Category Archives: Food issues

Welsh business, Halen Mon salt and taking the plunge into self-employment

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There’s no doubt that Wales is a nation of self-employed and small business owners. My partner, when he first moved here from Leeds and started to get to know people, would ask what they did for a living and was constantly met with a series of unexpected responses.  “I’m a…poet, yoga teacher, Reiki practitioner, vegan cake maker, photographer, musician, mushroom grower, actress, chakra dance teacher, gong therapist, outdoor instructor, silversmith, the voice of the Welsh Peppa Pig!…. finally he asked me if I knew anyone with a ‘normal’ job?

Err, the answer to that is probably no. But I do know an extraordinarily large number of self-employed people.

Figures from a House of Commons Briefing paper 2016  report 5.5 million businesses listed in the UK with 99% of them being small to medium-sized, although 96% are considered micro businesses (employing less than 10 people) while the number of sole traders has increased by more than the number of all businesses 77% compared to 59%.

Considering the comparative size of the Welsh population to the whole of the UK, we have one of the highest rates of self-employment, and this is positively encouraged throughout schools and colleges in several ways. The Welsh Baccalaureate  qualification is a compulsory subject taught in all Welsh schools and has a strong emphasis on employment skills and entrepreneurship. This is further supported by local entrepreneurs who are booked to speak, share their stories and conduct skills workshops with Big Ideas Wales  . I’m one of those entrepreneurs. So why has self-employment become such a thing in Wales, and why is it a significant part of the curriculum?

With high unemployment and little remaining traditional industry there is little in the way of viable job opportunities for young people in Wales. Aside from public services (which employs the largest proportion of the local population), much of the work is based in the hospitality, retail or tourist industry.  Youngsters face the prospect of working on predominantly zero hours contracts or in seasonal jobs. Inevitably this leads to what is referred to as the ‘brain drain,’ where the best of Welsh talent leaves the country looking for employment, training or the chance to shine elsewhere.

Consequently, the people of Wales who stay or return, migrants and natives alike, are very good at being inventive, thinking outside the box and doing it for themselves. Wales is a proud, talented nation of artistic, musical, sightly eccentric and community minded individuals and certainly, the part of Wales in which I live, has a very high percentage of said creatives.

Many of the most successful business owners I know have started small, grown steadily, without over stretching themselves too soon. In 2016 there were 383,000 business births and 252,000 business deaths. Many businesses that fail, do so because they have misjudged the market, overstretched themselves, invested too much, taken too much of a risk or failed to adapt. A striking feature is that across the UK only 20% of SMEs are female led, however, many of the business owners that I know are extremely dynamic, intelligent and sightly formidable women (probably myself included). Indeed it seems like most of the sole traders and self-employed people I know are also women.

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When I think about those successful female or family led businesses, many actually began life in the kitchen at home. Sometimes with a simple creative or sometimes crazy idea. A few people spring to mind; Paola and Danny at Dr Zigs Extraordinary Bubbles , Margaret Carter and Patchwork Pate and Alison and David Lea-Wilson at Halen Mon salt 

David and Alison set up their first business while still students at Bangor University, supplementing their student grant by growing oysters. After graduation this evolved into a wholesale fish and game business which they ran for twelve years. Noticing that people were just as interested in the live fish as they were in eating them, they set up The Sea Zoo. This was established in 1983 and became the largest aquarium in Wales, but both this and the fresh fish business were seasonal which caused income problems over the winter months. The couple set to work on income generating ideas; after brainstorming and rejecting many, they settled on a plan to make sea salt.

In 1997 they put a pan of seawater to boil on the Aga in the family kitchen. Soon salt crystals began to form and that is where history was made. In 1999 they started selling the salt to the local butchers in Menai Bridge and from there they haven’t looked back. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate just how successful their simple creative idea would be, but now that their salt is being sold at over 100 of the best delicatessen’s in the UK plus supermarkets, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and Harvey Nichols and successful export to more than 22 countries, there’s no denying, it worked!

