How The Real Junk Food Project is tackling hunger and poverty whilst cutting waste

The Real Junk Food Project was set up to help the environment by tackling food waste, but for some people, it can also mean the difference between eating and not. Laura Drysdale reports.

When The Real Junk Food Project delivery van pulls up at Leeds’s Parklands Primary school, it’s a case of all hands on deck to get food into bellies.

Pupils help to unload boxes and crates of items; fruit, vegetables, bread and sweet treats among the 40kg of food that was set for the rubbish bin. For some people, it can mean the difference between eating a meal and not.

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“Our priority is to get that food into houses,” says headteacher Chris Dyson. The goods are assembled on a stall in the school hall, which children help to run, and parents and members of the community can bring in shopping bags and help themselves.

Parklands' pupils Charile Bingham, Isaac Sant, Riley Bingham, and Nevaeh Roberts receive the school's The Real Junk Food Project delivery.

“Seacroft has one of the highest levels of deprivation,” Dyson says. “There’s a lot of unemployment, a lot of premature deaths, a lot of drugs and alcohol issues on the estate and it’s a very challenging area. Bringing the community together is absolutely essential.”

How Wakefield's Cathedral Kitchen cafe is helping to alleviate food poverty and reduce waste“This brings the community in,” he adds. “I will have 80 parents coming into school and, as well as having the benefits of them getting food, it’s good for people to come in and be chatting. It’s vitally important in communities like this.”

The school has been in partnership with The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP), a scheme that intercepts "perfectly edible food that would otherwise not make it to your plate" and makes it available to all on a pay as you feel basis, for nearing five years.

That relationship started when Dyson opened the school for a Christmas dinner. TRJFP founder Adam Smith heard about it, offered to donate food and the deliveries gradually became more regular.

Adam Smith, founder of The Real Junk Food Project.

More than 40 per cent of Parkland’s pupils are eligible for free school meals and initially the deliveries were linked to holiday hunger projects to feed young people outside of term time.

“Our most vulnerable time is the school holidays,” Dyson says. “Adam saw the need, that there are people that need feeding in holiday times.”

The partnership developed over time and Parklands began opening its doors every Tuesday and Thursday, 52 weeks a year, for the community to access food. Dyson is convinced the work with TRJFP has supported the school’s journey to become recognised as ‘outstanding’ by education watchdog Ofsted, a feat it achieved in 2017.

In their report, inspectors said: “The school’s work to promote pupils’ personal development and welfare is outstanding. For example, pupils run a ‘pay as you feel’ stall each week to help redistribute food to parents.

Parklands Primary School headteacher Chris Dyson and pupils with some of the items.

"The money they have raised has gone back into buying equipment for pupils in school. This initiative enables pupils to contribute in a meaningful way and to better understand challenges facing their community.”

“To be able to concentrate you have to have energy inside you,” Dyson says. “This school loves the Real Junkfood Project and Adam Smith so much.”

One in three Yorkshire children living in povertyParklands, which builds food waste and environmental issues into its curriculum and school assemblies, and is also planning cookery workshops with pupils and parents, remains involved with TRJFP through its latest scheme Kindness into Schools, which launched last week.

The model, which the project says is designed to cater for any school’s needs, will see around 40kg of surplus food sent to individual schools every week for just the cost of mileage from TRJFP headquarters in Wakefield. Each school will prevent approximately 1.56 tonnes of food going to waste over an academic year.

The latest scheme gives participating schools more freedom to choose what they do with the produce; the food can be used for market stalls or enterprise projects, as provisions towards breakfasts or after-school dinners, or to create parcels for selected families.

Around 18 primary schools and nurseries across Leeds and Wakefield are taking part. Some, explains TRJFP staff member Rachel Trafford, are in areas of high deprivation where children go hungry - and, with TRJFP an environmental project focused on cutting food waste, the scheme will benefit those families without singling them out.

“The great thing about [Kindness into Schools] is that a lot of the schools are in areas where they may be deprivation and there may be aspects of food poverty, where children are coming to school hungry. That’s the reality of what we are dealing with.

“The way we are looking at this as an environmental thing and an empowerment thing means that those families aren’t singled out as the beneficiaries of this. It’s for everyone. There’s no stigma and it is not the case that food waste is only for certain people or groups of people.”

Though it is helping to address issues around food poverty, those behind Kindness into Schools wanted to develop a scheme that focused on being kinder to the planet and sharing food and resources, whilst also supporting schools.

Trafford says it has been developed at a time when schools are struggling with budget pressures - and can provide them with an alternative food resource.

The scheme is also about raising awareness of the scale of food waste and what can be done about it as well as enabling pupils to be kinder to themselves by eating well and understanding the knock on impact that can have on their learning and ability to concentrate.

“Food waste should not be at a level where we can feed thousands of children a year,” says Trafford. “But the fact it is means we can put an operation in place to ensure as little as possible of that food is actually wasted.

Please show compassion to Yorkshire school children who will suffer ‘holiday hunger’ – Jayne Dowle“It is also about empowering schools to say this is where your food comes from, let’s think about that. It is a way to introduce that conversation into the classroom, certainly with environmental matters being very topical and very urgent.”

TRJFP, with its motto of #FeedBelliesNotBins, was founded in 2013 to tackle what it deems the “environmental catastrophe” of food waste.

It intercepts food from retailers and major supermarkets and distributes it through a network of cafes, schools, community groups and a sharehouse - a social pay as you feel supermarket and a processing hub for all of its activities, based in Wakefield.

Since its founding in 2013, as a humble pay as you feel cafe in Armley, Leeds, it has inspired more than 120 projects in seven countries and has saved over 5,000 tonnes of food, the equivalent of 11.9 million meals.

“The number one thing for us is always about environmental factors and saving all those tonnes of food from going to waste across the whole year,” Trafford says. “The fact that we can do that in one area of the country is amazing.

“However it shows how far there is to go, because we could do this in every area due to the scale of food waste. We think it’s important though to show on the ground how we can make a difference.”

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