As part of last week’s Leeds Creatives event, The Gryphon editor Jessica Murray sat down with headline speaker Adam Smith, founder of The Real Junk Food Project, to discuss how far the organisation has come in the last twelve months.
The Real Junk Food Project have had an extremely busy twelve months. The food waste initiative, founded by Adam Smith just a few miles away in Armley, has grown exponentially and there are now over 100 cafes spread across seven different countries. What started as one man’s idea became a global initiative that has enacted real change across the globe, bringing the problems of food waste and global poverty to the attention of many through the media storm they have created.
When I chatted to Adam just before his talk at the Leeds Creatives event last week, he was very ambivalent about the impact of all this media attention: “It’s been very tough. They want my time all the time. And what they don’t understand is that the reason I got to the stage where they want my time is because we are so committed and hands on with the work we do.”
On top of this, he finds the fact that the initiative is praised so often by the media unsettling and at odds with what the organisation sets out to do.
“To be able to achieve what we’ve achieved doesn’t sit very comfortably with me and I hate what we do, but I think it’s amazing what people do to contribute back into the bigger picture. They all care about the next generation and the environmental issues surrounding food waste.
“It’s a tough one for me because obviously emotionally I am so connected to it because I am the founder but I despise what we do and we’re designed to put ourselves out of business as quickly as possible, so we hope that we’re not around in the next 10-15 years time. If we are we’ll see ourselves as a failure, not a success. We should be looking at closing cafes, not opening more and more around the world.”
This anti-business model shows just how committed Adam and his team are, in addition to their clear rejection of any money-making commercialisation in the project. From day one they turned down the opportunity to film programmes with the BBC and Channel 4, or to invite star chefs such as Jamie Oliver into the original cafe.
He’s often attracted media attention for his scathingly honest opinions of such celebrity chefs, but makes it clear that he doesn’t regret his words.
“I know the guy [Jamie Oliver] personally, I know what he does, I know he makes £10-15 million every time he does a new show.
“And Jamie’s not the only one, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ‘War On Waste’ is a load of nonsense, but it brings it to light very quickly, and has a huge reach in a very short space of time.”
To him these celebrities are only in it for the ‘fashionable’ nature of the topic and the commercial success it brings them, while TRJFP is “deeply ingrained in some of the most complex social issues you could ever imagine, from street drinking to prostitution, all the way to child hunger, malnutrition, obesity and just poverty in general.” Unlike Jamie Oliver, they can’t go back to their luxurious homes at the end of the day. He does, however, acknowledge that these high profile projects bring the issue to light and increase the amount of volunteers heading to the pay-as-you-feel cafes around the country.
It’s clear as Adam talks, rapidly and determinedly, that this is all about that one clear goal, that one clear vision he has in his mind to “feed the world”. He claims that the idea came to him on a farm in Australia on 22nd February 2013, and since then he has never looked back. His passion for the project is enormous, and for all the bold egotism he displays towards the media and celebrity chefs, he is incredibly humble and down to earth.
“I was voted one of the 40 most influential men in the world in 2014, and it wasn’t because of me as such, it was because of how I approached what we did, we rattle cages, we piss people off, but we do it because we believe it’s the right thing to do”.
His approach to life is so startlingly direct it can catch you off guard – like it did just minutes after our interview when he took to the stage and began his speech with a story about a near fatal car crash he was in a few years ago, where the only thing that kept him going was the cocaine in his system. But it’s this down-to-earth association with the people he helps that has made him so successful.
He’s determined to open his projects and cafes to anyone and everyone, regardless of wealth, to remove the stigma of charity and to further his vision that food should be a human right freely available to everyone. He has provided thousands of school children with free breakfast, and ‘accidentally’ set up the first pay-as-you-feel supermarket – they had received a huge stockpile of food that needed distributing, so they invited people down to their warehouse to help themselves.
Despite all the media hurrah, the fluctuating public interest in the project and the problems they face, Adam’s end goal is perfectly clear, “I hope, eventually, global leaders will come together and realise that this isn’t just an issue in the West or the UK or in Leeds, this is a global issue and it’s affecting every single one of us and it will destroy our planet single-handedly if we don’t get a grip on our agriculture system and our food waste issues.”