Halen Mon are potentially Anglesey, if not North Wales’s, top small business success story.

I have used Halen Mon salt since 2010, for me it knocks the socks off other sea salt brands. Initially I bought it at the local produce market, then began to buy in bulk from their original base on Anglesey ( a series of portacabins) until today; now I visit Tŷ Halen, their award-winning Saltcote and Visitor Centre. A truly unique £1.25m bespoke building; a first for Anglesey, Wales and the UK.  It is their centre of production, shop, headquarters and tourist attraction in its own right. It lies on the banks of the Menai Strait in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, next door to Anglesey Sea Zoo in Brynsiencyn and is well worth a visit.

So, to go back to the beginning. When I started my supper club people laughed. “Who’s going to come and eat dinner in your living room?” people said. A year later I launched a business and a blog, both of which are still thriving. So, the moral to this story and the point I wanted to get to, is…go take a risk. Do something you love. Have passion and belief in your ideas. Don’t let anyone tell you that your plans are crazy. You never know, you could be the next Halen Mon, Patchwork Pate, Dr Zigs… you could write that book, be that musician; but you’ll never know if you don’t try!

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Filed under Food issues, in the press, local produce, reviews, Sources and suppliers, Wales tourism, Welsh food, Welsh produce

Crisis at Christmas

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On Monday I finished the last of the three shifts  I’d volunteered to do for Crisis at Christmas. Based at Deptford Day Centre (the closest centre to where my Mum lives) I worked the last three days before it all ended and the centre returned to being the Lewisham LeSoCo college campus.

This was my first time volunteering for Crisis. My sister Kate, author of Exploring Art in the City and a veteran Crisis volunteer (usually based at Bermondsey but taking a year off as she’s a week away from giving birth) was the one who inspired me to sign up.  She told me I’d love it and find it rewarding.She wasn’t wrong.

I wanted to volunteer last year but it didn’t happen. There were so many other life changing events going on, plus it’s not an easy task too-ing and fro-ing between Wales and London, so I have to plan my time carefully. This year it all came together, not the full seven days which I may sign up for next year, but with Christmas, kids to organise and other commitments to consider three days was the most I could manage. This year one of those kids did her own organising. Rosy my teen waitress is all grown up and has moved to London, she sofa surfs and does odd bits of work while trying to find the kind of work she wants. She will only be the teen for one more year and has had enough of Wales.  She decided to stay down south for Christmas and sign-up for Crisis as well. We reunited after a month apart over the kitchen sink where we reconnected and had a great time. The work was hard, fun, tiring, emotional but ultimately the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done. I woke on Tuesday with aching legs and feet, physically drained, tearful, emotional, but still buzzing from a truly epic experience.

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On day one Rosy and I arrived at the gate and within half an hour were changed, and in the kitchen. Lunch service was still ongoing; it looked busy. I was more terrified than if I’d been serving a gourmet wedding breakfast. I didn’t know what to expect.

Mary, the kitchen co-ordinator gave me a very brisk run down of procedure. I hadn’t slept much the night before and really had to hit the ground running to remember everything. Mercifully there wasn’t much evening prep to be done so I got an opportunity to familiarise myself with the kitchen, follow Mary’s lead while getting on with what needed doing.  It wasn’t long before Mary broke the news to me that this was her last day, from Sunday I was the chef in charge and the kitchen co-ordinator. Shit!!!!

Dinner passed without incident but food was sparse towards the end and more people arrived than I’d anticipated. I wanted to make sure both guests (most importantly) and volunteers were able to eat, so as day two arrived I knew we had to make more.

