Waste Free Communities - The Real Junk Food Project

Food waste in the UK is astronomical, and quite frankly disgusting. Its such a strange concept to waste the very thing that keeps us alive- I can’t be the only one who frequently sees discarded plates of half eaten food in cafes, unfinished spilt take-aways on the sides of roads near a night club or a left over buffet food from an event which wasn’t as large as the organisers anticipated.

We, as a nation, spend our hard earned cash on this food to just let 40% of it rot in landfill how crazy is that!

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That mind-set is completely dispelled by The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP) is the national project, of which TRJFPBrum is my local affiliated branch. 

I have successfully managed to get my food waste to zero but can it be done with a whole community?

A few weeks ago, I attended one of the regular cafes run by the Birmingham branch of TRJFP which is based at Ladywood Community Centre, the others being at Kings Heath Community Centre, St Wilfrid’s Community Centre in Hodge Hill and The Ort in Balsall Heath.

What is it?

A quote from the national TRJFP website threaljunkfoodproject.org

We believe it is a human right to have access to food and the scale and senselessness of food waste has to stop, and it needs to happen in our lifetime, to ensure the next generation do not suffer from our ignorance.

So, there are two main elements of TRJFPBrum, Birmingham- meals cooked using this surplus food, served in cafés and at events, and the distribution of surplus food via boutiques, a Sharehouse, and 'Freegan' boxes.

Before I explain these two awesome concepts, first of all. Food. 

Quite simply, the food that they have is surplus food, that corporations would be throwing away. That doesn’t mean that the food has gone off- far from it actually. It might mean that the food was part of a promotional deal, which is now over, or maybe an accidental overstock. Maybe the packaging has changed or it's old, seasonal stock. Maybe it's approaching its Best Before date. In the case of fresh produce, it may be approaching the end of its life, but still useable for someone able and prepared to deal with it swiftly. Some of the donations are online shopping orders which didn’t quite make it to the person who placed the order for some reason. Annoyingly that food is still fine for consumption (as it nearly ended up in the fridge of the person who placed the order) so really, its just ended up in a communal fridge- rather than a personal one! Donations come from supermarkets, wholesalers, growers, manufacturers, allotmenteers, small businesses, caterers, schools, even charities - all of whom have donated the products rather than see them thrown away.

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 Boutiques, Sharehouses, and Freegan Boxes

Any food that TRJFPBrum can't use in its cafés is distributed throughout the week via the Boutiques, Sharehouse and Freegan Boxes. Everything is supplied on a Pay As You Feel (PAYF) basis, where shoppers can donate their cash or volunteer their time - but more about that later!

Boutiques are run at the same time as cafés, so 'shoppers' can access one most days of the week, where they can choose from an array of products displayed on and around a table in the café, all for a PAYF donation. As well as the longer life packets, tins and jars, boutiques regularly distribute fresh produce and bread. In this way, TRJFPBrum can redistribute food even if it only has a remaining shelf life of a day or so.

The Sharehouse is a bit like a mini waste-food supermarket, open one afternoon per week, and it's not just food on offer! There's toiletries, cleaning products, even toilet and kitchen roll, that would otherwise have ended up in landfill, but which have nothing wrong with them - they're just surplus for whatever reason! There are currently 3 TRJFP Sharehouses in the UK, with the others in Leeds and Sheffield, all run along similar lines. 

The Freegan Boxes are TRJFPBrum's way of dealing with Friday's surplus from the wholesale fruit and veg markets, along with bread and a few other items. With few cafés or events over the weekend, without this distribution network, this produce would otherwise be wasted, but is perfectly useable if sorted quickly and eaten/cooked/frozen/pickled or otherwise preserved ASAP. The boxes aren't exactly identical, but the packing volunteers do their best to make sure each one ends up roughly the same. If people get anything they don't want or can't use, the project just asks that they hand it back, or pass on to a neighbour or friend who will use it. If you're in Birmingham and you'd like to collect a Freegan Box regularly on Friday evenings (2-6pm in Ladywood, or 4-6pm in Kings Heath) you can request one here. 

