Every year the world wastes an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food. In economic terms, that’s $750 billion worth of discarded produce. Nearly 1.4 billion hectares of land (or 28% of the world’s agricultural area) is used to produce wasted food. And, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, a further 250km3 of water is used annually to produce food that is ultimately lost or not eaten.
In the United States alone, 40% of food produced is never consumed. When that food ultimately ends up in landfills, it accounts for 25% of the country’s methane emissions, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the heating potential of carbon dioxide.
An estimated 1 in 6 Americans, meanwhile, lack a stable supply of food or live in food-insecure households. Globally, the number is closer to 795 million people.
The solution: “Feed bellies, not bins,” argues Adam Smith, founder and co-director of the visionary, multi-award winning initiative The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP). That’s part of the fix to the global food waste epidemic—and no small degree of hunger.
Valuing Food, Valuing People
Established in 2013, TRJFP is a network of cafes that diverts food destined for waste and uses it to create delicious, healthy meals on a pay-as-you-feel model. Every day volunteers go out to intercept surplus food from supermarkets, food banks, allotments, wholesalers—wherever it can be found—and deliver it straight to those who need it.
“It’s the right thing to do and it’s something that has a positive impact,” says Smith. “We believe that we can empower people and communities and inspire change across the whole system through the organic growth of these cafes.”
The cafes are not simply about charity or getting a free meal; they’re about community engagement that does not revolve around money. “It’s about valuing people and the food,” Smith explained, “the resources, time and energy that goes into creating this, and giving back what you feel it’s worth.”
In this way the payment concept has been incredibly powerful, making access to food more democratic and available to patrons from any socio-economic background. People have donated their time, their skills, or simple financial contributions to the cafe’s upkeep and continued operation.
As of August 2015, the original Real Junk Food cafe in Leeds, UK, “the Armley Junk-Tion,” has cooked 12,000 meals for 10,000 people using food that would otherwise have gone to landfill. Across the network as whole, 107,000 tonnes of food have been saved from needless destruction.
Changing Attitudes on Food Waste
The cafes do more than just feed people. They also hope to educate and change the way that we associate with food.
Much of the problem arises from supermarket “best before” dates that facilitate the regular disposal perfectly edible food. “We regularly take food from supermarket bins if we have to,” Smith said. “We watch them throw it away, then we go and take it back out again 10 minutes later. Over 90% of the goods are perfectly fine.”
TRJFP wants to change the law to prevent supermarkets from discarding so much food, and to encourage cooperation with organizations that redistribute surplus food to where it’s needed.
In some European countries, legislation already exists to force supermarkets from throwing away food that has reached its sell-by date. In France, MPs recently voted to ban supermarkets from discarding produce, forcing them to give it away for consumption or agricultural reuse.
Critics, however, argue that this avoids the larger problem. From farm to the dinner table, food waste exists across the entire system. In 2010, the UK-based charity Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) reported that waste from supermarkets remains small compared UK households which continue to throw away 4.2 million tonnes of food annually.
Well intentioned programs, moreover, meant to reduce household and individual waste, often equally skirt the problem. “The [UK] government is spending millions and millions of pounds on campaigns to stop people from wasting food,” Smith explained. “But all we are doing is just feeding it to people. We say ‘if you know it’s safe to eat, why don’t you eat it?’ That’s all it takes, it didn’t cost us any money.”
TRJFP now has 110 cafes worldwide, including 14 in Leeds, 40 across the United Kingdom, and others in mainland Europe and Australia.
To learn more about The Real Junk Food Project and other food waste cafes, visit their website.