We arrived early and this time a different chef was on duty. I started to plan for dinner as soon as I got in the door, prep needed doing so I distributed tasks among those who had arrived early and those still on duty. I made sure volunteers got a lunch break and then as the evening shift arrived I packed some of them off home. Sunil, the morning chef didn’t seem to want to go and in the end he chose to stay on until the end of the evening admitting he wanted to see how my shift went. He wanted to learn and watch.  This wasn’t the first or last time I felt humbled, or proud of what we as a team achieved during my time at Crisis. With two very experienced assistants (Heather and Dave) plus Sunil, the night flew by and ran smoothly and efficiently and food was plentiful.

Day three on the other hand turned into an 11 hour epic. I’m sure the number of guests rose with every meal. At lunch it was 270. By dinner it was closer to 300, including volunteers.  The team was now familiar with my mission and mantra…cook ‘shit loads’ and my kitchen assistants (an awesome, amazing, hard-working bunch without exception) stepped up to the challenge. They shredded, chopped, grated, mixed, got creative and inspired and accepted that basic food could still be tasty.

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Our team had to prepare for dinner one woman down as Rosy went home sick, and no extra chef in the form of Sunil. It was hard work, we ran it up to the wire but the “Sex Pistols of Balkan brass” the  Trans-Siberian Marching Band distracted the guests with their noisy, chaotic, high energy, hugely entertaining performance and bought us an extra 10 minutes to prep dinner. We were a little late, but nobody was watching the clock that evening.

I’m proud of how well we fed our guests and volunteers. Even at the final hour we managed to find meals for stragglers, like the man who hadn’t eaten in 48 hours brought in by one of the outreach workers. We accommodated extras every day like those from Bermondsey who, rumour had it, came over to Deptford as the food was better!

I met guests and got a hearty thumbs up, Heather told me I HAD to return next year or they would hunt me down and Dave told me that despite how hard it was on the last day I nailed it. Brad told me I “rocked”. Another guest told me it was “Best food all week”,  while another had 6 helpings of pudding! and it was great we were able to give them six helpings!

On the last evening after service finished I took my dinner and sat in the day room. I watched some terrible karaoke, chatted to one of my kitchen assistants who was also homeless and had lived in a caravan for the last couple of years, I finally got a tour of the centre, but never quite got that briefing or debriefing. I only cried on the job once; when a teenage girl who looked like Rosy came to the counter for food. Dishevelled, thin, out of it, I realised how lucky my girl is despite her sofa surfing, to have love, safe places and a choice. I had to leave the counter. I also discovered that many of those at the day centre were not homeless, simply lonely, isolated, in need of company. Having lost a friend two days before Christmas who was lonely and depressed it really hit home how much we need people around us and I felt so priviliged to have such a close group of mates.

My sister told me I’d love it and she wasn’t wrong. What she didn’t tell me was how much I would learn, or how much it would touch and change me. I went home and cried….i’m still shedding tears and its now Thursday.

Crisis doesn’t just help people at Christmas, it helps all year round. If you would like to volunteer find out more here or get involved in the Crisis Skylight projects.

If you spot a rough sleeper in London, or any other city, there is currently SWEP provision (Severe Weather Emergency Protocols) to help find shelter during the cold weather…find out who to contact here

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Filed under Christmas, Food issues, Food poverty

Food Bank Britain: who isn’t eating?

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Image courtesy of the Trussell Trust

This might read like one of those bah humbug kind of posts, it’s not supposed to be one, but as Christmas creeps closer I’ve begun to look back over the past year and realised that a lot of things are not right in the world.

Perhaps with my change of circumstances, both for the good and bad, I’ve become more acutely aware of the huge inequalities within the industry that I work in. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my feelings about the gulf between have’s and have-nots. Those that can afford good food and those who can’t…as if eating good food is only a right for those with money.

