INTERVIEW: Rejuce's Thomas Fletcher
Sometimes food can be a means to an end, a mechanism to solve a problem. In this case the delicious cold press juices that are the result of Tom Fletcher’s search for a solution to a problem. Food waste and the mountains of unused produce that go to landfill each year. Rebel food sat down with Thomas Fletcher from REJUCE to talk about his dream to eliminate food waste, it’s an ambitious plan but Rebel Food gets the feeling if anyone can do it, it’s probably this guy...
‘’FOOD WASTE CAN BE USED IN SO MANY DIFFERENT WAYS. I THINK ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN GET FOR NOTHING YOU CAN CREATE SOMETHING OUT OF. IT'S A USEFUL TOOL... PEOPLE CAN HARNESS THAT AND USE THAT HIDDEN MONEY TO DO SOMETHING. IT'S KIND OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE YOU KNOW THE IDEA OF NOT ASKING FOR PERMISSION, JUST DOING IT AND ASKING FOR FORGIVENESS AFTERWARDS''
THOMAS FLETCHER - REJUCE
So Tom, you are the man behind Rejuce, a juice company with the main purpose of tackling the issue of food waste. Can you tell us a bit about the project and where it all started?
Rejuce happened after I graduated, I couldn’t really find a job because there was a massive recession and I’d just done a masters dissertation on food waste. My thesis was looking at where the biggest bin of edible food waste in the UK was. It took me from supermarkets up the chain back to packaging centres and then on to farms.
After meeting people, like the families running these farms, [who] are being forced to throw away huge amounts of food waste because it doesn’t meet the specifications and standards for beautification reasons. That sort of stuck with me, I’ve got a background in cheffing and I felt very strongly about it, and since I didn’t really have anything else to do during the recession, I started playing around with food waste.
I messed around making soups at first and giving it away to homeless people. After a winter of making soup there was a summer of making juice and the summer of making juice was a lot more productive, we managed to save a lot more food waste and we made a bigger impact.
We didn’t really think about making it a commercial venture at the beginning. I thought about just trying to do it and give it away to just prove the point about food waste and prove the concept. But I found that people were less likely to buy into it if it was free, its almost like you are trying to do too much [people] think there is something wrong with it, you’re giving it away for free so there is something wrong with it. It legitimises it when you put a brand on it, when you sell it, which is unfortunate but that is the way that people think.
So instead of trying to change the way people think I made a brand and started selling it. I decided to try and get into the drinks market which is quite hard, there are a lot of big players that are hiding as small players so your up against [brands] like naked which is actually PepsiCo or Innocent which is actually coca cola, your up against some huge players like wolves in sheep’s clothing [and that] block you getting in...
Actively yeah. They’ll have agreements with small cafes through big wholesalers so they will tie you in, like if you buy 4 you get one case for free or if you sell us all year long we will give you a rebate. Things that you just cant do when you are a small producer of ugly fruit and wonky veg juice.
But through stumbling and finding loads of small, independent cafes that don’t buy into that philosophy I managed to find enough small places that will help me, lots of independent cinemas, lots of independent cafes, lots of independent shops, pubs. And now we are at this delicate stage of trying to go into the mainstream markets but being a very alternative product. We’re making everything out of ugly fruit and wonky veg. we’re cold pressing everything which is good, even the big players that pretend that they cold press don’t cold press everything. So we are trying to make the best quality juice that we can to really add value to the produce that is perceived as waste so we are trying to prove to people when they drink it that its so good you cant believe that they were just going to chuck it.
Can you explain a little bit about what ‘food waste’ actually is, what that actually means?
OK, yeah so my definition of food waste is always – it’s food that is edible that is not good enough to be sold but too good to be thrown away so, everybody likes to think that it is just ugly fruit and wonky veg and vise-versa but it’s not. The majority of food waste is logistical.
So you’ll get a packaging centre that will be packaging say strawberry’s and they’ll have a whole glut of strawberries that will come in at a time where they don’t have enough staff or the sales of strawberries wont be that good so the supermarkets won’t have the demand which means they will get stuck in limbo and there is nowhere for them to go. It’s not the packaging centres fault, neither is it really the supermarkets fault it’s just something that happens, the demand and supply shifts and it causes logistical food waste and it just means that this food gets doomed and it is stuck in the middle with nowhere to go, it cant go backwards onto the bushes and it cant go forward into peoples mouths and there is no body in between to actually intercept it apart from companies like rejuce
The places that we go to, the farms or the packaging centres, we are reducing their waste by three quarters. So when we actually juice there, we reduce the waste down to a quarter.
That’s amazing! – so how does the system work, how do you tap into it, so say ‘right we have this glut of strawberries’ how do you tap into those logistical excesses, how do they end up with you?
So they call me every week saying for example ‘do you want 10 tonnes of pineapples’ and I will say ok I can take 2 and they say no you need to take 3 so I end up juicing through the night with a team of friends. That’s how it works because you have to be the flexibility that they don’t have.
We physically have to be there, go and collect it, select it, juice it..
... and then presumably get it out quite quickly?
Well we pasteurise, in the beginning we didn’t want to pasteurise we wanted to sell raw fresh juice but our main priority was to save food waste. Our product is still an amazing product but we have to pasteurise otherwise it wont have a shelf life and we would spend all of our time delivering and have no time actually juicing.
