In a city filled with noteworthy architecture and distinguished seats of learning, where some of the most monied people in the world chose to reside, the Waste2Taste Café at ArkT in Temple Cowley should be considered one of Oxford’s most admirable establishments. Set up by Sandra and Marie in 2017 with the aim of using food waste and surplus to create tasty, nutritious food for all, their business has evolved from catering company, to café, to community hub.
People think of Oxford as a rich town. Tell us, who uses the café?
Everyone. It is a community cafe so it can be used by anyone including the homeless or people who can’t pay. That’s why we have the Kindness Menu; it’s a pay-forward scheme that you can come and have a coffee, pay another one and then someone who can’t afford to pay can take a sticker from the board. They give it to the member of staff, with no questions asked. We also have the Freezer of Love filled with frozen meals that are on a pay-as-you-feel basis, which can be from 1p to as much as you can and anyone can have it. It’s a way of us trying to help people with the cost of living crisis.
And if someone just wants to come and sit in the warmth?
They can. It’s a very community feel in here, it’s lovely.
How do you manage not to get overwhelmed by cynicism?
I am an optimist. I’m always looking forward to things and I don’t dwell on the bad. I don’t get worried about people judging us because we use surplus or whatever. I try to educate them instead. I was raised by my mum and granny to support everyone and not judge anyone. Why is that person in that situation? It’s not up to me to judge why they got to that point or situation. Who am I to judge someone if they get support to feed their kids?
Tell us about the cookery classes you offer.
Yes, we have started a new one for kids aged 11-15. We've done a lot with the homeless and a few with families, teaching them how to cook with whatever they might receive in donated boxes. The last two were with families who receive our free meals to help them move forward because we can’t feed people for the rest of their lives.
Is it conditional if they take donated food?
No. We may ask them if it would be helpful if we see them here a lot, and then they sign up and they love it. They usually never learned how to cook, no one ever told them. It’s very hard: I think it’s easier for people to go to the supermarket and buy a cheap meal to feed their kids without even thinking, I can do this in an even cheaper way and in a healthier way if I brought the ingredients myself.
What sort of recipes do you teach?
It can be simple pasta bakes, lasagne, or curries and it’s vegetarian and vegan only. When we started Waste2Taste there was no meat or fish available. Now there is so we could use it if we wanted, but it’s so much easier to keep it vegetarian and vegan and it’s more sustainable which is the way forward, isn't it?
The protein comes from the lentils, beans, and all the pulses: they are the cheapest way to feed a family of ten. Dhal and rice is delicious and you can add so many other things without breaking the bank. Or make a macaroni cheese with pumpkin, for instance; instead of making a white sauce roast the pumpkin, cook it with lots of nice spices, scoop out the flesh and mash it with the cheese. Use fruit in cakes because it tends to be a bit healthier, like beetroot brownies or sweet potato brownies. The veg substitutes the liquid so instead of adding the butter or oil you just add, like, cooked and mashed sweet potato as the wet element. It has a very nice, spongy, texture and you don’t notice the flavour if you use good quality ingredients like dark chocolate.
What’s next on your agenda?
More of the same. The education part is going to evolve; the idea is to have workshops every single week because it’s so important to teach people how to cook for themselves. Simple doesn’t mean simple food, it means creating an easy meal for you and your family. Just teaching people to use what they have, because most of them receive food from the Food Hub. The idea is to film the workshops so we can share them online. We will probably be on YouTube or TikTok.
And longer term?
We set up the OX 4 Food Crew [an alliance of nine grassroots organisations, including Waste2Taste who have joined forces to battle food poverty in OX4] with the idea of helping people at the beginning of lockdown but then the pandemic wasn't a month like we thought. It extended for so long and we are still doing it now. We provide 200 free meals twice a week, and they can go to people with mental health issues, to the elderly, the ones who can’t get out of the house because of health issues, families that can’t afford to feed their kids. We have had funding from the National Lottery to support us to help the community. It’s been three years and we are now working to get rid of food poverty in OX4 by 2030. That’s the aim.
The café at ArkT is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, 9am – 2pm
For more information, catering enquiries, and some fabulous recipes and tips on reducing food waste visit waste2taste.co.uk