I’m going to go off on bit of a tangent here. About a  month ago I read a headline in the Guardian “Move over ‘poverty porn’ … is it the era of ‘prosperity porn’?” The whole concept of ‘poverty porn’ disgusted me to begin with. The idea that we watch poor people on our TV for ‘entertainment’, like it’s a dirty pleasure, but then another thought dawned on me. Why don’t people want to watch programmes about the poor anymore? Is it because there are a growing number of people in Britain  living in poverty. Everyday working people, those unemployed through no fault of their own and not the ‘dole scum’ they like to portray. People are beginning to empathise with the people in those programmes. They are beginning to understand what it is like to struggle. Is this perhaps the reason for the switch? A subtle government ploy to change the message? Now more people than ever are living in poverty the focus is shifted elsewhere. Where once we laughed at the poor now we’re being encouraged to laugh at the rich.

You can call me a conspiracy theorist, and I might not be correct in my assumption, but you can’t argue that the media is full of disingenuous information about how the economy is improving, shallow programmes that dumb us down and make us forget to focus on the things we should be angry about, the awful things happening in the real world, and who created the mess in this country.

Despite my education I’ve never been rich. I learned that critical opinion, morality, intellectual achievement was more valuable than money. I learned the lessons the hard way. I grew up on a council estate in a family of activists. I frequented the picket line while my parents shouted scab at strike breakers. As their strike dragged on into its sixth month and employees lost their pay we suffered extreme poverty. I have memories of scouring the fridge for anything to eat, asking when shopping would be done and being told not this week. We had no money. I’m almost convinced we even had to hide from a debt collector knocking on the door once. As growing teenagers we were hungry, but we never starved because we were lucky, my mother knew how to cook and make do. Generations after the 1980’s are even deprived of that skill since cooking, sewing etc were no longer considered as ‘life skills’.

So back to the point, I’m getting a bit sick of the TV food industry where a bunch of wannabe’s take part in reality cookery shows (yes I did it, I hold my hands up, guilty as charged..but it wasn’t for fame, that was the last thing on my mind, it was just for the hell of it, for the experience). There are hundreds of cookery programmes on the TV and chefs are ‘celebrities’. Were not. We make nice food for those that can afford it. The viewers of these TV shows include a host of people who happily live off ready meals, takeaways, junk food and haven’t a clue how to cook, or are not able to afford the ingredients to emulate the TV chefs dishes.

This is the way I see things….

  • Supermarkets sell masses of unnecessary food at inflated prices (we know this because you only have to look at Aldi and Lidl to know that it can be cheaper)
  • Advertising props up the idea that you need ‘convenience food’
  • Schools do not teach basic cooking skills, these lessons were not considered core skills and so were abolished by the conservative government in the 1990’s
  • Supermarkets link up with schemes like Fareshare to make themselves look better, to improve their profile by ‘helping’ the community. This is because their profits have dropped, not out of any sense of altruism or genuine caring
  • Many food banks are based in supermarkets where its the community, the people who are struggling, that are buying extra things to ‘donate’ not the supermarket giving freely
  • On top of this supermarkets are making it harder and harder to retrieve discarded food from the skips. In my area supermarkets tip bleach on what would be perfectly edible food, and hide it behind gates with razor wire and locks. Once upon a time students and the skint would have lived off this, now it just goes to landfill.
  • Supermarkets give very little to the local food banks and skips are still full of perfectly useable food.

Figures from the Trussell Trust, between April 1st 2013 and April 1st 2014 913,138 people were given 3 days emergency food rations. This is three times the number of people receiving aid in 2012-2013 and one can only imagine what the figures will be for 2014-2015. While The Real Junk Food Project cafe based in Leeds reports that they have intercepted 11.8 tons of food since March 2013, which has created 3338 meals served in their Pay as You Feel cafe (Dec 13′-July 14′).

I paid a visit to my local food bank where I spoke with Helen Roberts, part-time village post mistress, volunteer food bank organiser and do-er of other ‘random’ jobs. She co-ordinates the food bank at Bangor Cathedral, my nearest city, which is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. I visited on a Friday to find out about how they distribute emergency food.  I was early so sat in one of the pews watching the silent bustle of the volunteers preparing to open and packing numerous carrier bags with 3 days worth of food.

