The Real Junk Food Project’s Corin Bell is busy loading up a van full of food for an event that will see her team of chefs and volunteers feed 60 guests at a pop-up restaurant in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The food being served is all ‘waste’ or ‘surplus’ food – produce that is perfectly edible but routinely thrown away by supermarkets because it has exceeded its ‘best before’ date or there is simply too much of it to sell. What makes the experience even more unusual is that the dinner guests will also be able to pay whatever they want – there is no set charge for any of the dishes on offer.

The Saltaire Canteen in Shipley is part of the Real Junk Food Project network and boasts a menu created entirely from ‘waste’ food that would otherwise go to landfill. Customers also pay what they like in the restaurant. Photograph by Shamaila Burhan/Shy B Photography

As ambitious as this venture may sound it’s just part of the latest phase of a movement that is attempting to help solve the problem of food waste by turning the very idea of what that is on its head. Last month, Bell’s RJFP Manchester collective achieved its Crowdfunder target to help pay for a permanent restaurant site in the Ancoats area of the city. Set to open in May it will offer breakfast and lunch five to six days a week and three a la carte dinner evenings on the ‘pay-as-you-feel’ basis, with a menu created entirely from ‘intercepted’ foodstuffs.

One of the dishes created from ‘intercepted’ food waste by the RJFP Manchester contingent;
One of the dishes created from ‘intercepted’ food waste by the RJFP Manchester contingent

Challenging how we think about food waste goes hand in hand with offering up a new kind of restaurant experience, says Bell. “This is not a project about food poverty,” she says of the Manchester site. “This is not a community cafe, this is not a food bank. This is award-winning chefs making amazing meals and demonstrating that this food should never have gone to waste. The statement here is that food waste is absurd – because look at what we can do with it.”

Since chef Adam Smith founded the RJFP in Leeds in 2013, it has grown into a considerable network with partners all over the country. Smith’s inaugural site, the Armley Junk-tion Cafe, established the concept and put the RJFP philosophy on the map. “The cafe in Armley is a hub of its community, it’s what the community demands,” says Bell.

Similarly, one of the four RJFP cafes now open in Wigan sprang from a need to “fill that gap between no food and some food,” says Bell, but it has now begun to work “towards nutrition and healthy diets, cooking lessons and advice”. Then there are places like the new Manchester space that can incorporate exactly the same RJFP ethos while attracting a wider demographic, thanks to its city centre location.

Café sign as used by The Bristol Skipchen, outlining the political nature of making use of waste food.
Café sign as used by The Bristol Skipchen, outlining the political nature of making use of waste food

The fit-out of the new Manchester space remains true to the Real Junk Food cause. All the commercial kitchen equipment has been ‘upcycled’ from other cafes and eateries that have recently closed. Twitter has been integral in tapping into the upcycling community, Bell says. “Taking things that would otherwise go to waste and giving them a new life, it’s everything that we do.” While the mission starts with the idea of “bringing people together around food” the RJFP philosophy inevitably impacts on communities on a social level as well.

“My aim is to at some point wander in at lunchtime and see someone who’s on their lunch break from their office job sat next to someone who’s obviously homeless, sat next to someone who’s out shopping for the day with a friend, sat next to someone who’s an asylum seeker and just go, ‘right, we’ve won, that’s it’.” Wherever RJFP partners have established themselves, they adhere to the same philosophy contained within the partnership agreement created when the business became a charitable foundation: “‘Use waste food, serve everything on a pay-as-you-feel basis, try and be nice to people’,” says Bell. “Those are the principles, that’s what links us all.”

The pot for customer donations at The Bristol Skipchen
The pot for customer donations at The Bristol Skipchen

Duncan Milwain, a lawyer who specialises in working with charities and social enterprise clients, opened the Saltaire Canteen in December 2014, having previously helped Smith on the legal side of setting up the original Armley cafe. After deciding to give up a day’s work and establish the Shipley Food Project, Milwain took the RJFP model to an elegant building in the picturesque village north of Bradford. With its huge windows topped with stained glass and tasteful decor, the Canteen certainly looks the part.

