Having just been on holiday, and with Glastonbury in less than three weeks, I was sailing dangerously close to my overdraft last month, so when my friend suggested that we go for a three course meal cooked by a top chef, Mary Ellen, I wasn’t too keen. “Honestly, it’ll be cheap. You can pay what you feel.” He had my attention.

I’d heard people talking about The Real Junk Food Project, and I knew it was something to do with serving meals that are made from food that would otherwise be thrown away, but I wasn’t too sure of the details. The Real Junk Food project started off in Leeds, and has now expanded to put on pop-up events all over the country. Last month it came to Manchester. How it works is that volunteers intercept food that is going to be thrown away by supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. The menu is then improvised from whatever people aren’t buying that week, meaning the challenge for the chefs is to create a healthy, balanced meal from what they’ve got.

On the menu were only two options for each course, but vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options were all available. I went for the veggie options – a pesto pasta starter and a fancy cauliflower dish that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Michelin star restaurant. At least I think it wouldn’t. I’ve never actually been to one, but it looked very like how I imagine Michelin star meals to look. Afters was chillied frozen pineapple or Tuscan pudding with mint custard. I assumed that the mint custard was a failed supermarket experiment to spice up a classic, which they then couldn’t shift due to it resembling something you’d find at the bottom of your compost bin. So I went for the pineapple. Fortunately for my friends who did go for the pudding and custard, I was wrong. It was actually normal custard (and normal custard colour), but with the added mint making it deliciously fresh.

I was amazed that all of this had been made from food that would have otherwise been thrown away. It’s shocking that, whilst people are going hungry, such good quality stuff is going in the bin.

A chalkboard at the front of the cafe explained why this food waste is such a big problem and displayed some jaw dropping stats about just how much edible grub is being thrown away:

– In the UK alone, around 15 million tonnes of food is wasted every year
– At the same time, nearly 7 million people in the UK are in poverty so deep that they struggle to afford enough food, never mind access a healthy diet including lots of fruit and vegetables
– Each of us is wasting 100kgs of food per year, around 20% of everything we buy. This is equivalent to throwing away about £60 per month/£700 per year.

Another thing I was totally unaware of until visiting the project is food waste’s contribution to climate change – around 10% of greenhouse gases emitted by rich countries come from uneaten rotting food. Whilst a lot of the most commonly championed ways to reduce your carbon footprint can be time consuming and expensive, such as solar PV panels or building a compost loo, eating up the food in your fridge before you go and buy more is a fairly undramatic lifestyle change that could have a huge impact on our slowly but surely thawing ice caps.

The project’s ultimate aim, like any campaign group, is not to exist. Pop-up cafes, as well as the permanent cafe in Leeds, are a fun and effective way to educate people about the problems of food waste, as well as inspiring them to act and do more with their waste food. Not content with just raising awareness of the issue, all the money donated for the meals is used by the project to fight food waste and food poverty.

Real Junk Food project are hoping to set up a permanent cafe in Manchester. To find out a bit more about food waste, the project and how to get involved you can have a look at their website (see below). Before you do, go and have a look at your fridge, and before you head out to buy more stuff for tea tonight, have a proper think about how you can use what you’ve already got. Those tomatoes may be a couple of days out of date but are they actually mouldy? No? Well, I’m sure you can think of something that goes with tomato sauce.


Image by Jo Peel.

Catriona Watson