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A volunteer packing emergency supplies bags

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Volunteers sorting produce at the Cathedral

Helen reported a steady increase in users since they opened. Usually agencies helping people with other issues such as homelessness (Shelter Cymru), mental health problems (Community Mental Health Trust), housing issues (North Wales housing) or substance misuse problems (CAIS or NACRO) will make a referral to the food bank. Individuals are given vouchers which entitles them to either a family pack or a single persons pack containing three days of emergency rations. Depending on circumstances this maybe supplemented, such as, where there are more children in the family.

There is also a growing number of people arriving with no voucher. They are walk-ins that stop by because they are struggling at a particular time. Some of these are working people who for one reason or another find themselves in difficulty. They are never turned away. In these cases they are given a letter which entitles them to a further three days emergency food but usually they are also signposted to another service if necessary.

One of the problems with the service is that food packs only contain ‘ambient’ goods (so no fresh, chilled or frozen produce). Goods such as breakfast cereal, UHT milk, a variety of tins with sandwich fillings that can be used for lunch such as corned beef, tuna, bread and margarine, plus the ingredients for 3 main meals (tinned meat, chicken).

What shocked me the most was that food is mostly bought for these parcels. In the past the food bank received deliveries from the CREST Co-operative Fareshare service. Fareshare is an organisation which works with partners in the food industry securing surplus food and delivering it to a variety of community projects and charities across the UK. Sadly, although the service was only established in 2010 it has now been discontinued. According to Anna Hughes the marketing manager for Crest the operation was ‘not sustainable’ in North Wales and not enough groups had joined. Organisations wishing to receive deliveries from the service paid a £500 yearly membership fee which helped cover the costs of staff, fuel, deliveries and other overheads. Some of these community groups are now left without regular donations (like the Bangor Foodbank) while others access the service that runs out of the Wirral. I mentioned to Anna that it was a shame the service had closed now that there was a greater need for it and she agreed, although it was a decision made by the directors of the organisation. Perhaps such a large annual fee was off-putting for local community groups, who knows. I just think it is a shame there is no Fare share service here in North Wales at all.

I talked to volunteers and sat for a while quietly observing the steady stream of ‘customers’ arriving. They weren’t queuing around the block like they might in a bigger city, but there were plenty needing help, some of whom I knew by sight some people were collecting for others who weren’t able to get to the Cathedral.  It saddened me and made me thankful that I do know how to cook well and know how to make-do with very little. Whole generations of children and young adults are growing up in Britain watching their working parents struggling to put food on the table, struggling to know how to make a meal and not knowing how to manage on an ever decreasing income.

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One visitor collecting supplies for a neighbour

So what’s my solution? I know, it’s not easy…but I would push for the following…

Proper cookery, budgeting and nutrition lessons in schools would be a start. Follow that up with affordable fresh food all the time as a right, not a privilege. Go back to the days of buying from markets, small producers and greengrocers (remember them?). Buy meat from the butcher in smaller quantities, bread from a bakery. Do I sound old-fashioned? Well they did seem to get some things right back in the post war era where people came before profits and we all lived in a community. Perhaps its only now people are beginning to realise this..

So I am putting my money where my mouth is. In the coming months I will be telling you about a new project I am starting up under the umbrella of The Real Junk Food Project…a community, pay as you feel cafe using diverted produce.. keep watching this space, I’ve a long way to go yet.

In the meantime…donate food if you can, buy local, help your community. That is all.

