish at the Real Junk Food Project is made from food rescued from the bin – and you’ll be able to try it for yourself as their latest cafe is opening in Dubai soon. Britt Ashley reports
There are no crisp, white table cloths nor a maitre d’ but with its ever-changing a la carte menu this is a cafe where everyone wants to eat. If there was a waiting list it would take weeks, possibly months, to get a reservation which is surprising considering every dish here is made from food waste.
Ingredients at The Real Junk Food Cafe come from supermarket bins, cancelled shop deliveries, restaurant left-overs, allotment spares, fruit and veg deemed too ugly for sale, and even surplus items from food photo shoots. The ethos is that if it looks, smells and tastes alright, they’ll take it – and turn it into a gourmet dinner.
‘We do what humans have done since the beginning of time and trust our senses on what is still good,’ says founder and qualified chef Adam Smith. ‘We aren’t dictated to do by arbitrary ‘best before’ dates.’
The first time I visited I tucked into curry, naan bread and side salad, followed by a rhubarb pie. The only thing I consumed at the cafe which hadn’t been rescued from landfill, I was told, was the half spoon of sugar in my tea.
And it was delicious. Cheap too. Because the other twist at The Real Junk Food Cafe is there are no prices. Kitchen staff are almost all volunteers so diners pay-what-they-feel for their meal. All of which is why I have been returning ever since – and I am, it seems, not alone.
There are now 126 Real Junk Food Cafes around the world – including in South Korea, Germany and Nigeria, with a Dubai venue pencilled in for this year. Globally, they have fed some 1.1 million customers and saved more than 2,000 tonnes of food from going to landfill
After originally opening as a single experimental cafe in Leeds, in the UK, in 2013, there are now 126 Real Junk Food Cafes around the world – including in South Korea, Germany and Nigeria, with a Dubai venue pencilled in for this year. Globally, they have fed some 1.1 million customers and saved more than 2,000 tonnes of food from going to landfill.
Such has been the astonishing success, indeed, that the enterprise has now opened six ‘supermarkets’ in the UK – essentially vast warehouses full of collected food waste where people can turn up and take whatever they want. As with the cafes, customers pay what they feel is fair.
‘We get people coming and doing the weekly shop,’ says Adam, who was previously a sous chef at Carluccio’s in Leeds. ‘It’s great to see. It’s helping the planet and the environment on one hand, and helping families eat affordably, on the other. It’s a win-win situation.’
The global contradiction at the heart of The Real Junk Food Project’s mission is a bizarre but horrifying one. Every year, according to UN figures, some 1.3 billion tonnes of food are thrown away, causing incalculable damage to the environment and wasting vast natural resources.
One estimate suggests that if human beings only produced the food they needed, an area the size of Mexico could be reclaimed from farming yet, simultaneously, some 800 million people across the planet are malnourished
One estimate suggests that if human beings only produced the food they needed, an area the size of Mexico could be reclaimed from farming. Yet, simultaneously, some 800 million people across the planet are malnourished.
Waste and Want
‘These two facts – this waste and this want – it’s illogical they both exist at the same time,’ says 32-year-old Adam. ‘It’s morally unforgivable and it doesn’t make sense. And I suppose it’s my nature that when I see something that doesn’t make sense, I want to fix it.’
It was something which first struck him while living in Australia almost five years ago while working on a farm where waste fruit was so surplus, they would give it to the pigs to save buying feed.
‘But I’d been living in Sydney where there are hundreds of people on the streets who can’t afford to eat,’ remembers the father-of-one. ‘I asked one of the farmers why they weren’t giving the fruit to people. He said the logistics were too expensive and complex. That was the moment The Real Junk Food Project was born.’
Adam connected with several city restaurants, asked them if he could take the food they would normally throw out, and then started hosting free street barbecues. It was a hit. So, when he moved back to his home town of Leeds that December, he opened his first cafe using the same principles.
He told local supermarkets, restaurants and allotments what he was doing, and several agreed to let him have the food they would normally throw away.
‘Me and a group of volunteers would drive round to these different places every morning, get what we could, and then go back to the cafe to get cooking,’ he says. Curries, lasagnes, risottos and even roast dinners were all on the menu. ‘It was popular immediately,’ he says. ‘People got it.’
From there, things snowballed with like-minded people in different cities calling and asking if they could open a branch. Within three months, a second opened in Bristol. And they’ve been multiplying ever since.
Each new cafe 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,’ explains Adam.
Not that it’s all been plain sailing. The Real Junk Food Project works in what it itself admits is the grey area of food regulation, and in April this year they were threatened with prosecution.
Their Leeds ‘supermarket’ was found to have 444 items beyond their expiration date – distinct from ‘best before’ dates in that, while the latter is advisory only, it is illegal to supply a food which has passed the former.
‘In total, the food was 17 years out of date,’ Adam says. ‘But we’ve been doing this for four years and have fed more than a million people and not a single one has ever got ill. So we know what we’re doing.’
In the end, the project was given a slap on the wrist and told not to stock food beyond its expiration date in the future, which it now complies with.
And, with that drama over, Adam has launched a Fuel For School scheme which uses rescued food to provide free breakfasts at partner schools.
‘We’re feeding 15,000 kids in 45 schools every single week,’ he explains. ‘These breakfasts are nutritious, stop hunger and save families some money.
‘But, just as importantly, it’s about educating the next generation. What we’re doing is combining these breakfasts with teaching children about food waste so, that in 10 or 15 years’ time, this generation understand this issue and doesn’t accept that perfectly good food being thrown away.’
Only then can a real social change take place, he says. ‘My ultimate goal is the opposite of most businesses. Ideally, I’d love The Real Junk Food to be forced out of business because there is simply no longer any food waste to deal with any more.’