Roast beef, shepherd's pie and chip buttys: for many of us, British cuisine is defined by these hearty pub stalwarts. But one Leeds native is bringing something new to England's tables: one-hundred-percent salvaged, or "skipped," foods.
Adam Smith is the co-founder and co-director of The Real Junk Food Project, which since late 2013 has been serving donated, dumpster-dived, and other would-be wasted food in "skipchens" all across the country. Today, project volunteers run 47 cafes across England, all operating on a pay-as-you-feel model that allows diners to chip in a little or a lot for homey casseroles, hearty soups and rustic crumbles made from tossed-out chicken, community garden-grown vegetables, and bruised fruit.
Smith, who co-founded the project with girlfriend Johanna Hewitt while the couple was living in Melbourne, Australia, sees the project's mission as twofold. He hopes to feed England's hungry population—in 2013, nearly one million Brits relied on food banks for some of their household food needs—as well as put a dent in the 30 billion pounds of food that are wasted in the UK each year. MUNCHIES spoke with Smith about his organization's goal of taking freeganism to the next level.
MUNCHIES: How did the Real Junk Food Project start? Adam Smith: In February 2013, we decided to feed the people on the streets in Melbourne. Melbourne has these public barbecues all over, and you pay for 20 minutes of their heat. We used those barbecues to cook food that people gave to us—mainly fruits, vegetables, and bread—and allowed people to access that for free. That was the concept that we brought to the UK when we returned.
I hear you first met your co-founders, Sam Joseph and Conor Walsh, through a dumpster-dived food exchange. Sam and Connor came on board when I intercepted a large amount of food from a whole food organization in Yorkshire that was throwing away lots of soy yogurts and nondairy products. Sam and Conor had been bin-diving down in the south of England, and on their way back to Leeds they heard about what I was doing. They came over and asked if they could swap some carrots and parsnips with some of the soy products. So we did, and I told them that I was about to create a cafe in Leeds where we would feed people these foods.
Why was it was important to you to establish the first cafe in your hometown of Leeds? Well, I didn't, at first. It was a Hare Krishna that I was living with in Australia who told me that I couldn't feed the world unless I fed my hometown first. That made me realize that I couldn't start something like this away from Leeds.
When I came back, I got a huge amount of support from the local community, and my friends and family, with what we were trying to do. I didn't create the concept, but I adopted it some of the ideas—I know that Jon Bon Jovi has a place called Soul Kitchen, and in Melbourne, there's a place called Lentil As Anything, which are both pay-as-you-feel. And we took some of those core ideas and brought them back to the UK, and said, let's not only do pay-as-you-feel, but let's also used salvaged food—that way, we can have an impact from both of those angles. At first it was just about giving people food, but now it's about the huge environmental issues, as well.
Tell me a little bit of salvaging food for the cafes. How does that work? Where does the food come from? The interception is all about us being the last resort before the food is wasted. Supermarkets in the UK are an absolute pain in the ass, they don't do anything for us at all, they will not let us anywhere near their food. So the majority of our food comes from wide, varied sources, including food photographers, households, cafes, restaurants, food banks, and allotments.
At the moment, because of how established we are in Leeds—the original concept cafe—we don't need to go out and find food. A lot of it comes through our back door. We do have very large corporate ties. People like Nando's, for example, so we go out every Monday and collect all the chicken that would have been thrown away by Nando's.
Other than that, people just turn up at our doorstep all the time with food. We make a judgment on whether or not it's fit for human consumption, and if we believe that it is, then we'll use it. If we don't, then we'll compost it for our open-grow garden.
How do you decide what dishes to serve in the cafes? Because of who we are now, we don't even have to decide anymore. We get local people coming in, and they can just create a meal, whatever it may be, depending on what we have; people will come in and say, "I can make a fantastic crumble, can I make a crumble?" and we just let them do it.
The menu changes every single day, and no two days will ever be the same. But we're not making gastronomic, a la carte-type food here, you know? We're making soups, stews, casseroles, and fruit salads and crumbles, and just basic food which everyone should know how to make, but that a lot of people in the UK don't know how to make, and that I'm guessing lots of people in America don't, either.
What we try to do is get across to people is that these things are very, very simple, and we encourage them to come in the kitchen and make something, even if they make a mistake. Just get in touch with their food again, get familiar with the taste and touch and smell.
What has the reaction been to the "skipped" food you're serving? Do people embrace it, or are they skeptical? We've had huge global support from families all over the world. We've have video sent to us from South America, Australia and Asia. People have been asking us, "When are you coming to our town?" The response has been incredibly positive.
We get people on a daily basis in the cafes asking questions about the food, like, "This carrot has gone a bit black, or this banana has gone black, is it still ok?" and we show them what they can do it with it. We try to give people the knowledge and ability of what they can do with their food.
Why was it important for you to institute a pay-as-you-feel model, and how has that worked out? What it's allowed us to do is give people who are food insecure access to food. And I believe every single person on this planet should have access to food. It's about allowing people to feel valued at the same time as we're allowing the food to be valued. Adopting a financial model wouldn't have allowed us to do that.
Should people be more aware of how much food they're wasting? Food waste has a dire impact on every single decision we make throughout the world, every single day. Energy bills are rising because of how much energy we waste on creating food just to be wasted, but people don't see the direct link there.
What are the long-term goals of the Real Junk Food Project? There's 47 cafes in the UK now, and through them, I believe we've gonna feed the world. I believe that's a world directive. In Western society, there's a lot of food being wasted that we haven't even tapped into yet. Once we can highlight and expose all that food waste, along with the amount of people who are suffering, there's no reason that we can't relieve the problem. Especially with changing some of the regulations, like expiration dates in the UK, how they display foods by "best before" dates that aren't even accurate. If we can have an impact on changing those policies, then we can have a huge impact on the reduction of food waste.
Thanks for speaking with us.