The Real Junk Food Café is situated in Armley, a short bus ride south west from Leeds City Centre. Entering the town, it is easy to lose count of how many factory buildings had been abandoned, bordered up and draped in rows of barbed wire. The town is like many that were left exposed by the attempted transition to a service economy in the 1980s: empty office buildings and disused billboards are monuments to the area’s economic decline.
Set up by Adam Smith in late 2013, the project exists to help reverse the town’s hardship. Its colourful exterior beams across the cracked pavement with a banner reading “pay as you feel”, tempting customers inside.
I find Smith in the café’s kitchen, hastily chopping carrots into thin streaks and mixing them into a long plastic tray of assorted sliced vegetables. Behind him is a large hob with three battered pots filled to the brim with today’s menu choices.
The project has already received the attention of national media, largely due to the café’s disregard for “use by” dates on food packaging in a bid to reduce food waste. Similar projects are starting in towns and cities across the country. Nonetheless, Smith is clear that their focus on food waste is a means to much broader, “revolutionary” ends: ending hunger, educating people about food and rebuilding community spirit.
“There’s too many people making a lot of money and too many people suffering”, he says over the drone of the extraction fans, “we hope to change the entire food system across the whole of western civilisation”.
The project sees beyond the decay on its doorstep and recognises the town’s potential, “Armley is such a beautiful town”, I’m told, “it’s got so many amazing people”. In fact, Smith – who runs the project voluntarily – has built an army of more than a hundred unpaid “community workers”.
Smith: “Everybody mucks in, everybody wants to be part of it. It’s not a job, you come here not to work. You don’t really want to leave here, you want to be part of people’s lives”.
Every week, they intercept up to a tonne of food that would otherwise have been thrown out. The extent of food waste is such that they occasionally have to turn contributions away. Moreover, they have a diverse range of sources, ranging from market traders and food stylists to students and one of the UK’s largest supermarkets: “at the beginning it was very hard but now we’ve got to the point where we don’t even look for the food”.
I watch Smith pick up a tall, unusually shaped cabbage with black patches of mould speckled on its outer leaves. He strips these off and, without hesitation, resumes salvaging.
He continues: “we’re now known all over the world, with cafes opening up every couple of weeks”.
Two homeless men arrive for a meal at the café.
Since austerity measures and welfare cuts have hit Britain, poverty has risen dramatically. As a result, demand for food banks has risen too. The Real Junk Food Project is one of them, but Smith is cautious about using such a label: “I think the whole notion of food banks is a negative one, people who are ‘scroungers’ or on benefits. It’s not like that at all. You can come in and use this as your shopping if you wish, so we like to call it a boutique”.
However, Smith doesn’t believe that austerity has led to greater demand for his café, but he notes that it has become busier: “It’s more to do with the project and what that brings…It’s opened up a place where people don’t have to worry about financial burdens”. He insists that the project is not just there for the homeless, but for every member of the general public, “this is not based on suiting and aiding a certain demographic”.
Nonetheless, stepping into the dining area of the café, it is the clearly those in poverty who are most in need of the project. Chris Booth, a local resident, told me that he was facing eviction from his council house and would be sleeping rough as a result of the Bedroom Tax. His financial situation has become worse, having lost his job due to sickness. He said he would be relying on the café in the coming weeks and months.
“We can’t change what is happening in society”, Smith argues. A change of government wouldn’t help either, he says: “I don’t think politics has anything to do with what’s happening at the moment.”
However, he suggests a politics of a different kind, away from Westminster, will: “I think that getting into grassroots education, bringing communities together, and bringing people power together, that’s what’s going to make a difference”.
Smith’s attention has now turned to a few handfuls of pistachio nuts he has just been handed. He rapidly shreds them, places down the knife, and reaches for a mug of black tea that has been brewing since I arrived. Our conversation turns towards how food is treated in developed nations. Would he agree that waste is inevitable in societies that rely on the mass production of food?
“Of course it is, but it’s all about the systems you put in place for distribution. We grow far too much food on this planet”.
He proposes that we abandon expiration dates and regulations that institutionalise the production of waste. The profit motive is in his sights, too: “if you’ve got a large lorry load of food and one product is damaged, the whole lot goes”, he claims, “the cost to hire someone to sort through that food is more expensive than it would be to throw it all away…Profit is all they care about”.
Christopher, a musician and RJFP volunteer: “There’s a wonderful group consensus [at the café] that’s positive in a way that you don’t see on a Saturday night bus or the last train back home”.
I raise how the inclusion of meat is as commonplace as lettuce and cheese in products such as sandwiches and even ready made salads. The difference between these ingredients is that it takes an extraordinary amount of resources to raise animals to be slaughtered for their meat. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that meat production releases more greenhouse gases than transport.
Smith argues that the lack of awareness over this issue is not down to consumers deliberately ignoring the facts, but instead, “a lack of education”.
“My six year old nephew knows more about his iPad than what a cucumber or tomato is”, says Smith, “we’ve become so distant from our food, there’s no relation to [it] anymore”.
As for food that is flown over long distances, often from other continents, such as avocados and grapes, Smith is scathing, especially when that food is wasted: “we have a convenience culture and it’s destroying our planet. It’s impractical, it’s a massive burden on us”.
Moreover, global food security is set to be a major issue in coming years. It is predicted that this summer, the El Niño weather phenomenon could destabilise climates and potentially lead to food price rises. I ask whether, if genetically modified (GM) crops could compensate for such an eventuality, he would support their introduction.
“No, never. I don’t believe in anything GM whatsoever”.
What if the café was offered GM food?
He pauses. “Food is food, but I wouldn’t encourage [its production]”. Smith describes it as a “knee-jerk reaction to panic from the media” about potential food shortages as the global population expands.
Smith is ambitious for the Real Junk Food Project: “we don’t want to be here in 15 to 20 years’ time tackling the same problems”. Nonetheless, he remains cautious about the future of waste production.
“We do provide enough food to feed the world”, he exclaims, “massive amounts of food is wasted every single day, shocking amounts, and it’s only going to get worse before it gets any better”.