Cafe Abundance in Torpoint near Plymouth. When I offered to photograph my friends newly founded charity, I didn’t know much about it – but she had me at: “we use food that would otherwise be put to waste…” The concept is simple, food that can not be sold any more is turned into beautiful, healthy and filling meals and served at a local pop-up cafe on a “pay-as-you-feel” basis. Jemma used to run an artisan bakery in a wealthy and picturesque classic English village but has long dreamt of having her own cafe. With Cafe Abundance, her keen sense for social justice, environmental issues and her lifelong dream combine. “I feel like I have found the thing I want to do now!”
I had heard of this sort of concept before of course. There are the hip and trendy waste-food restaurant success stories from London and other big cities. The pictures I recall are of carefully designed, modern warehouse-style cafes with colour matched “shabby chic” interior and raw ingredients left over from the local Harrods food department. Oyster mushrooms with newfangled edamame beans and fresh coriander are on the menu and the average punter is a laptop-wielding graphic designer with a goatie and a distaste for the wastefulness of our modern society. We all need trailblazers. This, however, was to be a totally different experience.
I drove down the day before (Plymouth is SUCH a long way from London!!!!) and found Jemma busy in the kitchen. She had spent the week collecting food, freezing perishables, planning meals, making ice cream and stewing pears. The challenge is the unusual supply of foods. There are mainly seasonable vegetables and fruit, mountains of bread, eggs and milk but almost never meat or fish or useful staples like flour or sugar. Logical, when you think about it. As a “not for profit” organisation that is part of the Real Junk Food Project, they are allowed to buy in no more than 10% of their ingredients, but this can’t include any animal protein.
Still, I was struck by how perfect all her supposed “waste” food was. It wasn’t just ok, or “edible”. It was beautiful, fresh and there was so much of it!
A few cups of tea later and watching Jemma stuff pancakes with beetroot and chive filling at the same time as cooking two vegetable curries and a fruit crumble, I wondered, what gives her the strength to do all this?
“Poverty isn’t just about not having food. It’s about not knowing what to do with it or not having the opportunity to cook at all. Poverty too is having no-one with whom to eat or to share your food. At Cafe Abundance we have to be creative with the food we are given. If someone has grown up with very traditional cooking then making a roast pepper soup might never occur to them. And someone in a bedsit can hardly cook a healthy lunch in a kettle.
My other driver is a deep frustration at the environmental impact of throwing food away. In Plymouth non-recyclable waste is incinerated. Food generally has a high water content and this significantly reduces the efficiency of the burning process. The resulting lower temperatures also produce toxic waste gases. I love having the opportunity to raise peoples understanding of our complex world and to make a genuine difference locally. If you have ever tried to grow tomatoes you will know the value of that sweet red globe in August. I want people to value every tomato like they did that very first one.”
Plymouth. Marked by destruction during the war, a huge navy base and yachty tourism it’s a town of contrasts. Traditional fishing boats face a skyline of modern architecture. The car park entrance for the national aquarium is home to a giant copper fish mobile while forgotten council housing on the other side of town lies away from the main roads. Unlikely to be discovered by any casual tourist (or so it is hoped I suppose) but with a close view of the local waste incineration plant. There is a university and, like anywhere in the South, a growing elderly population and a fish in the sky….what can I say? I loved the car ferries operated by heavy chains crossing the river Tamar. If you are quick, you can get out of the car, go up on the upper deck on the side and catch a fresh sea breeze.
When the morning came and Jemma’s happy helpers arrived to arrange flowers in little vases, set up the tables and chairs in the church hall and covered them with colourful tablecloths, napkins and crockery and the final cooking process began in earnest, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to experience.
The cafe filled with diners of all ages, a large part were elderly. Orders were placed at the serving hatch and tentatively at first conversations began. The team started serving food and it seemed there was a slow transformation unfolding in the room. There was laughter, animated conversation and even a birthday party. The guests were entirely bound up in the moment, enjoying each other’s company and having a thoroughly good time.
The longer I watched, the more I saw beauty. Not of the Hollywood type. But of the deep down and real type. Faces breaking out into bright smiles and catching laughter. Thoughtful eyes lighting up with focus and interest. And then I understood. The real miracle wasn’t the food that day. The food, although marked waste was there before. It just needed to be taken and made into something more. The hall was there, and the team was there. But one thing wasn’t. It was created from nothing that day. It had simply not existed before, and came into being in front of my eyes: community. A thing most of us take for granted and hardly notice the wonderful gift we have. And it wasn’t just among the guests. It grew in the serving team and even though I had been on the sidelines photographing, it enveloped me too in the end. People started playing to the camera (see the image of the gentleman holding a doughnut in front of his face to make a smiley), calling me over for a chat and making me welcome with a cup of tea. This was real abundance I realized. In everything. Food, community, companionship, laughter and creativity.
If you would like to know more about Cafe Abundance you can find them on facebook here :https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=cafe%20abundance%20-%20real%20junk%20food%20project%20torpoint%20%26%20rame