When I visited, there were ample amounts (by ample, I mean nearly 900!) pre-packed ham and cheese toasties- so these were going into every Freegan box, and extra could be taken if desired from the Boutique. Whenever TRJFPBrum gets a bulk donation like this, it's all hands on deck to make sure they're distributed and consumed before the Use By date - which they communicate to people via their website and Twitter and Facebook feeds.

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The Meals

TRJFPBrum serves up meals using all donated produce. I was talking to one of the volunteers about how he feels at the uncertainty of not knowing what the ingredients will be each week. He told me (in true ZW style) that you just make do- subbing something else in its place, or just going without. He used the examples of onions… you could just go without.

He draws the line at substituting spices though! Each time its his day to cook- he brings his own spices to pack a bit of magic into the meals. Voluenteers arent expected to bring their own supplies though- this is just his personal choice.

They also cook for functions- I’ve attended one of these functions since, and the food was sublime. The event was in partnership with Slow Food Birmingham.

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Who is involved?

Volunteers! Really! This whole project is run by volunteers, except for two, part-time, members of staff who get paid a living wage.

The food that is served is cooked by volunteers, the community venues are cleaned, the organic waste is composted and the Freegan boxes are produced by volunteers.

The people I met really were from all walks of life. There was a mother, a single father who had lived all over the world, a marathon runner who ran to raise money for TRJFPBrum, and two homeless men. They were from different religions and areas of the globe. The love of food, and the hate of waste bought these unlikely groups of people together, when they may well have not crossed paths otherwise.

And whilst this is a great scheme for those who have to live on a tight budget, who maybe rely on food banks (though these are notoriously difficult to use weekly due to restrictions on the amount of uses, which I was unaware of until I went to the centre). That doesn’t mean that TRJFPBrum is a resource just limited to one area of society though- far from it. It is all about the sharing of foods and resources, and paying back in the way you can.

One of the volunteers I spoke to was describing the centre to me and said, “Where there is food, there is peace”, and honestly, that was so true. People with different backgrounds, skin colours, religions, jobs were all in harmony together- in a way that I haven’t experienced before.

How do you pay?

As a sign in the community centre quite rightly states, "There is no such thing as a free meal."

It's a Pay As You Feel (PAYF) scheme - that is for the meals they provide, or the 'shopping' at the Sharehouse, Boutiques, or Freegan Boxes. This can be with cash, which helps to pay for essential costs like petrol, rent, food hygiene training for volunteers etc, or by volunteering time, without which the project couldn't function. 

In this way, everyone is expected to contribute for what they receive, and no-one is turned away empty-handed. Neither form of 'currency' is more valid or valuable than the other - both are essential to the project, and so whether you're time rich and cash poor, or vice versa, there's a place for everyone, and everyone is welcome. For more information about what Pay As You feel means, have a look a these Frequently Asked Questions.

Where is it based?

Local community centres, or city based venues- check out where your nearest one is.

When do they meet?

Each junk food project meets multiple times throughout the week or in pop-up locations around the city, so it can be made to work around your schedule.

Some people just collect their food box and pay in cash, whereas others are cooking the meals, cleaning up and stay around for the social element of it.

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And the non food waste?

The cardboard is gathered together to be collected by aa guy who recycles it in order to raise money for the children’s hospital, the organic waste is put onto the compost heap or in the wormery, which is maintained by a volunteer.

They also make their own bags out of old hospital curtains and other donated fabric (I was kindly given one) they were called Morsbags, and people were encouraged to bring them each week, to put their to put their 'shopping' into.

If you are as passionate about cutting food waste as TRJFPBrum are, take a look at their voluntary opportunities and other ways you can help out.

I hope they get through those ham and cheese toasties soon!