Swanky Café Plans to Put Junk Food on the Menu (but Not How You Think)

Nope, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos aren’t what’s being served at a new restaurant in Manchester, England.

(Photo: Facebook)

Feb 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When most of us think about junk food, visions of doughnuts, sodas, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are probably what comes to mind. Across the pond in the U.K., however, The Real Junk Food Project Manchester, a group of waste-conscious activists, envisions something a tad bit different—namely all the fruits, vegetables, and other still-edible items that restaurants and grocery stores regularly chuck into the garbage.

For the past year, the initiative’s participants have been diverting food from landfills and cooking and serving it up at a series of pop-up dinners, catering mostly to Manchester’s low-income residents. Now the nonprofit plans to open a permanent Junk Food Project Café in the city’s downtown area. Everything on the menu will be made available on a “pay as you feel” basis: There are no prices on anything, so if someone only has a penny to contribute, that’s not a problem. Or if customers prefer, they can volunteer their services in the café by washing dishes or busing tables in exchange for a bite to eat.

“The project is about social inclusion as much as its about food waste,” Corin Bell, the codirector of The Real Junk Food Project Manchester, told BBC Radio Manchester on Wednesday. “The café will be open to everyone and anyone. The pay as you feel concept is about making sure that people who don’t have money can access enough food and healthy nutritious food, but it’s also about allowing people that do have money but don’t have time to come and support the project.”

The Junk Food Project was first launched in Leeds, England, in December 2013 by food activist and chef Adam Smith. Smith was cooking meals for homeless and impoverished individuals, so creating a centralized location by starting a café was a logical next step. That first Junk Food Project Café has become so successful, it’s fed more than 10,000 people and is one of the nominees for The Independent’s Sustainable Restaurant Awards.

After a visit to the Leeds café, Bell was so inspired that she decided to replicate the effort in Manchester. Once the Manchester location of the restaurant opens, it will be able to serve 65 customers at a time.

The need for the café is certainly there. Although more than six million people live in poverty in the U.K., nearly 15 million tons of food goes to waste every year. And plenty of that is produce being trashed for minor cosmetic reasons, according to Bell.

“It’s too big, it’s too small, it’s the wrong shape, it’s been very slightly bug-bitten,” she said.

That kind of waste happens here in the United States too. American grocers discard partially smashed boxes of pasta, apples that aren’t perfectly round, and carrots that are gnarled and twisted simply because they’re not visually appealing to consumers. Or if the price of tomatoes drops, a producer might decide that it’s more profitable to dump an entire field of the crop into a landfill. And once we get our food home, we end up throwing nearly half of it into the trash. Meanwhile, nearly 50 million Americans don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal.

But while some food waste activists make meals from the treasures they find in dumpsters—or have created hipster-friendly pop-up restaurants inside trash receptacles—that’s not the approach of The Real Junk Food Project. Instead, the nonprofit forms partnerships with groceries and restaurants to pick up crates full of cauliflower or lobsters that are slated to be trashed. The Leeds location of the café has kept 23 tons of food from being thrown away since it opened.

With that kind of impact, this kind of junk food eatery sure seems like an idea worth importing.