Weaving webs around the highways of northeast England, the REfUSE van was collectively funded by 315 people.
They gave amounts ranging from fifty-pence pieces to four-digit sums until the great day when we could finally drive it off the lot and park it next to its newly installed electric charger. Each month it intercepts around thirteen tons of in-date food, otherwise destined for the dumpster, from retailers and food manufacturers. Then the food can make its way toward dinner tables through our café, restaurant, school projects, “pay what you can” shelves, and delivery boxes.
When we first started gathering food and people, those road webs were spun by our feet and a sagging green 2004 Golf. Before we had a five-thousand-square-foot, temperature-controlled warehouse, we had a lounge crammed with boxes and piled high with pumpkins. Before we had partnership agreements with large retail firms, we walked to and from any produce sellers we could find, and hoisted one another into supermarket dumpsters after dark.
Our ecumenical Christian community hosts emergency guests and open-house meals, so this was just how we shopped. And as we learned more about the climate impact of food waste, the exercise took on greater urgency. We started out serving from our kitchen table, then in borrowed church halls and borrowed empty shops.
Though the quantities have changed, the food has always been transformed by people. It’s an ugly-duckling moment: many hands from many cultures, with varying years of experience, take this landfill-bound plenitude and turn it into delicious shared meals.
We serve pumpkin soup in November and mince pies in January. The vegetables might be chopped by Ronnie, who trained as a chef after being trafficked to the United Kingdom. She put herself through cooking school before she had a fixed abode. Those same veggies might be roasted by Maz, who came to the café to fill the void of sudden widowhood, and served up by Sarah, who came to gain confidence and cooking skills to use back home for her two children. She’s a paid employee now, working as assistant café manager and running food workshops in schools.
There’s Tattoo Dave, our caretaker, who has stayed on for years after a probation-mandated community service placement; Fireman Dave, who drives the van; and Take-Away Dave, who brings his own Tupperware to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic.
Making tea and coffee behind the counter are a group of young people who joined us after one of our volunteers gave an assembly at their school. The group made a replica café using the online world-building game Roblox, and when the real café is closed they meet virtually instead.
Ours is a local project seeking to provide solutions to a global problem. The carbon value of the food we intercept is 440 tons annually, the equivalent of a gas car driven two million miles. Across a year the volume of food we handle is equal in weight to twelve double-decker buses.
This is a minuscule fraction of the food which is wasted globally. Between 30 and 50 percent of food produced around the world goes into bins rather than bellies – more than enough to meet international food demand.
We talk a lot about value at REfUSE: the holy task of recognizing the value of places, people, and food which the governing political, cultural, and economic systems have artificially drained of worth and designated as waste. We seek to acknowledge the carbon, time, labor, and natural resources that are expended before food can reach our plates.
The efforts of each of our two hundred volunteers are a challenge to the value judgments of large retail firms, such as Amazon, which devalue this food because its sell-by date is built into their retail model. Hanging by the till in our community café is a sign which reads “This food is not free! It’s valuable. And so are you, so ‘pay as you feel,’ in money, time, or skills.”
When people order meals, they are given an envelope in which they can contribute money or promises of time. It is posted anonymously into the payment box.
The whole exercise is entirely imperfect. We’ve had arguments in the kitchen, heroin needles in the bathroom, and three different incidents of stolen money. Some give their widow’s mite and others come in laden with glossy shopping-center purchases and post back an empty envelope. I often find myself in conflict with the non-judgment that we claim is our guiding star. We are faced with the challenge of welcoming strangers who might have no interest in welcoming each other.
In the moments it works well, though, this recognition of value feels like the work of Jesus. His habit of exalting those who are humbled is mirrored when people peel wonky carrots and teach skills to young people with learning difficulties. His way of recognizing people who have gone unrecognized by society is emulated by those who give so generously of themselves.
Allowing people to pay in the currency they have available changes the terms of the arrangement. It’s an economy of grace. And like grace, it can be incredibly unfair. “Pay as you feel” provides the same lunch to the person who put £600 into our payment box last week and the person who consistently returns a handful of copper coins. Everyone becomes wealthy because the terms of wealth are made available to everyone.
All this happens against a backdrop of tension: we are working within an institution that we ultimately want to change, chasing glimpses of justice while hoping for a complete overhaul of an unjust system. Our business plan is to put ourselves out of business.
But for now, we come together, we chop, cook, serve, and hope.