The gallant tale of a crusader riding high on a milk-float whilst battling the incurable epidemic of food waste was a fable too good to be missed.
Admittedly it had taken us far too long to track down this mercenary -as even the countries most elevated of chefs had managed to impart a word or two on the squandering of food, rallying us like lambs to crave the ugly fruit – yet, as our shining knights campaign had started well before ugly crawled up to fruit and became a thing to fawn over, we proudly found ourselves jointly rolling up the shutters of one of the many endangered warehouses of East London and the home of our heroine. Tom Fletcher greeted us in a heavy full-length military jacket – a fitting salute to times when food waste was ill afforded – the festooning of an Arab scarf around his neckline announced his worldly appetite and his strong Nordic features stirred the imaginings of a marauding Viking. Tom was gentle, polite, still, he was a Goliath of a man and it was all too easy picturing him raping and pillaging the waste of our fine land and juicing into fine drinks. I was fully onside because if food waste can be recirculated surely it’s a good thing. I’d even suggest arming him with an axe so that he can get the job done that bit sooner. That, and add a little extra spark to the milk-float and up, up and away with food waste for good.
Formalities over and Tom, the man-mountain, guided us around his warehouse. It didn’t disappoint, it was the very environment that housed the rise of this forgotten walk of London, the very environment that sheltered the extrovert creative, gifting East London a new voice. It was a cavernous space with plyboard vacuums acting as rooms surrounding many a communal area, all of which were dressed with random finds and local art. It was a rag-and-bone man’s dream, as mobility chairs cradled portable TVs and the moon hid from the sun. Sentiment overwhelmed me, I used to be part of this scene, and just before I had a chance to paint my face with alabaster and pull on my leopard print leggings, Tom urged me back over to his side of a line on the floor. I regained focus to find that I had just trespassed and that this harp back in time was soon to be sliced in half to accommodate a bridge across the canal, a bridge to serve the Olympic park. It seemed insane that, ‘the how high can one lift their trousers and deep plunge a mixed knit into their ever narrowing waistline’ was not the currency of this neighbourhood anymore, instead development was the new buck. Resisting the urge to play hopscotch over the boundary, that for me confirmed the dismantling of a pretentious time of wonder, I was forced, by circumstance, to accept that the movement had indeed absconded some time ago. I scoffed and scuffed a little rubber from my boot across the frontier, adding my own mark on this unscrupulous border, as that was to be my goodbye.
Thankfully Tom had not noticed my mumblings and bubbling sentimentality or was far too polite to comment and instead offered up an answer to a question I hadn’t yet asked. ‘So I was a chef from an early age, my mum has a B&B and she forced me into the kitchen. Always what you notice when you are cooking is food waste… There is always going to be some waste in catering but it doesn’t have to be in the same way that I experienced the higher that I went up the catering ladder.’ Tom had wielded his axe and brought us crashing down hard on his cause. In homage to the ancestors his strong jaw suggested he didn’t relent, ‘So when I finished my undergrad I didn’t want to study business anymore so I chose to go back to university and study food politics and specialise in food waste, which at the time wasn’t something, it wasn’t a topic and now it’s become a really big sector topic. Whereas at the time people didn’t really understand what I was on about or the importance of it.’ Impassioned it was pleasing to hear that this outing was not a whim, it wasn’t a venture to make a quick pound, the man-mountain was hard boiled on it.
The very location we stood was all part of the plan, he wasn’t just here to prance around with the hangers on, the sinister line on the floor sign posted why Tom was here, the bridge offered access to the Olympic park, the home of the new Spittlefield fruit and veg market, the biggest, in volume, in the UK. ‘They have around 30 tonnes of edible food thrown away every day, which isn’t actually as bad as I first thought, as the amount of fruit that goes through there, you’re looking at 500,000 tonnes… So you’ll get things that are scratched up that aren’t necessarily good enough to be sold but in my mind too good to be thrown away, because they’re still edible, just not desirable. So I started collecting stuff from there and started collecting from the smaller markets that they feed into. It was incredibly hard because they don’t trust you – it’s all about relationships and you have to keep going back every day until they get to know you.’ I pointed out he could take my waste for free, then quickly passed it off as a joke remembering it sheltered a full chicken I’d clumsily let stew beyond sensibility in the fridge. I giggled toying with my pigtails, that sort of waste would surely have excited our Viking friend. ‘I’ve had countless arguments with these people. At the end, we got a Milk-float and we were picking up say half a tonne from the market before we would go to other places and the people at the gate would say ‘I’m sorry but you can’t take these boxes of apples, Sir,’ and I’d be like ‘Why?’ Because ‘we know what you’re doing. You can’t take them, you haven’t paid for them’ and I’d be like, ‘that’s not a problem, I’ve got this piece of paper that says I’ve got a responsibility for it. I’ve spoken to your manager that runs the market and he’s happy for me to take it’ but even the security was like this is illegal what you are doing, but it’s not actually illegal this was the grey area at the time.’
