Keeping it real

Adam Smith is on a mission to feed people using the vast amount of food wasted across the world finds Ali Schofield

Hero image

There are two hanging baskets outside the Pay As You Feel Café in the Leeds suburb of Armley, filled with colourful geraniums and watered regularly. Proprietor Adam Smith is appreciative but he has no idea who put them there – and neither do his staff.  

Since December 2013, when Smith opened the café where volunteers serve up intercepted waste food that would otherwise have gone to landfill, he has been been spat at, accused of stealing food from homeless people and named as one of the world’s most influential men alongside philanthropist celebrities Mark Wahlberg, Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Chatting to Big Issue North at the café on a sunny Friday afternoon, Smith says all these facts are faintly absurd. In fact, most of the subjects raised as we talk – from politics and food banks to food expiration dates and supermarkets – largely fall under the BS banner for the passionate chef, whose Real Junk Food Project now has 110 cafes across the globe, including London, Melbourne, Ibiza and an eighth Leeds outlet just opened in the city centre.

Yet this doesn’t feel like a success to 29-year-old Smith. “When people say to me ‘it’s amazing what you do’, it’s not amazing what we do. We shouldn’t even be here doing this. There shouldn’t be people in need of food for starters and then we shouldn’t be wasting the amount of food we waste and the variety of food we waste at exactly the same time as so many people are going hungry. It shows you the errors in the system.”

One such error is that 15 million tonnes of food are thrown away every year in the UK, most of which is avoidable. The food that Smith and his team intercept comes from various sources including supermarket bins, food banks, wholesalers and restaurants. All the food and drink that comes through the door of every café is weighed. So far more than 68 tonnes of food that would otherwise have gone to landfill has been enjoyed by more than 50,000 people.

“It meant going back to Leeds where I had a dysfunctional childhood, been in prison and care.”

On the morning of my visit a wholesaler has dropped off 240 kilos of cherry tomatoes at the Armley café. Smith explains: “There’ll be thousands and thousands of cherry tomatoes and there’ll be one or two that have got a bit of mould on it but the inspectors at the wholesalers will come past and put a sticker on the whole pallet and there’ll be three, four tonnes that’ll have to go to waste because of one, one single tomato.”

Of course, those are the perfectly round ones that have made it to the supermarket stage. Many will have been wasted before this point because of irregular size, shape or colour. “Why do supermarkets think that this is how we want cherry tomatoes – all this size?” Smith rolls one of the bright red gems between his palms. “We didn’t say we wanted this – they forced us and passed that responsibility on to us saying ‘this is what the consumers want’. We don’t have a choice.” He pops the juicy, completely edible tomato into his mouth.

It was while working on farms while travelling with his girlfriend Johanna that the magnitude of unnecessary food waste really struck Smith. Edible crops on a massive scale would be thrown away because supermarkets rejected them or cancelled orders at the last minute so Smith and now co-director Johanna took the food and made meals with it on the streets of Melbourne. He liked the “pay as you feel” concept of existing Melbourne restaurant Lentil As Anything and wanted to establish an exclusively waste food version in the city. It was one of the leaders on a Hare Krishna farm who suggested he should return to the UK with it.

“He said to me ‘you cannot feed the world unless you feed your home town first’ and I literally sat on this hill all day and I was thinking, he’s completely right. It meant going back to Leeds where I had a dysfunctional childhood, been in prison and care and mental health homes, etcetera, and I realised I went to Australia to get away from problems, not just to go travelling.”

Within three months the Armley café was established and within four the couple’s son was born. Now just over a year down the line there are 110 cafés inspired by Smith’s model across Europe, Australia and Central Africa. Anyone who wishes to set up their own pay as you feel café using waste food can draw on the Real Junk Food Project’s resources and Smith’s experiences free of charge.

“I said from day one, I want to feed the world and I still believe that to this day.”

Smith is talking to a Leeds volunteer who intends to open a café in America soon. He doesn’t mind if cafés use the Real Junk Food Project name or not.

“It’s not about us, it’s not about the Real Junk Food Project – it’s about food and food waste and how we end all that. People are standing up now and questioning themselves. People come to the café and say: ‘I don’t throw things away now because I think of Adam telling me off in my head.’”

Real Junk Food Project
Real Junk Food volunteers in the café which intercepts wasted food, cooks it and asks diners to pay what they feel it is worth. Photos: Lee Brown

Smith is clearly undaunted by being busy with such a mean feat as feeding the world. He talks 19 to the dozen about the inefficiency of expiration dates (only use-by dates are a legal requirement; the rest – best before, display until, sell by – he thinks should be scrapped), David Cameron’s benefits cuts (“I don’t know how he shuts his eyes at night”) and the importance of encouraging all his customers to pay, whether with money, time or skills – a point he believes reinforces the value of both the food and the customers themselves.

While I am there a local business owner comes in. He has seen the photo of the 44 boxes of tomatoes Smith uploaded to Facebook earlier and offers his services in return for taking a couple of them home. He would rather “shop” at the Real Junk Food Project than use a supermarket; Smith suggests he visits on Monday mornings since he picks up between 250 and 750 kilos of fruit and veg every weekend that the vendors at Leeds Kirkgate Market don’t sell.

Shortly after he leaves, volunteers arrive with a vanload from a local food bank. Smith explains, as we unload 30-odd unopened bags of still in-date Peruvian quinoa flakes, that the food bank has a policy of holding donations for no longer than three months.

He says: “I can’t stand them; I think we should be deeply ashamed we have even one food bank in this country. Not only do people have to grovel and beg and be referred and have to fit certain criteria for what food they get, but they have to go to these places and be judged.”

He points to a newspaper clipping on the wall detailing the story of Mark Baber, an artist who was referred to a food bank and credits discovering the Armley café with saving him from suicide. “Mark came in with a tin of corned beef and a bag of pasta. Based on his criteria and the way that he looked that’s all he was valued at. He didn’t even have electricity, so what’s the fucking use of a tin of corned beef and a bag of pasta?” The men cooked a pasta bake with it and shared it with other customers.

This quinoa had lasted its three months unwanted at the local food bank and would have been binned had the Real Junk Food Project team not claimed it.

After a few fruitless head office meetings, Smith tends to deal with the big supermarkets only via their bins. He recalls several instances where he has been told he is not allowed to take perfectly good packaged foods thrown out by staff at the end of the day, being sworn and once even spat at. Often staff will soil the produce with coffee grounds and even bleach to stop him taking it.

“It says to me that they are completely ignorant – you’re throwing food away. Just leave it at that.”

As the thought formulates in my mind, Smith addresses it. “We had this snotty girl telling us that it’s completely wrong to go through bins because the homeless community depend on them. One – we know the homeless community that go through those bins and we make sure we don’t go every week. They get it first. And two – we deal with a lot of the bins at service stations on the motorway. We’ll drive out to collect food knowing that no one else has access to those bins, and you’re talking 12 or 14 wheelie bins completely full of fresh food.”

Just as Smith has put his vegetarian principles aside to work with Nando’s restaurants – the chain donates food to all the Real Junk Food Project cafés – he says he would happily work with supermarkets if they approach him but “I’m not going to go chasing them to make them look good for what we’re doing”.

Which, of course, is not to say Smith is taking a break any time soon. “It’s not quite the norm yet with the public to eat waste food but when it is that’s when I’ll feel we’ve achieved something.”

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Keeping it real

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.