Approximately one third of the food we produce on the planet is thrown away. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes a year sent to landfill or allowed to perish before reaching mouths in need. While, at the same time, 842 million people don’t get enough to eat – and one in every eight people on Earth goes to bed hungry.
A glaringly obvious solution is to fill the gap between hunger and excess food – by giving people access to surplus food and making sure food is used for its intended purpose: to be eaten!
Adam Buckingham runs The Real Junk Food Project’s Brighton outpost, one of a growing number The Real Junk Food Project cafés popping up across the UK, Europe and Australia to fill the gaps left by a broken global food system.
Along with his fellow café directors around the world, Adam hopes to turn the tide on the interlinked problems by raising awareness about how much food goes to waste – and by demonstrating how surplus food can be made into healthy meals.
The cafés aim to welcome everyone, regardless of their financial status, by working on a “Pay as you Feel” model. In place of money, the cafés accept donations and contributions of all kinds – from skills, to time and ideas. In so doing, they’ve become refuges for healthy meals – but also community centres for people attracted to the values The Real Junk Food Project was built on: waste less, share more, and ensure no one goes hungry.
We talked to Adam to understand more about the food waste problem and the work being done through his café in Brighton, UK.
How did you get involved?
“My best friend sent me a video of Adam Smith, the founder of the global initiative, explaining the concept at his café in Armley, Leeds and something deeply resonated with me. I used to be a chef and saw first-hand the huge amounts of food that would be thrown away. I felt quite disillusioned at the time and this simple concept woke me up.
I got in touch with Adam Smith, mainly to congratulate and thank him for his efforts and he suggested me doing the same in Brighton. It took a while to commit fully to the cause, but eventually I quit my job and dedicated all my time to making it a success. I guess I knew I was doing the right thing and felt proud to spread such a groundbreaking yet simple concept.
The fact that it helps people and is sparking positive change in so many ways makes so much sense to me. I feel proud to be apart of The Real Junk Food Project and feel like I have found my calling.”
What’s the most challenging aspect of bringing together what seems like a very clear solution – surplus food and hungry people?
“Bringing together surplus food and hungry people is the right thing to do, to try and bring about positive change. But it’s by no means a solution.
Poverty and food waste are two separate and incredibly complicated issues that I am still learning about every day. I think what we are doing at The Real Junk Food Project and with Fuel For Schools is starting a journey on the right path to abolishing food waste, but it will take a long time.
The most challenging aspects are probably getting access to the food. There are many barriers to get past: we’re still raising awareness about what we do. And educating suppliers on what food we will take and why it’s best for us to take good, edible food – versus sending it to pig farmers or for anaerobic digestion.
Some people’s definition of what is still edible and what is safe to eat is worrying. Lots of food is thrown away because they don’t believe it is useable, when in actual fact we could be feeding people with it.
The stigmas around food waste are a huge issue. Food past its best before date for example, is still perfectly fine to eat the majority of the time. But convincing supermarkets or food suppliers to allow us access to it can be quite challenging.
The other issue we struggle with is storage space and a permanent venue to operate from. Currently, we run a lunch service 5 days a week from 3 different locations, which is a logistical nightmare. We hope to eventually raise enough funds or share a space so we can operate 7 days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner. That way, we can grow as an organisation, take on more food waste and feed more people.”
What’s been most helpful in bringing The Real Junk Food Project to life?
“The most helpful thing for us is the response from the community.
Sometimes it is truly overwhelming how much time and energy people give to help us and how much they learn about the issues we are dealing with. It really is a collective effort from the people of Brighton and Hove that allows us to do what we do so well.
Volunteers, supermarket staff, venue management and our service users to name a few have helped us get where we are today.”
And what’s been most limiting?
“Finding a permanent space and storage has been the greatest challenge. Transporting all of our equipment and surplus food around is hard work. A lot of other Real Junk Food Projects have managed to find a restaurant or café to run from – a space to call their own.
We hope one day we can put our mark somewhere in Brighton more permanently. That way people can start to rely on us always being in the same place.”
What do you hear most from the people and community you serve?
“Shock and disgust at how much surplus food they see us working with.
I’ve seen it overwhelm a lot of people. People can never understand why it has been deemed waste and when we explain some of the reasons, they seem angry at how broken the system is. This empowers people to get involved and do what they can to help, whether that’s with us, at home or by spreading the word to their friends and family.
For a lot of people, coming to our café is not just about getting some good healthy food, it’s about enjoying the community atmosphere, meeting new friends and sharing the experience. I can’t think of anything else that does this on a regular basis; bringing people together regularly, on mass, no one on their phones, but instead laughing, chatting and breaking bread together. That can be a rare experience for many people these days.
People do seem shocked that we are struggling so much to find our own space. I think they would love to see that happen next year, for the project to expand and for the community to directly benefit from that expansion. We’ll get there though, I have faith.”
How did you get involved in schools?
“It was a gradual process. I first learnt about Fuel For Schools from Nathan Atkinson at our AGM last year. His stories about Fuel for Schools in Leeds were very inspiring. When I got back, I invited schools in Brighton and Hove to a Q&A session. And I went into various schools to present at assemblies. I explained what we do at The Real Junk Food Project and started conversations about the reasons food gets thrown away.
I loved the responses from the kids and the chance to get them talking and interacting with food. We’d make juices and smoothies and they’d learn that dented or bruised fruit is still really tasty and good to eat.
We started dropping food to a couple of schools in Brighton and they saw really positive responses from the kids – more attentive, better behaved and more productive.
The fact that almost 1 in 4 kids go to school hungry in this country shocks and saddens me, so it’s great that this program can help in some way, and start to educate future generations about food waste.”
What 2017 looks like for food waste in Brighton:
Early next year, The Real Junk Food Project Brighton will open its food waste “hub” and supermarket. The new space will allow Adam and his team to centralize where the surplus food they receive is delivered, weighed, sorted and redistributed to cafés and schools.
So too will it allow them to expand how much food they receive from major supermarkets – and, therefore, the number of schools they can deliver to. Adam plans to be able to deliver surplus food to 3-4 schools every week. The facility will also be open to the public – serving as a community market using the same “Pay As You Feel” concept as the cafés.
Since Adam first opened The Real Junk Food Project Brighton in November 2014, he and his team have intercepted 80 tonnes of food from being wasted and fed over 26,000 people.
To learn more about what Adam and The Real Junk Food Project are up to, visit www.facebook.com/realjunkfoodbrighton and follow their work @realjunkfoodbrighton