Tackling food waste in Sheffield: Behind the scenes at the Real Junk Food Project

Crates of bananas and carrots, countless loaves of bread, a fridge full of milk, half a dozen cans of whipped cream and a unicorn birthday cake. These are just some of the perfectly edible food items at The Sharehouse Market, and all of them would have ended up in a bin if it wasn’t for The Real Junk Food Project.

Project director René Meijer recites the food categories as he walks around the vast setup. There are fridges full of fresh meat, stacks of cheese, packets of crisps and a ridiculous amount of meringues – this is food waste on a huge scale.

The unique social enterprise is expanding rapidly. On Tuesday the group launched their first crowdfunding campaign, with the aim of raising £50,000 to secure a long-term warehouse lease with commercial refrigerator units and kitchen facilities.

They currently have around 30 domestic fridges and freezers scattered around their warehouse, but all are jammed full of food and are inefficient to run. This expansion will help the team increase their operation so they’re able to work with wholesalers and farms, as well as supermarkets.

As René explains, there’s so much more work to be done: “We feel we need to move from being a campaigning organisation highlighting an issue, to actually starting to solve it now, because we’re running out of time.”

Here, he talks about just how important the crowdfunding campaign is for the future of the project.

So where does this vast quantity of food come from? He explains that they send vans to supermarkets around the city everyday to collect their unwanted food, before bringing it back to the depot to be sorted by the team.

Some of the food gets sent to their two cafes – the Steeple Corner Cafe and the Citrus Cafe at Zest – where it gets turned into nutritious tasty meals. Other food is stacked onto shelves for the public to come and buy on a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ basis.

They also send a number of crates to the 15 Sheffield primary schools they work with, where pupils set up their own market stalls for parents to buy food from.

For René, one of the main reasons people produce so much food waste is because, as consumers, we’ve become disconnected with the food we eat, so education is an important part of the battle. While there is definitely room for legislation to help tackle the issue, consumer shopping habits also need a radical overhaul.

“We need to take some responsibility as consumers for the signals we give to shops about what we expect. If we want to go into the shops on a Saturday at 5 o’clock and still expect all the shelves to be full, that inevitably leads to waste,” he says.

There are a number of reasons why supermarkets have so much food waste. Some of it is down to unnecessary ‘Best by’ dates which stop supermarkets from selling products despite them being perfectly edible. It’s only the ‘use by’ date that really matters.

Other times it’s down to damaged packaging or simply overstocking on seasonal products during certain periods. Some of the food the project receives is from home deliveries which the customer hasn’t been home to collect.

The logistical costs of storing and moving food means that it’s often cheaper to chuck it than try and keep it, so The Real Junk Food Project steps in to fulfil that service.

Operations Manager Ashley Cook said: “We’ve intercepted 319 tonnes of food so far in three years, but that’s only 0.1% of food wasted in Sheffield that actually ends up in landfill.”

This issue is not unique to Sheffield alone but René says it is a major problem here.

He says: “Just in Sheffield, about £400 million of food is wasted every year. Most of that is edible, most goes to landfill. We have about 40,000 people in Sheffield who are going hungry, so we could feed those people very easily many times over with that food that we bin.”

When a van arrives at the warehouse with the latest haul of unwanted food, volunteers unload the crates onto pallets. It’s a sizeable amount, but according to Ashley it’s much less than they usually receive. It’s a reminder of the scale of work that goes behind running such an organisation, and how vast the problem really is.

In just a few days the group have already raised nearly £5,000 for their expansion project – you can donate to The Real Junk Food Project’s crowdfunding campaign here.