Feeding bellies, not bins: The Real Junk Food Project

  Posted: 01.11.20 at 06:02 by Charlotte Rastan

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Visitors to the Real Junk Food Project are greeted with a colourful scene like a harvest festival: tables stacked with pineapples, lemons, aubergines, fresh-baked loaves, slices of pumpkin pie and bunches and bunches of flowers.

At the other end of the community café volunteers Penny, Kenza and Justine are serving up steaming bowls of soup, roasts, salads, rolls and fruit smoothies.

And the most remarkable thing about this plentiful and healthful produce is that it’s all been saved from being thrown in the bin.

Fresh healthy food, a commitment to community and tackling waste are the three pillars on which Crissy Weller and Clare Box have built The Real Junk Food Project, a community cafe which collects food that would be thrown away from partner supermarkets and shops and, through the power of a 30-strong volunteer force, transforms it into fresh, nutritious meals for all.

Hosted in the ETNA Community Centre charity in Rosslyn Road, the project opens its doors three times a week and, judging by the queues already building before opening time on the day Richmond Nub News visited, the winning combination of a delicious meal, a welcoming space and pay-as-you-feel policy has proved a hit with residents.

As well as enjoying a freshly-cooked meal, visitors are encouraged to bring a bag and fill up from the tables laden with fruit, veg and tinned produce to make nutritious meals at home. Everyone pays only what they feel they can afford.

Crissy Weller has created a place where all are welcome

"I wanted to set up a project with no social boundaries, which was open to everyone," explains Crissy.

"That's what community is. A space where you can leave your story at the door. I grew up in a little village and we all knew each other. For some people that has been lost. That's why The Real Junk Food Project is important to me. Here you see people who wouldn't normally chat just sat together."

Clare, who describes herself as "a foodaholic", adds: "I've always hated food waste. I would rather eat it than put it in the bin."

A chance meeting between the two at a yoga class on Eel Pie Island when Crissy was a nanny and Clare was working in a bar, revealed their shared philosophy.

"I'd seen the flyers for the project but I didn't know it was Crissy who was behind it," says Clare.

Volunteers Penny and Kenza serve up fresh, wholesome meals

A few coffees together turned into business meetings and the two quickly teamed up to become the engine behind the project, based on an existing model in Yorkshire, Brighton and elsewhere.

The business brains of Penny Vegting, who had recently retired after 23 years’ experience as a food buyer for Sainsbury's and a further 13 at a retail analytics company, completed the dream team.

Penny, who joined as a volunteer in 2018, the year the cafe opened, and became a director in March this year, says: "The philosophy behind it is feeding bellies not bins. We are using food that we have diverted from landfill and turning it into great meals."

Partners in saving food

Partnerships with supermarkets and local shops including Tesco, Waitrose, Marks and Spencers, Cavan Bakery, Harris and Hoole, the Co-op, Lidl and Whole Foods. Some of the partnerships are brokered through two charities, FareShare and Neighbourly, which allocate food to projects and charities.

Martin visits two or three times a week

A team of drivers from The Real Junk Food Project go on their allotted days and bring back the food to be sorted and weighed.

"We never know until the day what we're going to get," says Penny. "We sort it into what we can use to make meals and any produce that’s left over goes into the food surplus hub, which people can take home.”

"Sometimes we put products aside and make food packages for particular individuals and families when we know their circumstances and their specific needs.”

The café also benefits from local people bringing surplus produce from their allotments. “The other day someone brought us a big box of apples. And there is a local man who comes here twice a year with tubs of fruit and berries he has collected. We use it all."

A chat with customers

Clare teamed up with Crissy at a yoga class

By 1 o'clock the cafe is buzzing with customers, and conversations are starting up between the tables.

It's clear that Crissy has achieved her ambition to create a place with a warm atmosphere, a diverse space for people from all walks of life.

On the day we visit, the youngest customer is baby Belle, sitting happily in a highchair, and the oldest is 85-year-old Ian Coles, who has cycled from his home in the Poppy Factory, where for four years he worked making wreaths.

Retiree Martin Keats is enjoying beef stew with rice on the outdoor terrace. "We have a friend who used to volunteer here. She said why not come along. I try to get here three times a week.”

"It's very good food, and it gets me walking as well. I walk here and back from Old Isleworth, and it's good to get the exercise."

Customers are encouraged to take home surplus food

Irena is another regular customer. Her husband drives doctors for the NHS. "I come along maybe once or twice a week. I get fresh food, fruit and veg. I think it's a very good cause, especially now when so many people are struggling with money and making a living."

During lockdown, when the cafe had to close its doors, the project transformed into a Covid response team, redistributing food to other charities and organisations and delivering food packages to people who were shielding and families in need.

AJ and his wife Claire, who are at the cafe with their two youngest children, represent one family who were grateful for the regular home deliveries.

"It meant that I didn't have to go out so much and possibly endanger myself and possibly bring it home. It was just good to be able to stand and have a conversation," Claire says/

"Crissy is brilliant," adds AJ. "We can't thank them enough for the food packages through lockdown. I was shielding and seeing another face was quite welcoming. We didn't see anybody other than Clare and Crissy."

The project is saving tonnes of food that would have been binned

The couple agree that thanks to the surplus food hub at the cafe, they've been able to cook healthier meals with really fresh ingredients which they normally couldn't afford.

Since July when it reopened, the community cafe has been feeding some 150 people a week.

In 2019, just a year after it set up, the Real Junk Food Project won a Richmond Community Heroes Award for the Community Project of the Year.

The project has received funding for the next year from the Hampton Fund and from the Resource Action Fund, which channels Defra funds to projects that are reducing waste and improving sustainability.

But none of it would be possible without its backbone of 30-plus volunteers, who do the driving, cooking, front of house, clearing up, social media and more .

Customers can take fresh fruit and veg

“We’ve also had great support and encouragement from the team at ETNA,” says Penny.

The local community supports the project in other ways, too. When the café recently did a call out for rugs so that people can wrap up on the terrace as the weather gets colder, they received 20 within a week or two.

The project is fulfilling several vital roles: providing a community space for those who might be lonely and isolated; reducing food waste and providing fresh food to people who might not be able to access it.

"I'm really happy with how it's going," says Crissy. "To get to this point and create something that is full of warmth."

Clare adds: "It's humbling to see how it's grown and the word is spreading. Sometimes you think: 'Wow! Did we really achieve this?'

The Real Junk Food Project in numbers

Since the cafe reopened in July it has:

* fed over 1200 visitors
* diverted 6.5 tonnes of food from landfill
* been supported by a team of over 30 volunteers
* clocked up over 260 volunteer hours a month

The Real Junk Food Project is open at the ETNA Centre Monday, Wednesday and Friday 11.30am-1.30pm and a food surplus hub is now open at the Greenwood Centre, Hampton, Tuesday 11.00am-12.00pm.

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