It’s getting on for midnight in an alleyway in Chorlton, just starting to drizzle and bloody freezing. I’ve been told to keep an eye out for people as a friend scouts out the back of a supermarket. All clear. We open up the wheelie bins one at a time, sorting through the rubbish (and trying not to get bin juice on our clothes), while picking out food. Quite a lot of it is perfectly edible, a lot still in its original packaging, yet the supermarket has not only thrown it away but will threaten us with prosecution if they find us taking it. This is a funny experience for me, not something I’d choose to do often but really eye-opening about just how much food is being wasted every day.
While few would disagree that wasting perfectly good food is wrong, both morally and environmentally, some people choose to live off the produce discarded by supermarkets – a lifestyle known as freeganism. While not exactly mainstream, this is occasionally commented on in the press, although they are generally portrayed as alternative hippies, saving the world one discarded Beef Bourguignon ready meal at a time.
Amongst the student population there is definitely a significant minority who make their loan stretch a bit further by going ‘skipping’ occasionally, but many more would react in disgust at the idea. Most people know someone that chucks away perfectly good cheese rather than cut off a bit of mould, or who relies rigidly on sell-by dates rather than their own senses. But it is definitely a psychological jump to go from believing that you should eat food from your own fridge that might be a bit past its best to climbing into bins and taking food straight from the skips outside the supermarket.
Clearly it’s not a lifestyle for everyone – it’s not exactly the most convenient way to do your weekly shop. It’s pretty hard to romanticise the reality of rummaging through rubbish for something edible, you can never go ‘shopping’ until past midnight, and it’s always going to be quite an open air experience whatever the weather. Oh, the glamour of climbing into a bin in the rain in a dingy Manchester alley.
Another difficulty is how variable the pickings can be. Making dinner from a pot of yoghurt, some bacon and a carton of unsweetened soya milk could be an entertaining challenge the first time, but must be an exhausting way to live your life. Despite this, a friend of mine says the only things he ever has to buy from the shop are toothpaste and brewing sugar (of course he brews his own beer, it definitely goes with the stereotype). Obviously this varies based on your local shops – he generally goes to Waitrose and claims to get over £100 of free food from there a week. A better class of freegan, dahling…
Unfortunately another obstacle that puts some people off is that freeganism also has a very ambiguous legal status. Supermarket staff can often be hostile to people skipping – I’ve heard stories of food being stamped on or even being destroyed having bleach poured onto it by staff. Often skippers are seen as freeloaders, helping themselves to free food that the staff are not allowed to take home themselves. Certainly there is quite a lot of hostility, with freegans regularly being yelled at or chased down the street, and if caught they are vulnerable to prosecution for trespass or even vagrancy, under the oh-so-modern and relevant 1836 Vagrancy Act.
So is this just a youthful phase of naive lefty eco-evangelism, or is it a genuine attempt to respond to the wastefulness of modern society? Ultimately it seems like quite a pragmatic response to our inefficient and unenvironmental food system, although in my opinion initiatives such as Veg Soc are more likely to make a genuine change to the system by allowing students to use their power as consumers to bring about change, which freeganism opts out of. But then again, as long as you don’t mind the process of getting it from a bin, it’s kind of hard to argue with the appeal of free food…