This is ordinary 11pm banter for us. Two to three times a week we’ll go on a street lamp-lit tour of our city to find food. Yes indeed, like hunter gatherers of millennia past, to find food. Not car-exhaust soaked nettles and brambles, but rather everything you might buy from a local supermarket. The small ‘metro’, ‘express’ or ‘local’ supermarkets make up the route of our tours, and it is their bins from which we gather our food. We’re skippers, or ‘gleaners’, ‘dumpster-divers’, and 'bin-fishers’.
This particular evening we’re giddy as ever as we lift the lids on the bins in the alleyway behind a certain supermarket in a certain city. It’s like pirate’s treasure or an unexpected parcel – what might there be inside tonight? The quality of the produce has stopped surprising us. Returning home to an eager family with a dozen perfectly ripe avocadoes, a few pineapples, anything from three to twenty cabbages, bags of potatoes and carrots, organic breads and some marscapone to pass on to dairy-eating friends is a satisfyingly average pick. Food that has actually gone off is abnormal.
Some evenings we do it earlier, making a display of our finds and chatting to passers-by who usually go away with a bag full of the food they’ve selected. One such time a couple of young children watch us shyly for a while from across the street, we smile and they finally pluck up the courage to ask ‘Why’s all that food been put in the bin?’
This particular questioner didn't warrant my usual diatribe on British society’s religious belief in sell-by dates, obliviousness to the skills of our own noses, and the imported North American fear of insurance claims. This little girl spoke directly about the devastating aspect of finding this food.
The part which gets me is when I can’t use all the hundreds of spring onions grown, apparently, by David Hare in Northumbria, or when we find bag upon bag of grapes which have been flown from Peru squashed at the bottom of the bin and covered in blue dye to mark the hands of any person who might think to eat this delicious, nutritious food. That little girl's ‘why’ asks, ‘how is this possible?’
What we find in the bins of the small-sized (though not small in their power or profits) supermarkets is only part of the problem. In the large versions of the supermarkets wasted food is put into a compressor before being transported to landfill, with no chance for the mitts of your average skipper to make sure it gets redistributed and used. Domestic bins are just as loaded with ‘waste’ food. In fact, in a country where 1 in 4 people live below the poverty line, £20m worth of food is put in the bin each year, that’s 30-40 per cent of all produce. This, in a world where over 850 million people suffer from chronic hunger.
I haven’t named the city I live, and skip, in, or the supermarket bins I frequent, because as this practice becomes more well known, the supermarkets become more rigorous in their locking of bins and purposeful spoiling of the food they put in them with dye or bleach. Freeganism is a simple way to evade what many find to be the trap of the capitalist system - spending all your time working for a low wage to buy enough food - and it is important to me to try and protect this practice. It allows many to partake in other projects of social engagement and political activism. But at the same time, I whole-heartedly believe that this is not a set-up which should be sustained. And although I sometimes buy a locally produced organic vegetable box, this also is insufficient to me as a remedy to this massive, wide-scale problem. As with all the issues we who are concerned about global environmental degradation face, alternatives are very important, but only alongside action against malpractice.
When I pick up my organic vegetable box, I’m excited to know this food had been produced locally and with agricultural methods which respect the land. But when I go skipping, I am almost even more captivated and engaged in the process of food consumption in our culture, and more fired-up to do something about it. As a climate activist when I handle foods which have been flown about the planet then shipped up and down the country to be packaged in various layers of plastic to then be sent to landfill I am truly devastated. And although I’m glad when I can let this food fulfill its purpose and pay respect to whoever has given their energy to growing it by cooking it up to share with friends, I would much rather it never was put in a bin in the first place.
Try it for yourself. Go skipping at your local small supermarket. Enjoy the food. And see what you want to do about it.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007
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