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Filed under Food issues, Food poverty

Food waste and Bristol Skipchen

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In May 2009 I was made redundant. I suspect many of you readers will already know this and it’s no secret that I started writing this blog and running my supper club as something fun to do while searching for a job.  What you may not know are the realities of living on a suddenly reduced income. Within six months I dropped from a very cosy salary of £30,000 a year as a health psychologist, to £72.40 a week income based job seekers allowance (once the redundancy money and ad hoc freelance work dried up).  This was before my marriage ended and my husband and I still lived together. He was working full-time and had a similar wage, which should be pretty good, but once you factor in all the trappings of the ‘middle-class’ professional lifestyle; hefty mortgage which he had to take over paying, credit card payments, household bills plus two hefty overdrafts (which we could no longer afford to pay off), the descent into debt and virtual poverty was swift. This is how people end up bankrupt and homeless. At one point my monthly bank charges topped £150 because I couldn’t pay in enough money to cut my overdraft. The wonderful HSBC bank refused to freeze the account, or stop charging me, which compounded my woe month on month.

Advisors from the CAB told us the only way to freeze charges and cut payments was to default (except the mortgage, council tax and utilities). They told us that store card companies couldn’t make us pay and couldn’t send around bailiffs. Luckily we didn’t lose the house, we kept paying the essentials but we did default. It was stressful and we still struggled to keep our heads above water, often not having enough money to put fuel in the car or buy food for the family. It was scary how all that could happen. I have a PhD,  but I couldn’t get a job. I was skint. I now have a terrible credit rating, but have learned what is important in life, what I can live without and just how precarious that capitalist lifestyle is.

I joined forces with my friend Sophie who was in similarly dire straights. Sophie relied on the tried and tested student practise of ‘skipping’ as a way to top up her food cupboards.  Skipping, for those not aware, is where people collect discarded supermarket food from the skips and use it to feed themselves. Technically its illegal (although not as immoral as chucking away perfectly good food or throwing bleach or rat poison over the contents of the skips so people can’t raid them and use the food…which happened in my area) and many supermarkets now keep their ‘discarded’ food under lock and key. Of course this makes it incredibly difficult to make use of the rejected goods, 90% of which is perfectly edible, safe and reusable.

With food banks, foodcycle, and soup kitchens on the increase, it’s not just those on benefits who are struggling to feed their family.  Barnardos reports that there are around 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK (almost a third of all children) with 1.6 million in severe poverty . In the UK 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works. There is a massive discrepancy in income, living conditions, outlook, perceptions, and I have lived this myself.

But it’s not just about food poverty, it’s about the relentlessly wasteful planet we now inhabit, the supermarket controlled world that has drained people of their cash (don’t kid yourself, everything is over priced, even those things they tell you are on ‘special offer’, you only need to take a trip to Aldi or Lidl to see that) and their common sense when it comes to buying food.  This has long been one of my favourite soap-box subjects and food rants (along with no cookery in schools), but I’m not the only one banging this particular drum, enter The Real Junk Food Project.

According to their figures around 1.3 billion tons of food gets thrown away globally each year. This amounts to nearly 40% of global production. 40%!!! That’s huge. Unimaginable. In the UK alone we waste around 15 million tons of food a year and this is predominantly due to stringent and confusing food safety legislation.

The Real Junk Food Project began life in February 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. Founders and co-directors Adam Smith and Johanna Hewitt were horrified by the amount of food waste they came across so set up pay-by-the-minute barbeques on the banks of the River Yarrow using discarded food. Later, when parenthood beckoned, they felt the lure to return home and back to Adam’s home town of Leeds with the aim of continuing the project. They hunted about, found lots of support and were finally offered  access to a struggling community kitchen in Armley, a particularly deprived part of Leeds. Meanwhile, at a local food activist meeting Sam and Conor (co-directors to-be) heard about the project. They too were  making their own discoveries about commercial food waste as they, and a cohort of other friends from university dined on the proceeds of supermarket bin raids. They heard about the project and approached Adam and Jo with food to exchange and a relationship was formed.

The Leeds Skipchen opened its doors for its first trial in December 2013 when the couple cooked Christmas dinner for the homeless population of Leeds. In the same month it became a Community Interest Company and has thrived and grown since sparking support and interest from all sectors. Now open 7 days a week the project is spreading and growing; new cafe’s are popping up across Leeds…and now, this, the first one in Bristol.

