One writer discovers the joys of free food, and explains why Waitrose are dickheads.
It’s half eight on a cold Sunday night in February. I’ve got a torch, gloves, and a massive backpack ready to be filled. With me is my brother Dom, an expert in our chosen pastime for the evening. And no, things haven’t got so desperate at Planet Ivy that I’ve turned to a life of crime. I am far too civilised for that; we’re off to go skipping.
We all know humans waste a lot of food. A hell of a lot. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently claimed that 30-50% of food intended for human consumption never makes it to our plates. We cut and slash our way through food resources like a butcher in a Romanian stable – and although some of us probably feel a little bit guilty about it, a lot of us would like to think it’s someone else’s problem.
Luckily, skipping (or ‘dumpster diving’ as Americans call it) is making sure at least some of this food finds a good home. Up and down the country people are scouring the bins behind supermarkets and newsagents to find abandoned produce. People do it for a variety of reasons; some to cut down on food bills, whilst others do it to fight what they see as needless waste. For some it is even a social occasion, a chance to meet up with friends and like-minded people, and go on a sort of urban treasure hunt.
After all, food doesn’t instantly rot the moment it’s out of date (unless it’s marmite, in which case it’s poisonous before you’ve even opened the jar). Best before dates on packaging essentially exist as a form of reputation protection for food companies and are simply advisory notices, not serious health warnings. Once a food product crosses an arbitrary date or quality rating it’s disposed of, meaning most of the time completely safe food is just thrown away. According to CBS Atlanta, food such as cereal or canned goods can last weeks or even months past the expiration date, provided the packaging is not compromised.
Simon Jilley of the Bath Spa Freegans group explains why he goes skipping: “I, personally, do enjoy the usefulness of being able to supplement my food bills with skipped food, but my main reason for skipping is normally to do with the social and the enjoyment purposes. I love freegan meetups, and try to make it to them whenever I can. I find that I talk to people on a whole different level when we’re walking around town on a skipping run… [Skipping] is a similar sensation for me to what I got when I opened presents as a kid – the complete feeling of surprise and excitement. I love it.”
Dom echoes this sentiment. “The world of skipping is crazy. The other day I had a ‘bad’ haul – I came back with six pizzas, 21 eggs, bread, cakes and confectionary. I usually get much more than that. There are people starving and yet people are throwing all this stuff away.” That there is so much perfectly edible food available for free, most still in its packaging, is either a travesty or a potential bonanza. Or maybe both.
It’s not all fun and games, however, and Dom has felt the long, hard, touch of the law. Diving one night in a regular haunt, Dom and his friend hit the jackpot – in a bin outside a supermarket they found roughly a hundred unopened, unbroken cans of beer. However, just like much of the Old Testament, this story does not end well.
A patrolling police officer caught them, and, despite having committed no crime, they were both cuffed, thrown to the ground and spent most of the night in a police cell. “In the cell next to us was this screaming, drunken transsexual” Dom recalls, half laughing and half cringing. With the repeated shouts of “get off my tits!” forming a sort of perverted mantra in the night air, Dom tried to meditate his way through the trauma. “The officers were just attempting to calm the situation. I tried to zen my way through it but it wasn’t easy.” He was eventually released at 4am when the duty solicitor informed the officers that they had no right to hold Dom and his friend. Just like the food, the legal advice came free of charge.
So with that in mind, we at Planet Ivy like to think we do our bit to help out our fellow man, both in getting free food and cutting down on waste. I for one have taken to only bathing once every ten days to save on water. And with my noble example in mind, here are some pointers if you feel like grabbing yourself some free bin food:
- First of all, stay legal. Don’t go climbing over fences or breaking padlocks on bins, as you’ll be trespassing or committing vandalism. Skipping itself is a bit of a grey area – it may be considered theft just as much as it may be considered fair to assume that whatever was in the bin has been abandoned. Either way, it’s hard to prove that you’ve ‘dishonestly stolen’ something when the owner is throwing it away, so prosecutions are rare. If you’re confronted, be polite, good humoured and just move on; you can always come back later.
- Learn the schedule. Different shops have their bins emptied on different nights, and you don’t want to come back the day after as the bin will be mostly empty.
- Bring plenty of bags. My brother regularly takes a bike and four bags, and comes home with all of them full to the brim with free food.
- Don’t go to bins behind pubs or restaurants unless you like eating mixed-up sludge. Half-chewed chicken leg here, a bit of carbonara there – yeah, not my favourite dish either.
- Use your noggin. Wear gloves to protect against pointed edges and spills. Take a torch. Wear old clothes. Stay clear of raw meat and anything mouldy. Never, ever climb inside a bin, as you may be found the next day as a foot-long cube inside a rubbish truck.
- Be respectful. Don’t tear open bags or leave food all over the place, as you don’t want to drive the supermarkets to start locking the bins.
- Never go to Waitrose, as they are snobby bastards. Not only do they not reduce their food (“can’t be seen to be pandering to the plebs, can we Tarquin?”), but they actually pour bleach on all the food they throw away. You heard me. Bleach. The whole reason many places don’t want you dumpster diving is to reduce the likelihood of them being sued if you get ill after eating something you found in one of their bins. That Waitrose are deliberately trying to poison divers is beyond comprehension.
Luckily I live in a small village many miles from the home counties, so there’s not a Waitrose in sight. The night of our skipping adventure we went to the only supermarket in the village in the hopes of finding a goldmine. Sadly, we ‘only’ found about 20 loaves of sliced bread and hordes of crumpets and burger buns, all perfectly sealed in their packaging. Looks like it’s bread sandwiches for the foreseeable future, boys.
People tend to look at skipping as the preserve of tramps and alcoholics
Admittedly, I felt nervous. I was doing something that much of society considers wrong. Skipping, people say, is the preserve of tramps and alcoholics, it’s dirty and below us. I realised that the issue of food waste was not just caused by over-zealous supermarkets but also by ordinary people infected with a strain of middle class snobbishness. We have to stop rejecting vegetables for being ‘ugly’ and stop throwing away food because it is one day out of date, but currently many of us just can’t bring ourselves to do it. Yet we have to, because much like I’m a Celebrity, this is a problem that isn’t going away.
Skipping is almost like a journey, Dom explains. First, briefly, you’re disgusted. Then you’re overjoyed, before finally being jaded with the state of the world. Indeed, this latter feeling was one of the most memorable ones from Dom’s run in with PC Plod. As he was waiting to be released, the officer took Dom and his friend aside and said to them: “Now technically, you’ve not committed a crime, but can you imagine a world where every does what you did?”
“Yes,” replied Dom, “it’d be great. There would be no more waste”. The officer paused, taken aback. “Well, you could look at it that way I suppose…”
This article is part of Planet Ivy’s Food Week. For other articles from this week see below: