This blog investigates the debates surrounding the ‘paradox’ of food waste and food poverty and explores the actions of The Real Junk Food Project: Sheffield on this matter, and other food waste issues. The article is based on an interview with Rene Meijer, the Education and Finance Director at The Real Junk Food Project: Sheffield.

More information on The Real Junk Food Project: Sheffield can be found here.


Introducing The Real Junk Food Project: Sheffield.

It’s a busy time for The Real Junk Food Project: Sheffield (TRJFP). In recent months they have opened a second café, acquired a warehouse and introduced their ‘Fuel for School’ initiative. The not-for-profit organisation promote the value of food and people by reducing unnecessary food waste, improving the availability and access to food, and increasing critical food skills.

The organisation collects surplus food from food retailers in Sheffield. Surplus food is usually food which is no longer desired, primarily due to products’ best-before dates. This food ‘waste’ is then processed by TRJFP by trained chefs into meals served in their two cafés and various other projects.

What is Food Waste and how is it valued?

 Food waste is subjective; it is a consumable item which has crossed a “cultural line that separates it from stuff that is worth keeping or using”1. For TRJFP, anything that can be eaten but is destined for landfill is potential waste, which they aim to intercept.

How do TRJFP put a value on food waste? The answer is by introducing a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ system in their cafés; “you can choose to pay in money, skills, or your energy by washing up, helping out, teaching us something.” This allows people to make their own judgement on value, enter into a transaction on their own terms and remove financial barriers to food. Underpinning the concept is TRJFP questioning an issue “very much ingrained into society”-we value food only in terms of its “monetary equivalent.” The time, skills and resources which have gone into its production are ignored, as is the potential environmental harm of waste. Challenging this mind-set is the starting point to tackling food waste.

What is the paradox of simultaneous high levels of food waste and food poverty?

In the UK, 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away at a cost of £19 billion a year. The environmental cost is high; food waste is associated with over 20 billion tonnes of Greenhouse Gas Emissions each year. Per household, 24 meals are thrown away each month. 75% of waste is avoidable.

Simultaneously, more than 8 million households struggle to put food on the table, nearly 5 million are severely food-insecure and in 2014, over 20 million meals were handed out via food banks. Why do so many people struggle to eat and are reliant on food aid? Surely using surplus food to address food poverty is win-win?

For TRJFP, it isn’t that simple. Though aware that the “double edged sword” of food waste and food poverty are intrinsically connected, TRJFP first and foremost tackle food waste.

The natural connection people make between food waste and food poverty means there can be confusion over the TRJFP’s aims; when picking up non-saleable food from supermarkets, they are occasionally greeted by ‘there isn’t much food today, I’m sorry!’ For TRJFP the apology isn’t needed; “that’s a good thing, mission accomplished!” It’s a concern for TRJFP because it “weakens the message” of food waste.

TRJFP have a “rich mix of people” engaging with the project. They “depend on some donations to make things work” and if seen as a food poverty organisation, they would lose a large chunk of their audience, making it hard to “sustain the project financially.” The misconception could also change the relationship they have with the homeless and vulnerable; they would “come here because there are food handouts.” This is financially unsustainable and weakens another message; food has value. A space where people who would usually never be in the same space together, would be at risk.

However, one should not view TRJFP as dismissive of food poverty, far from it. TRJFP frame it differently, a way which encourages equality and awareness. “Rather than tackle food poverty, we provide equal access to food for everyone… we don’t exclude people, including those in poverty.” Pay-as-you-feel illustrates TRJFP’s food poverty outlook- “it allows every person in the world to enter into a respectful value transaction with the project” and food. The Project provides “access without stigma-” it doesn’t fixate on monetary value, a barrier to food for many.

In their quest to tackle food waste TRJFP will indirectly address food poverty. This is illustrated by the Fuel for School initiative, which introduces children to food waste and mitigation strategies. It delivers two messages: a better understanding of how waste impacts “their environment and surroundings” and ways to reduce it, and the development of food skills- “how many people still have a broad range of cooking skills that allows them to use the foods that they have in the fridge in a creative way? Or to understand when foods are off or not off, irrespective of what a date says?” Future generations will be equipped with lost food skills and schools provide a setting for accessing food when in need through junk food cafés; evidence suggests “it provides parents with access to food where they [previously] didn’t have” and a greater connection to “different types of food they otherwise weren’t familiar with.”

The Real Junk Food Project Sheffield and the food waste and poverty paradox: what next?

The ultimate aim is to see a reduction in food waste, and if that results in those in poverty receiving food, it’s win-win. “At the end of the day I don’t actually really care as long as someone eats it! If we do that well enough… everyone will get to eat, because there is enough food.” Moving forward, building further relationships with food poverty organisations is an objective. In terms of food waste, food poverty structures in Sheffield work “incredibly poorly”- TRJFP actually receive ‘out-of-date’ food from food banks, a “ridiculous” scenario. Also, “many people that get stuff from a food bank don’t know how to use half of it” and TRJFP argue that recipients should not just receive food, but opportunities to develop food skills. There are many avenues to take TRJFP’s success in tackling food waste into the food poverty debate, but for now, TRJFP is taking steps to keep their food waste message strong.

TRJFP is winning many battles in the war against food waste. Their re-framing of the food waste and poverty debate answer criticisms of ‘win-win solution’; those who question the ethics of providing surplus food to ‘surplus’ people only have to visit the café to see the food is not lacking in quality, and the atmosphere means all customers are welcome. In summary, the TRJFP principles of equal access and food values ensure fairness in the food system, but reducing food waste remains their primary aim.

1JACKSON, Peter (2013). Food Words: essays in culinary culture. Bloomsbury. London.