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The other interesting feature of the Skipchen is the Pay-as-you-feel (PAYF) policy. This is what their website says about it. I couldn’t have put it any better, so over to them….

As well as the positive environmental impacts of reducing edible food waste the project also has clear social benefits through operating a strictly Pay-as-you-feel (PAYF) policy . PAYF offers an alternative to the conventional the payment system as there is no price on any produce of the café. 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.

The pay-as-you-feel policy makes sense and takes me back to the early days of supper club, when we asked for donations. Later, this later changed to ‘suggested’ donations because people needed more guidance, they wanted to know ‘how much’ was OK. Although the supper club is based on a different concept (I was buying top quality ingredients for those evenings which was in fact pretty much the only time I did any proper shopping) and costs had to be covered, it was still a not for profit exercise. I liked being able to offer people a restaurant experience without charging the earth, bringing in customers that wouldn’t normally go to a top flight restaurant, making them feel welcome and relaxed, where hippies with dreadlocks could sit next to university lecturers and all would get on and find common ground.

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So, on a damp Wednesday afternoon five of us plus a baby in a pram jostled for space and a place to sit inside the busy Bristol Skipchen. Initially we dithered, confused, trying to work out what was the skipchen cafe menu and what belonged to the bar that ‘loans’ them space during the day. Once we’d sussed it out we chose a variety of dishes; vegeburgers, salad with mozzarella and a lovely lime dressing, watercress and spring onion soup, roast cauliflower. The cafe was happily chaotic with a vibrant group of diners leaving the counter with loaded plates of everything. I guess that for some this may well be their main, or only meal of the day. Conversation about the project surrounded us, and there seemed to be a keen interest locally.

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I spoke to Sam who runs the Bristol Skipchen and he told me how it worked. He emphasised two points; first that the project is independent of the big supermarkets. Food Cycle and many food banks, are run in conjunction with, or hosted by supermarkets…ironic since they are the ones that create the problems in the first place. By staying free of their input its easier to challenge their stranglehold. Second, it deliberately avoids the supermarket skips around Bristol which are already used by many of the cities homeless population.

Food donations come from a variety of sources; a local homeless hostel that receives a surplus, a restaurant that over ordered mozzarella, a food PR company that couldn’t use a whole box of watercress, and is sometimes topped up with discards collected from skips in more affluent areas outside of Bristol, where the food would simply be thrown away.

Bristol Skipchen is run by volunteers, all young, enthusiastic and committed food activists and has a lets all-muck-in-and-help-yourself kind of feel to it, which is what they hope to encourage. I love that the Pay As You Feel policy got us all talking, discussing what we’d eaten, what we thought the food was worth, weighing up the time and skill put into its preparation, using our judgement and what we could afford (my visit took place whilst on a severely pared down budget). Some visitors there can’t afford anything, and in that way its fantastic for providing a square meal. We could afford to pay, so did so according to our means. We loved it; the concept, the buzz, the enthusiasm and the commitment. It was good to see it busy. The food was pretty good, if not cooked with total gastronomic expertise (sorry, I’m a chef and hard to please 100%) and there was plenty of it.

One of our group was my eleven year old son. Initially bewildered and perhaps slightly disgusted by the concept of eating food reclaimed from bins, he soon understood what it was all about, realised that I’d given him reclaimed food at home and so tucked into his lunch with no more hesitation. We were sad that there was no pudding, but they have to work with what they’ve been given  (a donation of cake ingredients please). So thankyou The Real Junk Food Project and Bristol Skipchen, you have restored my faith in human nature just when I’d given up hope, and you’ve inspired me. So yes, I will be returning there. Soon I hope and perhaps  the other side of the counter. I will make cake.

Bristol Skipchen is based in the Stokes Croft district of Bristol. Give them your support and your food donations and they will give you a delicious lunch.

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