Mystery Plums & Real Junk Food


Today I had my first taster of an experimental jam I threw together the night before last. The satsumas/clementines that my eldest would normally decimate in just a few days had sat virtually untouched and we had lost a couple to either drying out or going mouldy. I decided to rescue them rather than feel the guilt of wasting perfectly good food out of neglect. I have neither the money nor energy to continuously shop, nor do I hold the moral view that doing so is good on any level.

The first thought was for a kind of marmalade even though it’s never been something I have chosen to eat on a regular basis. And yet, there was a mystery plum sitting in my fruit bowl next to these neglected oranges, and I still can’t figure out where it came from. It had sat there through most of Christmas with nowhere to go, uneaten, and likely to end up in the food waste. Now, however, it had given me a spark of inspiration.

I had been thinking of orange and plum flavours ever since a pre-Christmas wedding, and all of a sudden that sounded, although unusual, like a wonderful wintery jam.

The result has been remarkably satisfying both in taste and the feeling that a tiny bit of effort has created something unique from the unloved uneaten ingredients. I also went onto make a medium-sized apple crumble, which is less praiseworthy only because I will happily scoff a good apple crumble everyday for the rest of my life if I get the chance. This too saved a few apples edging towards the wrinklier side of edible.

Of course this should be my everyday reality; some planning, a little effort, and some imagination could save me money and create less food waste really easily. The reason I can be proud of myself is due to the common truth that convenience, comfort, and privilege have taken over. The UK wastes a huge amount of food before and after it is bought & sold, we have got used to it, accepted it, and become co-conspirators with those who ignore ethics in favour of profit.

There is, like certain great movies, a growing rebel force trying to offer a counter-culture, a way of saving our planet, our pennies, and clearly acting in a way that is not understood by big business or capitalist markets. They are gaining a reputation for great food, serving the poor, and saving waste, all under the name The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP).
Set up in 2013 TRJFP aims to:

revolutionise the disposal of avoidable food waste into landfill, the pioneering movement’s manifesto is to: feed bellies, not bins.

This has the incredible effect of creating a tandem: whilst saving food from the bins they are also offering low-cost meals for the growing population who might be struggling to put food on the table. The aim to feed people is something that fights the statistics of food banks, living costs, and food costs. This is an epidemic; videos have been circulating online of fights breaking out over reduced fruit, vegetables, and meat produce in supermarkets between people who have waited with empty baskets for hours because it’s the only way they will get something they can afford. This behaviour is no longer unusual for those who work in these supermarkets. Likewise, queues outside foodbanks of those ranging from the almost-homeless to two-income working households show that the UK is struggling to do the most basic: feed ourselves.

The cafe’s run under a “Pay As You Feel” ideology, which allows them to use food past expiry dates which is still completely healthy to eat to feed the homeless, the “needy”, refugees, asylum seekers, eco-warriors, foodies (because why wouldn’t you want to visit somewhere with a great experienced chef cooking the meals!) the general public, everyone. Because they are not selling the food to the public they are able to use it, anything that they receive from those eating is freely given in gratitude and goes to help the running costs of the cafe’s. They also gain support from businesses who appreciate the aims of the cafe’s: some supermarkets are giving left over produce directly to the cafe’s (it certainly beats having ongoing battles with bin-diving freegans), some allotments pass on what they have grown, and other restaurants, cafe’s and caterers may also donate what they cannot use themselves. Businesses are likely also feeling the effect that comes with being known as an ethical, waste-reducing, and compassionate option in a world where goodness is often hard to see.

It makes a lot of sense: why pay for huge bins of waste to be taken away when someone is willing to use what you cannot sell and do not want. Some of the cafe’s are now passing on the produce directly as well as in exciting meals. Staying with the Pay As You Feel plan it allows people to buy cheap ingredients and get creative with it at home themselves. One “shopper” described her first experience in Leeds:

Up and down the rows seeing all the vegetables and fruit going to waste, and the mountain of bread… I have no idea how we can waste so much food… For some reason, I felt strange, a bit cheeky… Then on our way home my middle child spoke “That was the best shop in the world! Anything you buy means it won’t get wasted, I hate it when things get wasted.”

I too hate waste. It gets under my skin. I can imagine that feeling is true of anyone who has ever even come close to going hungry. It feels wrong that food that has been worked over, grown, packaged, and then somewhat arbitrarily given a best before/use by date should be thrown away en masse to add to landfill, effect our environment, and pass hungry mouths by. The farmers who produce our food deserve more respect, our planet needs our attention, and the poor are literally crying out to be fed. The Real Junk Food Project is doing a remarkable job at combating it all.

I asked Ann Gallagher about her involvement with TRJFP Birmingham and this is what she had to say:

I saw a Facebook post and I went to eat at the cafe. I helped wash up and waitress the next time I went, and I carried on from there. For me personally, I see TRJFP as a concept that not only addresses food waste but stops the waste of people: everyone and anyone is welcome to eat and to help . We get to know people gradually; they may offer to help, or we may ask . The links to other community activities happens mostly spontaneously. Advice workers, homeless support workers, mind and housing staff, these are just a few of the paid people who come in to eat. Often people will connect without anyone referring them. We connect to places of welcome, gardening groups, litter picking, and more recently, groups making Morsbags. I would recommend going along to a nearby project if possible, if not read up on it and do a pop up! Ask around your area for supposedly waste food and cook it up or serve it at an event . Alternatively you could run a stall. It is all pay as you feel (which includes cash, time, or skills). The best thing I have experienced is the reaffirming of the importance of community connection. Bringing people together in a comfortable atmosphere truly works wonders. Over time people look better and have more to say, and people are so impressed with the quality of the food.”

I can’t help but pray that more of these grow up. Sadly for me there aren’t any currently in the south-east (although if anyone wants to start one you’ve got at least one willing volunteer and customer right here! You can bet though, next time I’m in Birmingham, Manchester, or the number of other cities hosting these great places you’ll find me enjoying the riches of cheap, environmentally friendly, waste-reducing, restaurant-worthy food at The Real Junk Food Project. Who wants to join me?

How do you combat food waste too?

  • Plan out what you need and don’t over-buy in the first place. Anything you do end up having in surplus make sure you either freeze and store it, or how about giving it to family, friends or someone else that might need it more. If you are struggling for ideas then maybe take a few cooking classes to improve your skills and gain great food in the process! There is also Jack Monroe’s great blog which will give plenty of tips for cheap and easy things for odd ingredients.
  • Volunteer, give or visit one of the growing numbers of TRJFP cafe’s. By supporting the project like this you can keep them going for the many people who need them to continue.
  • If you’re in Manchester, or maybe just super generous, consider giving to the crowdfunding campaign to set up a permanent cafe/restaurant in this great northern city. So far they have been doing small scale pop ups and the occasional wedding but it would be great to see it grow even further.10991307_779659205458185_5182485130075940334_n
  • Finally, maybe think of setting up your own similar TRJFP. Maybe get in touch with a food bank and see if you can cook up some of the stuff they can’t pass on for anyone who is hungry? Maybe do an event to deal with a small case of food waste and see where it goes? If anything has been proved by this idea it’s that action is needed and a little imagination and ingenuity goes a long way!


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