“There has been an element of almost self-consciously wanting it to look aspirational and wanting the food to look b different,” says Milwain, remarking that the restaurant has also been referred to as “the Harrods of the pay-as-you-feel movement – I think it’s meant to be a compliment”. And it’s now part of a way of thinking about food waste that is starting to get things done.

“Since we started as a national movement, we’ve taken just over 1,600 tonnes of food,” he explains. “But what makes it more interesting, or depressing depending how you look at it, is that of that [figure], 400 tonnes of it was taken in Leeds over the last three months.” So while the Canteen is fulfilling its role as a way to redistribute waste food, it is also building an increasingly detailed picture of how bad the situation is. “We know what sort of systemic types of waste there are,” Milwain says. Recently they’ve seen “27 tonnes of noodles, nine tonnes of burgers. Two-thousand 2.5 litre catering [jars] of Patak’s curry paste. It’s that sort of stuff.”

Over the last few years, the public’s awareness of the RJFP has also increased because the national picture has shifted and put the supermarkets’ role more in the frame. “It’s got a lot easier to deal with the big supermarkets now,” says Bell. “Depending on how cynical you are, they’re a lot more keen to do something, or they’re a lot more keen to be seen to be doing something.” Milwain cites Morrisons and Co-op as two of the companies that the Saltaire group work with most often.

Other major retailers have shown interest in what the RJFP does but are often more keen to own the narrative of what they do with their food waste themselves. “The problem itself is a beast that’s been created by supermarkets,” says Milwain. “If [you] look back, the overwhelming majority of people bought what they needed and used what they needed. There was little packaging and little waste and it all worked rather well. Supermarkets are a relatively recent invention [and] what really sticks in the craw is that it is they who have created the system.”

Real Junk Food Project Manchester volunteers

Even while actively working with campaigners to reduce food waste, supermarkets will often flag up two objections, Milwain says. “One is ‘how do we portray this to our customers? If they’re paying money for what they’re getting, how do we then give stuff away?’ And the other thing [they] worry about is liability, if somebody gets food poisoning.” Part of the problem is that most of the tactics employed by the big supermarkets simply aren’t common knowledge.

“There’s a lot of stuff in warehouses,” Milwain reveals. “[The product is] virtually indestructible, but because it’s gone past its ‘best before’, nobody will touch it – apart from us. Imagine you’ve got that stored in your warehouse – the landfill costs of disposing it are so great, it’s cheaper for you to sit on it. We’ve discovered food that is simply being warehoused because nobody knows what to do with it.”

For Bell, finding waste food to use in her new kitchen will not be a problem; what the RJFP takes and makes use of is still the tip of the iceberg. “Our short term mission is ‘feed bellies not bins’. The long term mission, which I’m keen we focus on strongly in Manchester, is to do ourselves out of a job, basically. If we’re still doing this in 20 years and there’s still this much food waste, we’ve done something really horrifically wrong.”

For now, her core team of volunteers numbers around 50 people and Bell also has award-winning chef Mary-Ellen McTague on board to help take the RJFP forward in Manchester. Milwain, too, is committed to another RJFP initiative called Fuel for Schools which not only takes surplus food into schools to provide breakfasts, but sets up pay-as-you-feel stalls for parents to buy produce from at the end of the day, with the money going back to the school. This has already successfully launched in Leeds (at over 40 schools) and Bradford and Milwain hopes to expand the scheme nationally.

These aren’t complex ideas but they go some way to attack a complex environmental problem. “We’re wasting land, water, pesticides, packaging, diesel, refrigerant chemicals, energy, just huge amounts of resources,” says Bell. “I can say this because it wasn’t my idea: the RJFP concept makes sense. It connects with people on a really basic level and I think it inspires them, too.”