Creative writing student, Kaitlin McKenzie, visits a surprising food venue in Gosport that puts wasted food to good use.
When I first heard the words ‘The Real Junk Food Project’ my brain was filled with images of greasy takeaways and crisps being handed out to the hungry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The project serves junk food – quite literally referring to the food we carelessly throw away.
In the UK we discard over 7 million tonnes of food a year. According to lovefoodhatewaste.com, this equates to nine Wembley Stadiums full of discarded food, of which the contents of six stadiums would still be edible. This localised ever-growing project aims to stop all of that for good.
The Real Junk Food Project Foundation operates nationwide as a network of ‘Pay as You Feel’ cafes. Portsmouth has one right on its doorstep in Gosport. Open weekdays in various locations, including St. Vincent’s College and Rowner Family Centre, ‘The Trash café’ intercepts food destined for landfill from supermarkets and restaurants. This food is past its best before date but is still fit for human consumption. The cafés then make meals with this food or sell what they cannot use in their onsite ‘boutiques’. All meals and items are purchasable on a ‘Pay as You Feel’ (PAYF) basis. This means that you can exchange your perceived value of the food for cash, item donations, your skills or even just your time.
There is a common misconception that food goes toxic the second it passes its ‘best-before’ date. We are all familiar with the sense of unease that a packet of day old meat can imbue. The sheer ease of popping to the shops for a replacement and ‘better not risk it’ attitudes completely trump common sense. It is having an effect. The Trash Café shared statistics on its Facebook page which said that in 2015 over 64,000 tonnes of food were binned in Gosport alone, 60% of which was still edible. It gets worse. If this food was saved, it would prevent as much carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere as taking 9,245 cars off of the roads.
When the South Coast Branch started, they fed an average of twelve people a week, now they feed over four hundred. Chloe Palmer, the manager, said, ‘I saw the national project happening, and being a business woman, I knew I could take on the challenge. Not long before we set up we were really down on our luck, but we started in just a car and expanded and continued on from there.’
Not only does Palmer run this ever-expanding project, she is also mum to a big family and successfully runs two events businesses. She maintains an allotment which provides fresh produce for the café, runs a weekly fundraising car boot sale and collects all the food from its various sources. She often prepares it too.
I visited the café on a chilly Wednesday evening in April. The first thing that struck me upon arrival were six large tables piled high with everything from tins of Heinz spaghetti hoops to Nando’s chicken. I was then stunned to hear Palmer apologise as we’d missed the real bulk of it. I just couldn’t believe the sheer quantity and quality of food potentially going to waste.
The Trash Café is already supported by and receives donations from Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Morrisons. But they are still thinking bigger. On this Palmer said, ‘we have twenty-six more organisations that want to work with us but currently the space we have is not enough’. The South Coast Branch are keen to follow in the ‘food-steps’ of the Armley Junk-tion Café in Leeds, the first café opened by The Real Junk Food Project. Founder of the project, Adam Smith, has recently taken things to the next level by opening a PAYF warehouse. In an interview with The Independent he predicted that ‘every city will now obtain central storage and run a “people’s supermarket”’.
Returning to Gosport – once I had crammed my bags with perfectly appetising doughnuts, salad and even soya milk – it was time to eat. I chose a bowl of homemade tomato and basil soup accompanied by crusty bread. The portion was hearty, fresh and tasted just as good as it smelled. The café makes sure to have vegetarian and sometimes even vegan options so that as many people as possible can benefit from the café. Dessert was a selection of fresh fruit piled upon a meringue. Then it came to paying. A potentially awkward situation which was avoided by the discreet use of donation buckets. Palmer emphasised to me that people are just as welcome to do the dishes as they are to contribute whatever they can afford.
Customers trickled in steadily throughout the evening but plenty of food was still left unclaimed. To help this, Palmer is constantly spreading the word via social media. Several times a day she posts updates on competitions and the various arms of the project. Most recently, the scheme has been running live Easter egg openings on Facebook, in which customers buy an egg for £10 and then can win up to £100 or various other prizes. So far, this initiative alone has raised over £300.
Aside from competition wins and thriftily purchasing ‘out of date’ produce, it seems that there is still more money to be saved. Leaders in the fight against food excess, Love Food Hate Waste, say that by cutting down on their own household food waste, the average family of four can save £60 a month, which is roughly £700 a year. We also end up paying a second time for our food – when the council take it away and process it. Once in the landfill, the food rots and breaks down over a long period of time and releases harmful gases, including methane, into the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the Gosport café’s good work will be temporarily reduced to operating on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. However, Palmer assures me that they are already looking at new, full-time units and an expansion across the water to Southsea. In the meantime, the Facebook page is constantly being updated with pop-up cafés, events and ways to get involved.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.