Let’s begin at the beginning. A couple of years ago, Alison and her husband were in Saltaire, looking for a late lunch. They found it at the Saltaire Canteen, and soon realised it was no ordinary café. Here, the ingredients used were all past their sell-by dates, and had been intercepted from landfill. They’d been transformed into appetising meals, mainly by volunteers, and customers were encouraged to pay what they thought was fair, or what they could afford.
‘We could do that in Ripon’, thought Alison.
Actually, that’s not the beginning of the story. We need to go back to December 2013, when The Real Junk Food Project opened its doors in Armley, Leeds, as a café offering meals made from food destined for the tip. People ‘paid’ for their meals with money, by offering skills or even food.
It was the brainchild of Adam Smith, who had a Road to Damascus moment on a pig farm in Australia, where the pigs were eating discarded food he’d have been happy to put on his plate. Back in England, The Real Junk Food Project was born, firstly as a café: then as an ever-expanding movement helping others develop their own models; as a Sharehouse sourcing and distributing waste food for those cafes; pay-as-you-feel supermarkets of discarded food; Freegan boxes of intercepted food designed for families; for distribution in a school setting (breakfast clubs, or for families in need for instance); even outside catering. I’d like to get married all over again for the pleasure of having a Junk Food catering team deliver the party! You can see why Alison needed to talk to Adam.
She found a co-conspirator in her friend Janet, and between them they located premises at Community House, equipment, cookware, crockery, cutlery, napkins… everything you need to feed the masses. I’ve dismissed that task in a sentence, but I don’t underestimate the achievement. They found volunteers too. I wasn’t in at the beginning, but I’m part of the team now, and I wouldn’t miss my stints for anything.
A year ago, the café opened. It’s on Thursdays, Ripon’s Market Day. People start to drop in from 11 o’clock for a coffee, maybe a cake. From 11.30 they’re eager for lunch. Seating is at refectory-style tables, so whether you come with a friend, family, or on your own, you’ll be sitting with others and soon be talking to those around you.
Look! Here are a few sample menus.
The cooks for the day will have been to Wetherby the day before to collect supplies, considered the random collection of ingredients and devised and cooked a varied and tasty menu to suit everyone: there are always vegetarian and vegan choices. There’s nearly always a soup or two, and good old fashioned nursery puddings are hugely in demand.
The volunteers have been in since 10 o’clock, setting tables, chalking up the menu, getting everything ready. At 11.30, they become waitresses and waiters: taking orders, collecting and serving the food to the diners, taking turns to wash up, and finding time to chat and be welcoming. Newcomers become regulars: regulars become friends. We have office workers; young families; elderly people who welcome a hot meal in friendly company; visitors to the city …
At the end, people put what they feel in a box by the door. The point is to save food from landfill, not to make money, so those who can’t pay don’t need to feel embarrassed. Some offer services instead – there were some electricians in one week …. There are costs of course – notably the rent: so far donations have kept us in the clear. Any profits are re-invested in improved services.
Then, for the volunteers, it’s time to wash up, tidy up, put things away, swab the kitchen floor, pack away the tables and chairs, vacuum … and finally go home for a rest and a nice cup of tea.
Wholemeal has become a real asset to Ripon community life. And look at the food that’s been intercepted from landfill! Win-win. Thank you, Alison. Thank you, Janet, thank you Adam … and everyone else who’s made it possible.
Radio York transmitted its whole morning show from Wholemeal last Thursday. Anyone who’s super-interested can listen here, on BBC Sounds.