Pay-as-you-feel cafes are opening up across the country and serving food that would have been thrown away. Sian Bradley spent some time volunteering at Foodhall in Sheffield to find out how it works.

Walking into Foodhall on a cold drab day, you are hit with an overwhelming sense that you are joining a community. I stand behind a wooden table ready to serve people. There is no feeling of the usual customer and provider relationship; they offer to make their own drinks and talk to me about their day. After they’ve been served their hot meals, cooked with food deemed as ‘damaged’ or past their sell-by date by supermarkets, they are invited to place a donation in the pot. Yet there’s no obligation to pay.

Running like a well-oiled machine, it’s hard to believe that this established pay-as-you-feel café was built on donations and the ideas of university graduates. Louis Pohl, who now works as an Architectural Designer, spent his year out from studying at the University of Sheffield to research why students often feel isolated in halls of residence. He then met fellow Founding Director Jamie Wilde, who had just finished his masters in Urban Studies and Planning at the same university and was, in his own words, too stubborn to get a job. From here, their desire to tackle isolation rapidly evolved.

“We were thinking: ‘how can we bring different groups of people together without drinking?’. And one thing we have in common is food,” Jamie says. “Louis then developed an app, which is all about food sharing. This tackles food poverty, food waste and social isolation. We are trying to instigate a bit of social change with the hope this stays with someone for the longer term,” he says.

With this goal in mind, they turned to the university to try and set up communal dining areas. They were hit with so much red tape that they decided to look elsewhere.

Luckily, they stumbled upon the ideal space, which just happened to be an ex-funeral home. It’s owned by third co-owner and architect, Samuel Whatley Atkinson. The place had been empty for 10 years, but Jamie, Louis and Sam soon transformed the embalming room into a kitchen with the use of donated ovens and fridges.

They were given only four weeks to trial an isolation café as a safe space for people to come together and get informal counseling. Now, over a year later they are still running; despite being denied funding.

Louis says it’s a social experiment. “People are making the rules themselves,” he says. “We see it as a public library, in the sense that you share food.”

Diners sit around wooden circular tables and on crates, iridescent sheets hang on walls and a black chalkboard lists the menu of the day. When I visit, I just can’t wait to pull up an armchair to tuck into some hot grub and hope someone plays the piano in the corner.

Wheelchair-bound Charles Schofield comes in whilst I’m still volunteering and tells me that Foodhall isn’t just to help the homeless. He comes here to meet people from all walks of life.

As I make Charles a coffee, I see he’s on first name basis with Jamie, which means he’s a regular. He comments on Foodhall’s great atmosphere. “It’s always handy to come in here when you only have a quid or two in your pocket. I also don’t mind giving an extra pound, if I can, so someone can have a hot meal,” he says.

“Outside of your environment people are struggling. We do not know what it’s like to live on benefits,” he says. “We need to get rid of profit-driven businesses. There have been days when I’ve been poor and had to eat ‘out of date’ food. It’s perfectly edible.”

Foodhall serves food which is destined for the landfill, but is still fit for human consumption. In the UK we throw away more food than any other EU country, at around 15 million tonnes each year.

In Foodhall’s kitchen, ex-chefs like Nicky Corder make tasty vegetarian food. She brings it out in generous portions for grateful customers, no matter how empty the ‘pay-as-you-feel’ pot, signed off with a smiley face, is. This isn’t an ordinary restaurant; the menu is limited to two meals a day. But the chickpea curry and vegetable soup I try are tasty, filling and made with donated food which would have otherwise been discarded.

Foodhall has a partnership with their local Sainsbury’s and vendors from the Moor Market, yet I still wonder how this place sustains itself. Jamie says it’s all about the relationships they have built in the community. “At first we were running around like headless chickens trying to get our hands on some food, but now we’ve tapped into the right sort of people,” he says.

They aren’t interested in creating wealth but to pay rent they rely on volunteers, and subsidise the café through their Friday Late events and rent it out for gigs and parties.

As the same faces sit down for a chat and tuck into the special dish of the day, it’s apparent that the social experiment of how food can bring people together has worked. So much so, that the concept has been replicated by the Well-being Café at the University of Sheffield.

This concept is working across the country too. Places like Skipchen in Bristol and ‘Save the date’ in London let people pay what they want, and The Real Junk Food Project opened the UK’s first pay-as-you-feel waste grocery store in Pudsey, near Leeds, where they now intercept between two and 10 tons of food a day.

With more than 500,000 three day emergency food parcels being distributed to people in crisis between April and September 2016, it’s obvious there’s a need for these cafés and how they tackle food waste.

Foodhall’s success is having a ripple effect, and proving that a non-for-profit café running solely on donated food can work, and it can bring together a vibrant community of people with stories to share.

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