'Feed bellies, not bins': discover the work of The Trash Cafe in saving supermarket food from going to waste

When Chloe Cobb found herself unemployed and struggling to feed her family, she vowed to do all she could to help prevent others getting into such a precarious situation once she was back on her feet.

Saturday, 26th June 2021, 6:00 am
Volunteers at the Trash Cafe in Gosport on Sunday, June 20, 2021 Picture: Keith Woodland (200621-18)

And so it was that she set up the project which became the Trash Cafe Network – a project which features neither trash, nor is it a place to sit and eat.

‘It was in 2015 we set it up – it seems like a lifetime ago,’ she laughs.

‘About a year before that, we had basically lost all of our income, we were going through a testing time with work and stuff, I had to sell my car – I had four children at home, and I was sending them to my mother's… fortunately they were getting free school meals at the time, but I was making sure that they were fed.

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Volunteer Kay Coshela and customer Martin Jones. Picture: Keith Woodland (200621-12)

‘I've never felt hunger quite like it. We were broke for about three months. We applied for benefits, but there was this whole waiting game.

‘By January I had managed to get a job and we were back on our feet again. I swore I would get a car and set something up.

‘I'm a businesswoman, and I do have connections in different places, and I swore that I wouldn't allow anyone to feel like that, and to give them what opportunities that we could, as well as rescuing food waste, and reducing waste in some way, because that was my background.’

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Chloe Cobb, founder of the Trash Cafe Network, pictured at her Eco Freaks Emporium in South Street, Gosport. Picture: Sam Stephenson

She came across a project called the Real Junk Food Project in Leeds, and was initially affiliated with them before going it alone as The Trash Cafe.

With the slogan ‘Feed bellies, not bins,’ it combines her passion to help others and the planet.

Food waste is a major problem – a 2020 study by the charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) showed that UK households waste 6.6m tonnes of food a year.

Figures for supermarkets are harder to come by, but it equates to millions of meals’ worth each year.

Volunteer Vicky Thompson with some of the produce on sale. Picture: Keith Woodland (200621-6)

Chloe recalls the early days of the project: ‘I took one of my friends round who was a councillor at the time, Craig Hazel, and we went for a bit of bin-diving, checking out what supermarkets were throwing out.

‘He's a keen geo-cacher, so we had torches and headlights, all sorts of different things, badgers chasing us...

‘One of the supermarkets, I think it was called My Local at the time – which was part of Morrisons, contacted us saying: “Someone's going through our bins. We've seen what you do, would you be interested in taking our food off of us?”

‘It was actually us going through the bins!

Produce and signage about the cafe. Picture: Keith Woodland (200621-8)

‘Of course we said “yes”. They had connections with Morrisons, then M&S got hold of us, and then it grew and grew from there.’

Collecting food from a wide range of supermarkets – from Aldi to Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer – that would have otherwise gone to waste, these products are then made available to the public in their shop in Stoke Road, Gosport.

And to make sure it is accessible to all, most of the produce in the shop is on a ‘pay what you feel’ basis.

‘It's open to everybody, says Chloe. ‘The idea behind that is that it doesn't matter what your background is, doesn't matter what your income is, you can come along. And it creates a community as well.

‘It's not like: “You're poor, you can come in”, "You're not, you have to go”, because those that can afford to, put money in, and those that can't afford to, they donate their time or perhaps come and help us in other ways - they give back in other ways.’

They also create dozens of hampers, from £10 to £30, packed with goodies which can be picked up from the shop on any day, or delivered across the PO and SO region on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The array of food in the shop is staggering, and it changes daily – you could find anything from fresh fruit and veg, to ready meals, bread, pizzas, fruit juice, numerous kinds of cheese, joints of meat, fish, bagged salads, birthday cakes, the list goes on. Even pre-smashed avocado on the day we popped in, if that's your thing.

The shop is staffed by a team of more than 50 volunteers.

Dawn Foster of Lee-on-The-Solent joined them last September and is the supervisor two mornings a week.

‘It's really good quality stuff that comes in,’ says Dawn. ‘Which is shocking – there is no other word for it. At first I thought they were donating to us, but it's what would otherwise go to waste.’

Even on their slow days there is a queue outside, as Covid regulations mean they can only have two in the shop at a time.

But the number of people using the Trash Cafe has rocketed from 1,000 a week pre-Covid to 4,000 a week over the past year.

‘I think a lot of people have the wrong perception of the place,’ says Dawn.

‘A couple of my friends come in here now, but they thought you had to be on benefits to come here, and it's nothing to do with that – it's about waste – it's open to anyone.

‘But because they see the queue, people make the assumption that's what it's about.

‘We've got a lot of regulars – if I wasn't working here, I would be one of them!

‘The shop needs to cover its overheads, so some things we do sell at a fixed price, like we do the cheese at three for £5, so some things we do ask a little more than pay what you feel.

‘And if you feel uncomfortable shopping here – get a hamper!

‘There's a delivery charge on that, but that goes to the driver to cover the costs. They’re really good value. For £10 you normally get enough to make your Sunday dinner, if you like – enough to fill your fruit bowl, and then a couple of items of dairy produce, maybe some cheese or milk, then two meat, or fish, or we get a lot of vegetarian food.’

And nothing gets wasted. If it's unfit for human consumption, that goes to ‘the pig man.’

Chloe makes sure the volunteers are looked after, with occasional treats, and things like making sure they were sorted for Christmas dinner.

Dawn says: ‘About six weeks ago we got a “jar of stars,” with little pick-me-up sayings in them, I thought it was a sweet touch, it makes you feel valued as a member staff.’

You can also support the project by picking it as your nominated good cause on the Gosport Community Lottery – gosportcommunitylottery.co.uk.

‘Anyone who buys in the lottery with us, twice a year we treat them to a lucky dip with prizes like luxury hampers just to say thank you for their support.

Since 2018, Chloe has also run the environmentally conscious Eco Freaks Emporium in South Street, Gosport, and is about to expand into a second branch in West Street, Havant, due to open on July 3.

‘We're opening that as Eco Freaks at the bottom, and then we're going to have two pop-ups a week for the Trash Cafe.

‘We are also opening up our much-wanted training kitchen which is going at the top of the shop – it's a double-layered shop, and we're adding a tea room and a kitchen there. We hope to have the kitchen ready by the end of July.

‘That's going to be offering cooking courses for all types of people and all ages, training for people so they can get their level two, food hygiene, and they can perhaps go on to other things with that.’

For more information and to check opening hours, go to trashcafe.com.

How much it costs to keep the Trash Cafe Network operating

The Trash Cafe shop is run by volunteers and the only person who gets paid is a driver – who works twice as many hours as he is paid for.

But the bills quickly mount up, and they rely entirely on donations from their customers.

Here is a quick rundown of their average monthly costs.

Rent: £800

Running and repairing the red van: £720

Running the white van: £251

Insurances: £160

Tax: £24

Bin collections: £99

Electricity: £762

Wages: £558

Miscellaneous supplies (bin bags, farmers’ bags, cleaning products, mop heads, etc): £104

Maintenance, repair and replacement for fridges and freezers: £157

Total: £3,635

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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