‘Junk food’ café gives generous helping hand

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A charity which makes meals out of waste produce has organised an auction of work by an amateur artist – just months after he tried to take his life following a week without food.

Poverty-stricken Mark Baber had not eaten for seven days and was struggling with mounting bills after having his benefits cut when he attempted suicide in his flat in Armley, Leeds, last November.

Surrounded by many of the paintings which he had kept largely hidden from public view, the 51-year-old survived only because the shoelaces he used to hang himself were unable to take his weight.

Days later he stumbled across The Real Junk Food Project – a café in Armley which recycles food that would otherwise be thrown away.

Its customers are not charged for what they eat, but are asked to pay what they feel they can. In many cases, however, they eat for free without reproach.

Mr Baber became a regular and, after hearing his story, project founder Adam Smith agreed to let him display some of his paintings on the walls of the café .

Many of the pieces were produced using paints and canvasses or boards that Mr Baber had been able to scavenge.

The display led to a number of sales and even a couple of requests for commissioned work.

Now Mr Smith has organised an auction of about 30 paintings, with the help of a professional exhibitor, from which the proceeds will go directly to Mr Baber.

Mr Baber said: “I don’t know where I’d be without the help I’ve had from Adam and the people here. I’d probably have tried to take my own life again.

“You don’t meet many people in life who are prepared to help you and don’t expect anything in return. I can’t thank them enough.”

Mr Smith, who is from Leeds, opened the café last year having spent time in Australia serving barbecue food made from waste and later, having returned to his home city, living off food that he and friends scavenged from bins as students.

The enterprise operates a strictly “pay-as-you-feel” policy, encouraging customers to donate what they can either financially or by volunteering.

According to the charity’s mission statement: “Our system transcends monetary transactions and liberates people to use their skills and attributes as well as money to pay for their meals.

“Furthermore, we aim to highlight the absurdity that the produce we use has been stripped of its monetary value but still retains its nutritional value.

“By making people think about what they wish to contribute for their meals, the idea is to get society thinking about how they value food as a resource.”

Since it opened in December, the café has produced more than 4,000 meals and served more than 3,000 people.

More than 11 tonnes of food has been kept out of landfill. The model has now been replicated in other towns and cities across the country.

Mr Smith said Mr Baber was one of the first people to use the service and his experience demonstrated the life-changing potential of the concept.

He said: “We always said that we were here to provide a service and that we wouldn’t get involved in people’s lives. But Mark is such a great example of what we do – the concept literally saved his life.

“By feeding people, we are lifting the burden of worrying about where the next meal is going to come so that it liberates them, psychologically and financially, to concentrate their energies on other things.

“Mark is doing much better now and I hope that this auction will give him his 15 minutes of fame and allow him another chance at life.”

The auction will take place on September 11 at arts venue Left Bank Leeds, on Cardigan Road in Hyde Park.

The event starts at 5pm. Tickets are available on a pay-as-you feel basis.