InFocus: Vinnie Straub, founder of the “Pop-Down Café”

Wasting food. We all do it, and we’ll all continue to do it but what we actually don’t know are the costs and ramifications of our waste.

The annual cost of food waste stands at $750 billion globally, while 33 per cent of all food is wasted; this equates to 100 million tonnes of food thrown away in Europe last year.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there are 840 million people who are in a state of chronic hunger, while the water used on wasted crops would meet the daily needs of nine million people.

These are the statistics which have inspired a group of students in St Andrews to set up a “pop-down” café in their flat. The café is a ground-breaking initiative as all the food given out has actually been taken from dumpsters belonging to food businesses around St Andrews in an effort to highlight how much food is wasted unnecessarily.

The Saint sat down for an interview with one of the founders, Viviane Straub, who told us that she believes the statistics on food waste are “deeply shocking.”

The main premise of the café is to “raise awareness” of food waste and also show how it is possible to “feed an entire room of people with food that has been thrown away.”

“A lot of ending food waste comes down to people realising how much waste they produce,” she added.

The idea for the café came about when Ms Straub was passing an empty house and was suddenly struck by the idea of making use of the space.

The café was started in November and run every Friday since. At first, Ms Straub says, it was just a few friends who came but most recently numbers have surged to around 60.

The word “collective” comes up often in the interview and it becomes clear that the whole operation is done, not just to try and raise awareness of food waste, but to try and create a community of like-minded people.

Ms Straub says that as St Andrews can be quite segregated in different groups it is important to create a “communal social space” where “social divides across groups.” In forming a collective, it is hoped that the space is equally shared with people washing up plates and when going for seconds, doing so with the needs of other people in mind.

There are many plans which the group have for the future of the café.

The first priority is to get more people involved, and more collaborators to work with, such as different societies. The owners also plan to get in touch with food waste researchers and well known culinary names such as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, who also promotes efforts to curb food waste.

Aside from reaching out to their source of inspiration, the café owners are hoping to approach supermarkets and make them aware of how much food they are potentially wasting.

Supermarkets are known to be the amongst the worst places for food waste as oddly shaped fruits or vegetables for example usually get thrown in the bin instead of being put up for sale.

This behaviour angers Ms Straub and she would love for consumers to be aware of the fact that an oddly shaped pear is “as okay to eat” as a more conventionally shaped one.

Ms Straub does point out that Asda has a “special box for oddly shaped fruits” which she sees as a significant step forward.

Food waste has become a legal matter in some European countries such as France, where Ms Straub tells me, it is illegal to throw away any packaged foods.

Ideally Ms Straub would like to shift a focus towards campaigning such as petitioning supermarkets and trying to affect government policy and tackling the issue of food waste “directly” which she feels that the café itself is not doing, and therefore she is weighing up either closing the café entirely or simply moving towards a more campaigning-centred approach.

Among steps that ordinary members of the public can do to decrease the amount of food that they waste, Ms Straub says, is “reinventing food” and turning it into something different, yet still healthy and tasty. This is a methodology which Ms Straub has been following for a while, and she believes that there should be more education amongst the greater public, to ensure that they know that they don’t always have to throw” away food that is perfectly healthy to consume.

In addition, she states that she would love to expand the café’s reach to University societies and work closely with them on similar projects which Ms Straub will ensure her message against food waste is heard by a large and more diverse audience.

Specifically, Ms Straub mentions Transition, a University environmental group which operates as a zero-waste group and set up “smart cooking”- classes for students which she says are “vitally helpful.”

She then says how she would love to engage with the University more on food waste by for example, collaborating with and giving talks in University halls, working with accommodation committees and also with catering staff to promote information not only about food waste but also about reduction methods.

Twice a week, every week, she and the other founders as well as some other volunteers, go “dumpster-diving” around St Andrews, in order to get the food for the café.

Ms Straub herself has been dumpster diving “for fun” since the beginning of her first year, and has come to know other dumpster divers around town of whom she says there are quite a “considerable” number.

She calls it a “sub-culture” of people who partake in dumpster diving, which although illegal, is an activity which has come to be relatively acceptable among Ms Straub and her contemporaries.

Ms Straub then tells me how she hopes that with more people coming to the pop-down café, the team will hopefully start a “food drop-in” rota where students are welcome to bring any unwanted foods which would’ve otherwise gone to waste and therefore would help the team save time that would otherwise be spent scavenging for food in the rubbish bins of St Andrews supermarkets.

Due to the effort which is put into running the café, however, donations are strongly encouraged from anyone who visits the café and eats the food on offer.

Ms Straub says in the early days, most people would put just small amounts into the donation boxes, or not donate at all, and that, at times, the café essentially became a social experiment to see who would donate or if not.

Now, £1 donations are encouraged and as the number of people visiting their café has increased so too has the amount of donations coming.

Of the donations, 50 per cent goes to charity with the other half going towards maintenance costs. The charity in choice is the Scottish Refugee Council in Dundee which provides asylum support to refugees in Scotland and who campaign for political change, they raise awareness for issues that affect refugees, and work closely with local communities and organisations under the umbrella of refugee assistance. So far the café has raised £100 for charity.

At the end of each café event on Friday, Ms Straub explains, food that is left over is given away to the homeless or sent to foodbanks in St Andrews, Dundee and the general Fife area. It is also given away to the last few people at the end of the café if there is a lot left.

Ms Straub says that she has “always” been environmentally conscious, having seen many documentaries about it in her life and also having even stayed in an “eco-village” in Spain a year ago for three weeks where she worked alongside others in a sustainable space.

She was encouraged when seeing how little waste the village produced to implement that in her own life. She was also asked to spread the message onto others.

You can help support the PopDownCafé by turning up every Friday with donations at 11B Hope Street from 3-6pm.

3 thoughts on “InFocus: Vinnie Straub, founder of the “Pop-Down Café”

  • March 10, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    A wonderful thing to do – keep up the good work ! . Makes us all stop & think about the terrible waste of food X

  • March 11, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    I hope that this wonderful idea spreads throughout the country.


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