Transition Cafe – Cutting carbon by making use of surplus food
Transition Community Cafe in Fishguard reduces carbon emissions by preventing an average of 100 kilos of food going to landfill each week – the equivalent of 400 kg of carbon saving per week and 10.4 tonnes of carbon since the Cafe opened six months ago. Volunteers collect surplus food from local shops and businesses and use energy efficient catering methods to turn much of this into affordable, healthy meals for sale in their community cafe.
Many surplus food projects exist around the UK but Transition Bro Gwaun’s project, having carbon reduction as its main aim, is different. Food banks, like FareShare and the Trussell Trust, deal mainly in longer life, ambient food, whereas Transition Cafe makes meals and preserves mainly from products with a short shelf life – fruit, vegetables, dairy, bakery and a small amount of meat. Food is collected from within a 4 mile radius, so keeping food miles low and ensuring that the food can be used quickly. And because they never know what’s coming in, the cooks have to be very creative and the cafe menu changes daily.
At present, all the surplus food donated to the project comes from small shops and businesses and from people in the community who have food they do not wish to see wasted.. The project has to supplement this, buying in things like butter, cream, coffee, tea, flour, sugar, rice, pasta, and cleaning and hygiene products. They need more goods donated and have made a request to their local Co-op.
Until now most supermarket policies have directed that surplus food, mainly longer life ambient food, be given only to larger organisations, like FareShare, and via their warehouses, not the stores. But this may now change. A national Food Re-distribution Industry working party has been trialling how food can be redistributed from supermarket stores direct to local charities and developing guidance to help the retail sector redistribute a greater proportion of it, prioritising human consumption over animal feed and waste management routes. The working group is soon to report its findings and good practice guidance*, and TBG hopes to benefit from this new thinking and to reach an agreement with the Co-op regarding use of their surplus food.
*Access from the WRAP website www.wrap.org.uk by the end of January 2014
HOW THE SURPLUS FOOD PROJECT DEVELOPED
The ‘light bulb’ moment for the Surplus food project occurred when one of TBG’s members, who was trawling local businesses for waste vegetables for her chickens, saw just how much perfectly good food was going to landfill. A Transition Thrive course helped thinking evolve and develop. And a pot of ‘end of year’ funding from Environment Wales enabled TBG to run a pilot scheme to find out what local people thought about food waste and what should be done. People were invited to a free meal made from surplus food and asked to fill in a questionnaire – feedback unexpectedly showed that a community cafe serving meals for everyone was the favourite option.
The manageress of the local Co-op was very enthusiastic and suggested that an adjacent, empty Co-op building might be a good venue for the Cafe. A request was made and the building leased rent free to TBG. It needed renovation and this was achieved through the generosity and hard work of many local businesses and volunteers and grants from several organisations, including Environment Wales who helped kit out the kitchen.
The project has been particularly successful in attracting volunteers from a much wider cross section of the community than have previously engaged with TBG activities.
In addition to traditional Transitioners, it has attracted people who just can’t abide food waste, people who want to see low cost healthy meals available in the area, people concerned about poverty, people who want to see empty shops put to good use, people who want new and different initiatives to energise and regenerate the town, organisations who want more work experience opportunities for local young people, and finally, but most importantly, creative cooks who just love the challenge of having to make a meal out of what-ever odd assortment of food comes through the door. Having volunteers with such a wide range of motivations and opinions often leads to some lively debates.
The cafe opened in June 2013 it’s currently open 3 days per week (Tuesday – Thursday) and there are plans to expand. As well as serving meals and take-aways, it’s also a community resource, providing a meeting place for local groups and promoting ideas for waste reduction and sustainable living. It’s run by a team of 30+ volunteers with the support of 2 part time paid staff and has a Grade 5 Food Hygiene rating, the top rating from Environmental Health. There are still some uncertainties within the community about what the cafe is and does – is it a food bank or what? But it’s proving popular and attracting a good cross section of local people as well as visitors to the area.
The project has had input from some key organisations. WRAP Cymru produced a Waste Reduction Implementation Plan which helped the project make improvements to its recycling systems and identify larger food distributors who may be prepared to donate food. A researcher, obtained through the WCVA intern scheme is undertaking a carbon usage evaluation of the project and producing a report suggesting how to make further carbon reductions to the project. Jobs Growth Wales are helping to find and employ young people to work in the cafe. The County Council’s Re-generation Unit and Pembrokeshire Association of Voluntary services can both be called upon to give advice and practical assistance. And Environment Wales’ Development Officer has been a constant and invaluable source of ideas and support.
