Pay as You Feel for Real Junk Food

Junk food but not as you know it

At the Real Junk Food Project, Birmingham. I took two new potential volunteers to help out in the kitchens. As I was ill, and banned from the kitchens, I had the opportunity to see the cafe from the point of view of a customer.

There is a whole group of regulars now, and this was the busiest Sunday service yet. Some of them knew each other, from hostels or from SIFA Fireside, others, from sheltered housing who came alone the first time, now eat communally with new friends. They possibly have the only conversation they will have all day, help with the washing up before returning to their lonely flat and Corrie.

Our customers

We have an open-door policy. We’ve fed teachers, solicitors, asylum seekers and bankers. People who are food insecure come here – the homeless, those on income support, students and the elderly. We also feed people who are dependent on alcohol or drugs: we’ve had people in here taking a hit of methadone and sweating in a corner, drinking coffee and sugar and then they get up and say, “Thank you, there’s nowhere else I could do this. – See more at:

Adam Smith, The Real Junk Food Project

One of the regulars, who helped make the gravy to go with the roast beef dinner this week, said the place was a lifesaver. She helped make cakes sometimes, too.  The guy I sat and ate lunch with told me that he had been homeless for over a year, but was settled now, living on £300 per month. As there were people waiting to be seated, we offered our seats to them once we had finished, and he left. He came back, later, he had gone for a walk he said, as it was sunny. We talked the people I had brought with me. He spoke to them about life in South Africa, and cleaned the tables.

Almost everyone puts some money in the Magic Box.

Volunteering at Lentil as Anything

It was in 2011 that I first came across the concept of Pay as You Feel. It was in St Kilda, Melbourne and the cafe was called Lentil as Anything. I was in Readings,  a book store and more on Acland Street with my husband, and while he perused the vinyl, I had picked up a book about the project. Realising that the cafe was just a step away we went and had lunch there.

Lentil as Anything

After enjoying the delicious vegetarian food, we got chatting to the manager and offered to volunteer. Like most people new to the Pay as You Feel concept, we struggled to work out what to pay, as there are no prices on the menu. As a volunteer it was probably the most common question I was asked by customers. ‘How much money should I put into the magic box?’ By volunteering, of course we were contributing to the running of the cafe, we always put some dollars in the box for the food we had. We also ate there when we were not volunteering. Not just because the food was so good, and not because the cost of living in Melbourne was seriously denting our travel budget, (it was) but because we loved the concept that what we paid enabled those that could not afford to pay much or at all, were able to eat there because of the contribution we made.

The customer base was made up of backpackers and families, of media types and artists. Rich and poor and in between. On my last day I fed a young English lad who had no money left till the banks opened after Christmas, and a family from Brighton, Melbourne who left $80 for their meal. Which convinced me that the model could work.

Eating out in Melbourne was not cheap, but we usually donated to Lentil the same amount as we paid in similar eateries. Another of our favourite places was Crossways which if the website if correct is still only $7.50 ($5.50 for students) for two courses. And you could go back for seconds. This was always busy, people in suits and yoga kit, backpackers and tourists all sharing tables and eating very good vegetarian food. The cost of a McDonalds meal is about $6, so the food at Crossways was really good value and healthier.

As for what people choose to pay it seems that this is not always enough to cover overheads, if this article is anything to go by.Lentil have now a suggested donation, yet they do not want to lose sight of their core philosophy.

Lentil as Anything is a unique not for profit community organisation. At our core are the pay as you feel restaurants where customers give what they feel the food is worth and have the opportunity to contribute towards a world where respect, generosity, trust, equality, freedom and kindness rule.

Adam, the founder of The Real Junk Food project had come across Lentil on his travels. This and other food experiences in Australia developed into the idea which has now created an ever growing network of Pay as You Feel cafes and pop ups in the UK. Food is intercepted before it goes to landfill and is cooked and offered at cafes in Leeds, Brighton, Birmingham and Bristol. The menu changes as food intercepted can be anything from mangoes and plantains from the market to Christmas hamper food from a well known store that is never knowingly undersold.

At the table we are equal, eating food that otherwise would have been thrown away. In a world where bankers and coffee chains and giant retailers legally avoid paying tax, we have people going hungry and food going to landfill. We have foodbanks.

And that is why I want to see more Pay as You Feel cafes, across the country. Across the world. Let’s really feed the world.





2 thoughts on “Pay as You Feel for Real Junk Food

  1. This is such a good idea and I hope it spreads. It’s difficult to know how to tell people what to pay if they are able to pay without making people who can’t pay feel bad – not sure what the solution is, apart from making a welcoming space so that people can ask. I know when we had a “pay what you feel” coffee in Reykjavik that was made by a guy collecting for charity, we thought about what we would normally pay for a coffee and added a little more for the personal service and hand-illustrated cup. I suppose you just have to trust it will work out in the end.

    1. Liz, thank you for the comment. I’m having a similar debate with my friend in Australia, which prompted me to write this post. The reaction the article about Lentil in The Age has been positive. They are not for profit, yet still have overheads to meet. The Real Junk Food model is different to Lentil in some ways. The philosophy that everyone is welcome to the table, whatever their means, is one that is shared. And that is what is important. My experience is that most people pay what they can afford, and where they can, they pay what they would have done elsewhere for the same quality and quantity, plus service. I think what Lentil experienced, and they way they handled it has started a useful conversation about the pay as you feel movement. And that is probably a good thing.

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