We actually HPP now which is high pressure and is a way of extending the shelf life without loosing any of the natural vitamins and minerals, so it uses pressure instead of heat.
And what do you think is the general consensus of people that you are taking the food waste from – do you find that they are really keen to limit the waste they have?
They love it yeah – we are saving them huge amounts of money. So because it is food it has to be disposed of ethically it has to go in the ground. It sounds backwards but it has to go into landfill it cant really be compost because its so sweet or it’ so liquidy that if it was composted it would cause swarms of flies which in farming areas would be very bad for crops so it goes to landfill which means they have to pay the landfill tax which is £75 a tonne on top of their disposal costs which can be £150 a tonne so just on their raw costs I’m saving them £250 a tonne. Which is great , to go into a small farm, or a big farm even and say I’ll come on this day and I’ll save you £2500 they are like great can you come every day.
I don’t have anywhere to sell it yet but I’d love to come every day that is our goal.
When we started this I always wanted to come up with a solution that wasn’t just going after a little bit of food waste it was going after all food waste, and being on the front lines of that I really think that just turning it all into juice is the solution to it, it’s enough of a high turn over value added product to make a difference because so many people drink juice.
You’ve touched on it a bit but what’s the dream? For rejuce but also for the landscape of food and food waste and where that is going?
We would love to get into a major retailer. I think as much as they are responsible for causing the waste they could be responsible for the solution. You know it’s easy to blame the big guys, it’s easy to blame the bully or just call somebody a bully that is big and some of the major supermarkets have been called bullies but they also have a lot of power and you can harness that that can be a good way of solving a problem.
That would be our main goal this year to get into a major retailer and in 5 / 10 years time we would love to be drying up all the food waste in the farms we are working with at the moment. We’d like to be taking 100% [of the waste] and we already have a long list of people we are in contact with who have more food waste. We’d like to then take some of theirs.
And what about the food industry and where people are at in their ideas and how you maybe see yourselves being able to change peoples perception of the issues?
We have helped a couple of companies set up that are using food waste and are making food waste products which is good. I’ve got a kitchen two doors down I rent out for pretty much nothing to people who use food waste because we are not using it all the time so if they have an idea to use something to do with food waste they can come and test their ideas in my kitchen.
I think more initiatives that use food waste will help change the way we look at it. Also working with kids in schools, making chutneys and jams out of food waste.
I think some sort of certification would be good in the same way that we have food standards. The big worry around food waste is the legal implications. Like if you give something to somebody that was once classed as waste you could damage them, or you could hurt them so a lot of companies hide behind that. So if you could do a course, even like an online course like you do your food hygiene so as dumb as it sounds ‘this is a good apple/ this is a bad apple’ to just show that you have enough knowledge as a chef or just as a human being, we should be able to tell what is edible and what is not, other animals can do it, but because of insurance and legal reasons we need to prove that we can do it. So if we had some sort of certification that would give us due diligence so that we could use that food that would be really handy.
On a more general scale Rebel Food came about as a result of talking to this amazing network of people doing really interesting things with food and using food as a mechanism to create change in their communities or bigger, wider political change. How important do you think that is and how much do you feel that is a part of what you are doing with rejuce?
Massively. When I first started skipping they had the occupy movement and I had just made a food waste trolly bike which was basically a bicycle with a huge trailer on the back of it.
I used to go round skipping and I had too much to even make food waste soup for homeless people so I used to cycle it all to the occupy people. They were all camped outside of St Pauls at the time and they found it invaluable because a lot of them couldn’t move and they needed good sustenance and the movement couldn’t afford it because you know those mechanisms of society that block and stop everybody from being able to actually have any traction. So they couldn’t afford because they are a peaceful quiet protest with no money standing up for every bodies rights but nobody understands enough to value what they do, so they found it invaluable that id show up every couple of days with a whole trolly full of food, out f a bin, that was completely fine.
Food waste can be used in so many different ways. I think anything that you get for nothing you can create something out of. It’s a useful tool... People can harness that and use that hidden money to do something. Its kind of civil disobedience you know the idea of not asking for permission just doing it an asking for forgiveness afterwards.
absolutely! Like taking the skipping example ...
you know its right
of course it’s right! But it’s funny, lots of people still think its disgusting, they cant get their heads around it, they might be 100% for reducing food waste but then there is a disconnect between that and the idea of seeing it as rubbish and being squeamish about it. How do you deal with that?
I think you just have to not pander to those people. I have been at meetings before where I have literally done a little presentation about what I do and there will be one person in the room that will just say something afterwards and they wont have listened at all and no matter what you say they have a mental image that your just not gonna break and those are the people that will be swayed by the majority.
I think people just have to cotton on to the idea that, it’s the truth, you’re always gonna get people that don’t want to believe the truth because it questions their ideas about society and then you get some people that search the truth out and wanna educate other people on it being completely edible and completely nutritious and just the right thing to do .
We shouldn’t be chucking away stuff that is good. It’s insulting to other people that don’t have enough food, its damaging to the environment that we all share, it’s just so wrong on so many levels, and it’s expensive. Deforestation, soil erosion, animal and plants habitat being destroyed, these are just a few injuries to add insults to what we are doing to our own kind. The real cost of it is huge.
If you are a cafe, bar, nightclub or business in East London and want to join this Food Rebels food waste revolution get in touch with Tom at Rejuce to find out about stocking some Rejuce juices!