Real Junk Food in Leeds

‘In this country we throw away something like 35% of our food, most of this throwing away being done by the big supermarkets and that’s just wrong.’

I’ve been talking with the Real Junk Food Project.

Here at Armley in Leeds.

Here at Armley in Leeds.

In fact a whole group of us have been talking with them and getting a direct experience of what they’re about.

You might remember us visiting the brilliant Severn Project urban farm and much more in Bristol a few weeks back? Well the same group of us have just been in Leeds, me and a group of front line staff from social enterprise bus company HCT, bus drivers mostly. From London, Bristol, the Channel Islands, Wakefield, Dewsbury, here in Leeds and me from Liverpool. Here to learn, here to question. Here to find out.

I'm so glad Real Junk Food found the time to let us visit.

I’m so glad Real Junk Food found the time to let us visit.

This café in Armley is where the whole ‘Junk Food/Pay As You Feel’ movement got started. In fact they’re in the process of renaming this particular place the Armley Junk-tion just now, as ‘The Real Junk Food Project’ has become the common name for an ethically linked group of cafés that are now spreading rapidly round the country as we attempt to deal with the extreme poverty that years of austerity politics is now causing.

This map of them in Leeds alone is already out of date. The 8th local Junk Food Café is now open.

This map of them in Leeds alone is already out of date. The 8th local Pay As You Feel Café is now open.

The idea is that food is scavenged, foraged and collected from wherever they can get it, then cooked up and offered as a warm and nutritious meal to, well, whoever wants it or needs it regardless of our ability to pay for it. So ‘Pay As You Feel’ is an attempt to move beyond being dominated by everything having a monetary value. So you can volunteer money at the end of your meal. Or you can volunteer.

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“We value donations in money, time and skills.’

We are welcomed by Theresa, one of the Co-Directors here.

We are welcomed by Theresa, one of the Co-Directors here.

While we gather round and get ourselves cups of tea Theresa begins to explain how things work here and what they’re about.

We listen

We listen surrounded by their plans for what they plan to do with this place now they own it.

Getting hold of the place having been a great and concerted effort by many people in Leeds.

Getting hold of the place having been a great and concerted effort by many people in Leeds.

Josh, another Co_Director comes out of the kitchen and talks to us too.

Josh, another Co-Director comes out of the kitchen and talks to us too.

Josh is doing the cooking today along with a couple of volunteers and so has to pack what he wants to get across in as little time as the cooking food will allow.

'We get a lot of the food by skipping it.' Josh tells us.

‘We get a lot of the food by skipping it.’ Josh tells us.

Nothing to do with what you might think of as ‘skipping’ to get fit of course. This is ‘skipping’ to stay alive and well by recovering food that has been thrown away in skips simply because its ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ dates are up. This is where we learn about that figure of a third of our food being thrown away and mostly by supermarkets.

“We do talk to individual supermarkets and some do now set stuff aside for us rather than put it in the skips’ Josh tells us ‘But as corporate chains dominated by their remote shareholders they simply don’t want to know about us, what we stand for and the position many of their own customers are now in. Even many people who are in some kind of employment are having to pick between food poverty or fuel poverty. Balancing between keeping warm and going hungry. So for a lot of people who come here this can be the only warm meal they’re going to get.”

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None of us who grew up with a Welfare State ever expected to hear this kind of talk in a sunny room in Armley.

Josh sits down and talks us quietly through the practicalities of trying to work innovatively and practically at the sharp end of society.

Josh sits down and talks us quietly through the practicalities of trying to work innovatively and determinedly at the sharp end of society.

Everyone listens carefully and thoughtfully.

Everyone listens carefully and thoughtfully.

“We also get food from wholesalers, like when they’ve got a whole tray of something, say tomatoes, with one or two bad ones, meaning the big shops wouldn’t accept the whole lot. So the food might have travelled for miles, even been flown into the country, but all of it would then be wasted almost on a whim.

Also, and almost unbelievably, we get food from Food Banks. For some reason they’re not allowed to keep donated stuff for more than three weeks, even though much of it is dried or canned. So some of it ends up here!”

And when Josh finishes, there is food. Real Junk Food.

And when Josh finishes, there is food. Real Junk Food.

Broccoli Soup.

Broccoli Soup.

Chicken, rice and salad.

Chicken, rice and salad.

For which much thanks. Thanks for talking to us, thanks for opening up specially for us.

Afterwards some of us have a look round the kitchen.

Afterwards some of us have a look round the kitchen.

At the tomatoes Josh mentioned.

At the tomatoes Josh mentioned.

And Theresa calls this the 'Food Boutique' - people can come and get some and take it home.

And Theresa calls this the ‘Food Boutique’ – people can come and get some and take it home.

We are intrigued and enthused.

We are intrigued and enthused.

And hours later we are still talking about the Real Junk Food Project.

And hours later we are still talking about the Real Junk Food Project.

Opinions turning out to be divided. Some worry about how the food is got? Others wondering still whether the supermarkets couldn’t yet be gently persuaded to be a bit more receptive to need? Others having trouble coping personally with so little choice, as in what the café can get on any one day, compared to the almost endless choices they’ve got used to. And there are doubts about ‘Pay As You Feel’ ( the money, not the volunteering). Hard to easily set aside a life of cost driven conditioning and decisions?

But we all know we've been to somewhere very significant, somewhere using all of its intelligence and innate human kindness to make the world a fairer place.

But we all know we’ve been to somewhere very significant, somewhere using all of its intelligence and innate human kindness to make the world a fairer place for us all. And all are grateful for that.

So let's really feed the world and stop the waste.

So let’s really feed the world and stop the senseless and pernicious waste.

Thank you Real Junk Food Project, for making us think, for changing all of our perceptions of the needlessly wasteful world we’re living in.

More from the Real Junk Food Project themselves in this short film.

And yes, I was deeply shocked by that 35% waste figure and have beeen nosing around finding out about it. Turns out Josh was being slightly polite about us, the consumers, as a proportion of that figure is us lot throwing stuff away, still in its wrapping (Go on, tell me you’ve never done that?). So what the Real Junk Food Cafés focus on is the stuff they can get back in bulk, the stuff that’s in supermarket skips. The law in France, by the way, has just been changed to make it obligatory for larger supermarkets to donate responsibly to charities and good causes. I asked Josh about this and he described it as ‘A first step.’ A first step even our austerity obsessed politicians should come under our considerable pressure to take, surely?

7 thoughts on “Real Junk Food in Leeds

  1. David Sakho

    I listen to the BBC World Service, as it is always interesting. I heard the other morning that someone in France has successfully campaigned to introduce a law that stops French supermarkets from throwing away food. They must now give it, by law, to the needy, and the person (I forget his name) is now trying to make the law become international.

    Reply
  2. amypanda

    hello, great article! really great to hear that people are being fired up by the idea. Do you mind if I use one of the photos on facebook for an event I’m setting up to try to recuit people to set up a similar cafe in Otley? I’ve used your picture of the map of the leeds cafes, as a holding image while I get a poster made. thanks so much!

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Absolutely you can. Also Real junk Food will give you their ‘How to’ manual if you ask them, for free. Let us know how you get on and if there’s anything I can do.

      Reply
  3. Arthur Sharman

    I’m always buying food nearly out of date in my local supermarket, why not its better than it going to waste. Government legislation regarding foodstuffs date for human consumption is quite clear,so rather than disposing of good food, putting it to good use makes common sense.

    Reply

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