The obstacles that this Nordic missionary had encountered was maddening and plainly made no sense other than to pacify a health and safety form written by a lunatic somewhat removed from the scene of its activation. The fruit and veg get dumped, that is its destination, so why not let somebody who has a use for it take the responsibility? Tom went on to explain the gatekeepers issues, ‘The point he was trying to make is on the box of apples you’ve got the best before and use by dates. But on whole raw food, fruit and vegetables, there is no point of putting these arbitrary dates on, because as I explained to him even if they fell out of the same tree on the same date they would all go out of date at different points anyway… We should be able to tell the difference between something that is off.’ And there lies the problem, the sticker, the stamp, the damming small print is something we as the consumer have become beholden to. My Chicken said it was past it’s best, so who am I to beg the question, (Not the best example as at a quick glance that particular chicken looked like it had regrown its plumage), but the point being that we have lost all ability and confidence to detect whether something is spoilt. The apple the pear, although individually spared the cursed stamp, is obviously marked up for transport purposes but imagine if they did have a puny label on them, would we still rotate them and check for bad stuff ourselves or instantly obey the authoritarian voice and if instructed automatically believe the fruit to have suddenly grown poisonous from within? Tom stated, ‘I was basically just firefighting,’ the Giant certainly seemed to wear the scorch marks, such a strong demeanour all too often doesn’t promote the readiness of aid.
We couldn’t help thinking if he looked less self-sufficient; if he was diddy, dressed in pink with a lisp would his crusade have been granted a smoother ride? Battle bruises worn with distinction Tom ploughed on to tell us how his empire, called Rejuce (clumsy we haven’t mentioned this before), had formed and almost instantly dampened its ambitions as an understanding of the marketplace dawned on marble head. ‘We tried to go into retail but found out it was incredible adventurous for us… trying to compete with the likes of Innocent and other big brands was just ludicrous.’ The story of those founding days was epic, the idea of Tom, the marauder mounted on a milk-float gathering up fruit and veg was a worthy figurine for any mantle piece. ‘I was doing the collection, all the selection, all the washing, the chopping, the juicing.’ The problem, as with any cottage industry was how to grow, how to compete with the big boys. Tom proceeded to tell us how the milk-float had passed away in an effort to add a little more dynamism to his operation. He proudly talked of how a horse-box had taken its place, housing a whopping metal thing that had the capability of juicing 10 tonnes of food a day. It’s mobility meant Tom could take it to the site of the waste, avoiding the scandals of stealing away their produce, at least in a recognisable form. Tom had clearly learnt, and fast, how to avoid the early day blockades, he also now had a clear direction of how to establish his brand. Rejuce currently works the festival scene and is widely touted by the organisers, as finally, they/we are all aware that food waste is bad and people that do something with it are good. ‘So we are sort of expanding slowly, sorta touching, feeling, sounding it out… We hope that the next hurdle we have, when we go back into retail, that it will be such a good story that hopefully someone will get hold of us.’ Maybe beneath the military trenchcoat, Tom is wearing pink in a hope to entice an arm or two of support. The bandwagon of food waste has certainly gathered momentum and it would only seem sensible to have one of its early pioneers at the front of the Cavalry.
Military shell stripped back, the man-mountain before our very eyes became nymph-like in his pink long johns, a miniature version of the predecessor but open for business, (excuse us, we’re forcing the mushy transition to the finale where it all gets a little fanciful). I lean in and get personal, searching out Tom’s underbelly, do you always finish up your plate? ‘I do frown at people who leave food on their plate, especially when I think it’s for vanity. People just leaving something for no reason just showing either they don’t have to eat it or that they just can’t be bothered to eat it – I’m like it’s a mouthful – finish it.’ Ha! That wasn’t the warm tender flesh I was looking for, wonderfully on point but work on that pink demeanour Tom. ‘It’s really important to sit down once a day and share food and just really connect and have a chat, and some people don’t do that… I think we are losing a lot of manners and emotional intelligence because coming together and eating is something that is symbolic throughout history and the fact that we can come together with different people of different ages is so civilised and you lose that – just having a personal goal, feeding your body like a battery; we are taking a step backwards in civilisation really… undervaluing ourselves and our emotions.’ Tom is still gigantic! He wears no jelly like cushioning for the sake of personability, he takes food seriously, understanding the role it serves and the ethical values it harnesses. Sharing his company was empowering, hearing his appreciation for food and understanding how using a little of what we throw away could actually serve a purpose was enlightening. Figurine on order and mantlepiece cleared for its display, we are happy to showcase this gallant Knight of the discarded fruit and veg. Already confident of his answer we posed the question, did you used to eat at the table when you were young? Tom batted back the question with an answer fitting for our conclusion, ‘Yeah absolutely, and not leaving until your plate was finished or no desert.’ Let that hang in the air fellow wasters!