Magazine - Climate Justice

Food waste: do we need more surplus food cafés and restaurants?

by Nana Smith

A volunteering experience at the community-run ReFuse Café in County Durham questions how we can deal with such a crisis

I think it is best to begin this article by putting out there a few shocking facts about food waste:

  • Nearly 10 million tonnes are thrown away overall in the UK. Of that figure, UK households alone throw away 6.6 million tonnes of food, nearly three-quarters of which is edible.

  • Globally, food production is responsible for around 30% of greenhouse gases.

  • If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the USA, producing around 4.2 tonnes of greenhouse gases when it is sent to landfill.

  • Main reasons for the waste are: misunderstanding over food dates, overproduction, cosmetic standards (e.g. a carrot too wonky), food being ruined on its way to the supermarket.

Yet, there is a constant high demand for food banks, with around 8.4 million people in the UK struggling to afford enough food for themselves or their families. What is more, this excessive and unnecessary habit of throwing away food is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse emissions. I do agree that the government or big corporations can alter the current standards and ways that food is produced, which would make a huge difference to the food wasted; but not wasting food in our homes is a basic attitude, and given that almost 70% of food waste comes from households, shamefully it seems like we do not care enough to adopt the basic habit of finishing our food, and above all, to be grateful for our meals.

This shows that every single one of us must play a part and be more mindful of how we consume our food. This is something we cannot take for granted. We should not be wasting this amount of food. We must change our attitude and culture towards it

Dealing with overproduced food: the surplus food café


This article, however, is not wholly about how households should not waste food; the preamble was merely context and raising awareness. Rather, I am more focused on the food wasted in supermarkets and the food industry in general. Now, as I touched on above, food companies and governments could be more involved; but some citizens have also taken it into their own hands to save perfectly good food from going to landfills.

ReFuse is taking such action in their own hands. This organisation intercepts the surplus food from all sorts of cafés, supermarkets, wherever there is a large number of supplies going to waste. Such food is brought to their warehouse at their café on Chester-le-Street, County Durham, and turned into dishes to serve customers. All is run by volunteers, and customers pay on a basis called “Pay As You Feel”. This means either paying an anonymous amount you want to give, or instead of money, offering skills, time to volunteer, or whatever you believe would be useful to ReFuse. It can really be anything: one even offered to play the piano for the café in return for their meal.


ReFuse contributions do not stop here: they have their own mini market in the back which people may pay a minimum of £2 for as much food as they wish to take home; there is a food delivery service for “Waste Not Boxes” where boxes are filled to the brim with all sorts of food. Volunteers can take home ingredients to bake cakes and bring them back to the café to be served. Restaurant night is run once a week, choosing a particular cuisine, and it’s an event which gathers several people together. They have their own catering, Conscious Kitchen, whose profits support the ReFuse organisation to continue their important work in the community.


Entrance to ReFuse café; board in ReFuse café. Image courtesy of ReFuse




My Volunteering Experience

As I enter the kitchen for my shift, I see that the chef has laid out heaps of food needing to be used today: high quality ready-meals, packs of sausages, fresh lettuce, colourful tomatoes, papayas. The list could go on, and on the counter it’s just a fraction of what is stored in the warehouse. We gather to discuss what to cook for today’s breakfast and lunch. This is part of being a kitchen volunteer. I also volunteered as Front of House (although you can do the washing up or work in the warehouse too); but for me, being in the kitchen was a real insight into the heavy amount of food that ReFuse saved (they save around 12 tonnes a month). You learn how to read food labels, discerning the difference between “best before” and “use by”, and thus knowing when foods are no longer safe to serve customers. You have to be pretty imaginative because it is only in the morning when one decides what to put on the menu: it always depends on what is available and what needs to be consumed as soon as possible. But that is what made it so great, and fun: it’s bringing awareness that you can be creative in your dishes to avoid waste even at home.

Things that were always on the menu were sandwiches (there is always a surplus of bread), hearty dishes like soups and stews, fruit salad, avocado dishes. Yes, sadly foods like avocados make a hell of a journey all the way here, and every time I went into the fruit and veg section of the warehouse, there was always a crate of them. That warehouse was bigger than a basketball court, filled with food that would have gone to landfill. And this is just in one organisation in the North East alone. What was so wonderful about being part of ReFuse was seeing how the community really is the heart of this place. I loved how there were all sorts of volunteers ranging from young to older people, and learning about each other’s stories. The freedom in the way people can pay for their meals, and the social event of the restaurant nights create a more inclusive environment. Above all, the important point is that food is valuable for every single one of us. ReFuse supports volunteers through their bronze, silver, gold system: starting out as bronze, they encourage you to learn new skills and gain confidence, and through this, you can get promoted to the next level. I had never gotten to know the local community throughout my whole university career at Durham until I joined ReFuse. I loved meeting the locals in this way, and I really saw the beauty in people coming together to support a cause.

Do we need more of these organisations?

There are a few organisations like ReFuse dotted around the country, but they’re a rare sight in major cities. There are fantastic organisations that intercept surplus food such as FoodCyle and the Felix Project; Although these are narrowed down to deliveries or cooking meals in venues only once a week at a certain time of day. Food businesses are also increasingly turning to initiatives such as TooGoodToGo or charities to give away their food, but it is still not uncommon to see bin bags stuffed with unsold day-to-day fresh baguettes on the street.

Instead, surplus food cafés would be more accessible: they would act just like a normal café open everyday on the highstreet, which anyone walks into at any time. Adding such cafés will strengthen the fight against food waste and inevitably feed more people.

A café like ReFuse is so much more than stopping food waste. It raises awareness, it brings the local community together, it supports all to achieve goals and learn new things. In this day and age, the idea of community and supporting each other to create a better environment is an invaluable notion; but is there enough community support? With an organisation like ReFuse, there is a bright glimmer of hope that we do have the power to change, and change occurs best when people come and strive together for the same cause. Until food companies and regulations change their ways for the better, for now, we undeniably need more of these surplus cafés and shops and support them as much as we can. These cafés will help feed more of the vulnerable, reduce waste, and make each one of us think harder about how we ourselves can change our behaviour to make a difference.

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