WHAT’S BEEN ACHIEVED SO FAR
Between the beginning of June and the end of September 2013 the project achieved the following:
Surplus food acquired and kept from landfill - approx 100 kilos/week
Food cooked and sold in the cafe – approx 50 kilos/ week
Food sent for composting, or to a bio-digester or to animal feed (when it has not entered the cafe nor come into contact with animal by-products) – approx 50 kilos/ week
WRAP estimates the carbon saving from avoiding food waste to be four times greater. Therefore 100kg a week saves approximately 400kg carbon a week or 20.8 tonnes/year. They estimate the true cost of waste at retail level to be £1200 a tonne, so 100 kg saves £120 worth of food from going to waste. Thus Transition Cafe is on target to save at least £6k per year of perfectly good food from going to waste.
In addition to serving cafe meals, the project has also been asked to cater for a number of local organisations’ private functions e.g. Cilgwyn community group, Theatre Gwaun, the Green Fayre, the local RNLI
Pupils from the local High School, young people from Point Youth Club and a number of people with disabilities regularly come to the cafe for work experience.
Training has been offered to all volunteers – 23 have passed the Level 2 Food Safety and Hygiene Award and 5 volunteers and 2 staff have gained Level 3, Supervising Food Safety in Catering, 6 of them with a Merit. A Nutrition Level 2 certificated course was recently made available to anyone in the community.
A pilot project was run during the school summer holidays to assess the viability of providing meal vouchers for use in the cafe. An evaluation report has been produced and discussions are now taking place with the local charities who financially supported this scheme to decide on the best way forward.
The West Wales Credit Union holds sessions in the building on Thursdays from 11am –1pm. And PATCH food parcels (Pembrokeshire Action to Combat Hardship) are distributed from the building.
AND WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?
There’s still some confusion within the community about what the Cafe is and does – perceptions range from its a food bank, a place that serves out-of-date food, a resource for people on benefits, a community centre, or just a cheap place to get a tasty meal. Few people fully understand that the prime purpose of the cafe is carbon reduction.
Some people are deterred by these perceptions, but people are curious and coming in to find out. And feedback is that they find the cafe a welcoming place where they can talk to and learn more from the volunteers (like the fact that food beyond its ‘best before’ dates can safely be used but that food beyond its ‘use by’ date is never used). And there’s lots of information on display about the project and other local sustainability initiatives, and a blue board where customers can advertise skills or items they’d like to share or swap.
The local media have given the cafe a good deal of publicity, but it’s not always been so helpful e.g. being referred to as a cafe which serves ‘left-over food’. So more publicity and marketing work is needed, and, following an approach to Pembrokeshire College, there are plans for students to undertake work on getting a clearer message across.
Understanding and complying with the project’s aims can also be challenging for the volunteers. Dilemmas often arise – for example, if a recipe ingredient has not been acquired as surplus food, should it be bought in or should something that is surplus but less healthy or lower quality be used instead e.g using surplus margarine containing transfat rather than butter, or free Angel Delight/tinned custard on puddings rather than expensive cream. And should children be served spaghetti hoops on toast with a fizzy drink – all surplus and what they often ask for – or should they only be offered a healthier option and the donated spaghetti hoops and fizzy drinks go to waste? Opinions differ and more time is needed to hammer out such issues and set down policies.
The project also needs to develop a more coherent pricing policy and to explore ways to achieve its long term aim of becoming a viable social enterprise, able to provide secure employment to local people. At present the cafe is only making sufficient money to employ one young person two days a week and cleaners once a week.
The Cafe’s current prices are low e.g. £1.50 for a bowl of soup and a roll. This reflects the stated aims of the project and the low production costs i.e. rent free premises, donated surplus food, and significant volunteer input. A recent questionnaire given to customers showed that about 50% of them thought prices could be increased, but ‘not by much’. There is also an opinion held by some in the community that the low cafe prices are unfairly undercutting other local eating establishments.
To add to this debate is the thinking of the Transition movements REconomy project, which promotes reducing dependence on the present monetary system through alternatives like the gift economy, community exchange and complementary currencies. A significant proportion of the cost of renovating TBG’s building and setting up the café was achieved by many local people and organizations gifting items and their labour. And the project continues to benefit greatly from the gifts of rent free premises, donated food and volunteer input. A strategy is now needed to create sufficient funds so that the café can become a self sustaining social enterprise but one which will continue to operate, as much as possible, outside the present monetary system. With the creativity and commitment of the group, and ideas from other transition groups exploring Reconomy exchange systems, this should be possible. So watch this space!
For information about Transition Bro Gwaun’s surplus food project call in at TRANSITION CAFE, 32A High Street Fishguard, SA65 9AR; phone 01348 872019; e-mail[email protected] or visit Facebook page ‘Transition surplus food’.
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