Who doesn't hate the post-commute supermarket sweep? Tired and indecisive, you clutch a random selection of dinner items and prepare to face the snaking queue of equally hangry people waiting for their turn at the till.
Not everyone wants to – or can - take part in this evening ritual. As most of us are heading home the food skippers set off, beginning their routes around the city. High street chains bag up perfectly edible salads, freshly made packaged sandwiches, breakfast bowls and snacks at the end of the day and leave them on the street as refuse. All it takes is a trained eye and a Bag for Life to stock up on what these cafes throw out.
Once something is placed in bins the owner loses their property rights sothis practice is not illegal, yet neither is it actively encouraged. Food skipping is done on the down low, and remains hush-hush. 'The laws surrounding it in England are unclear so those who do it have a tremendous amount of courage. It might be the supermarket’s practise of fear mongering, but dumpster divers are really raising awareness for how this food could be used elsewhere', says Rachelle Strauss, founder of the Zero Waste Week campaign. She’s keen for manufacturers to get rid of ‘Best Before’ and ‘Display Until’ dates as people often chuck food as soon as it reaches its use by date. Her recommendation is that we should all use our senses when testing to see if food is still fit for consumption. Just because something isn't Instagrammable doesn't mean it isn't edible.
Some household names are known to stock up their shelves just before closing time, to encourage last-minute shoppers – then disposing of what was essentially used as bait. Pret a Manger is one of the few high street chains which sends unsold food directly to charities. 'We don’t want any shop to go without a link with a homeless shelter – it’s one of the first things we set up when we’re proposing a new site', says Honeybea Youngman, a spokesperson for Pret. Other cafes might give away surplus food on an ad hoc basis but there should be a push for all cafes to follow Pret’s lead, extending the lives of products deemed obsolete and redistributing in a more structured way.
As for supermarkets, charities such as Fare Share are aiming to make the redistribution of waste food a common practice. Most recently they've worked with Tesco to roll out an app which alerts charities when surplus food is ready to collect at the end of the day. It has already redistributed 1.4 million meals from 800 Tescos stores and will have the system operating in every store by the end of 2017, says Nicola Kiess, a spokesperson from the charity. Apps like Too Good to Go and The Real Junk Food Project’s food waste supermarket are proof of positive progress in the industry. However, there is a lot more to be done to redistribute the 0.9 million tonnes of food wasted in the hospitality sector every year (that’s 36,000 times the weight of Stone Henge, to you and me).
Regardless of how things evolve with food waste over the coming years, you can guarantee that as shops close their doors and night falls over a city, dumpster diving will continue as long as there is perfectly viable food being chucked out.
The Debrief spoke to young people who food skip regularly:
Having grown up in Germany, Lara only began food skipping when she arrived in London and saw her friends doing it. She’s always felt strongly about the problem off food waste and was amazed to see how much they were gleaning from their nocturnal skipping trips. She now reroutes her cycle home to include main roads with sandwich shops and cafes and occasionally ventures onto the side streets she knows are hotspots.
She expains that food skipping relies largely on word-of-mouth, 'I come across lots of people doing the same, mostly homeless men in their fifties, who arrange the stuff so others can take it.' There's a community of food skippers which also includes people for whom this way of eating is not a lifestyle choice but rather a necessity and fact of being homeless - they would struggle to eat otherwise.
Does Lara do it for the kicks or because she can't afford a food shop? 'It’s not a financial decision for me, but rather a convenience'. She saves around £20 a week and manages to dive all her packed lunches for when she’s at university, studying for a degree in environment and development.
The ease with which she can do it in London, compared with her native Germany where there's less waste readily available, makes her think that she will continue to do it for as long as is possible. 'I keep trying to make my friends aware that it’s a good thing – it’s not disgusting and doesn’t involve getting dirty'.
While studying at the University of Leeds, Edd and one of his friends lived entirely off bin-dived food for six months. It began with skipping for themselves, then for friends and then to contribute to The Real Junk Food project.
Their six month experiment was more than successful – they even gained weight in the process and took part in two half marathons to counteract their bountiful diet.
'It was avocado and mushrooms on sourdough toast every morning, fresh banana smoothies, lobster, caviar… The last time I bin dived in Leeds we found a crate of beer. Everything we could ever want, we got. I was vegan at the time and managed to eat healthily just from the bins. There was so much of it - why would we ever spend money on food?'
Edd has since moved to London and works as a campaigner for Feedback, which works to prevent food waste across the supply chain. He says that the increased security measures in the city make dumpster diving more difficult in the captial. Waste is often stored inside buildings or if it’s outside, in compounds, surrounded by ten-foot walls topped with rotating razor wire. Some cafes are even starting to hire security guards!
Has he ever known food outlets to spoil waste to stop people from taking it? 'I found that Marks and Spencer had thrown blue dye on their waste bins. I wrote and complained and since going back to that bin, they’ve stopped doing it. Which is progress.'
Unlike Edd and Lara, Grace has come to rely on food skipping to get by. What began as a thrill seeking university exploit, is now a necessity. She stays late after work and cycles home via the big chain cafes in central London.
'I’m always careful to open the bags so as not to rip them because I don’t want the shops to get complaints from the council and stop throwing their stuff away.' She learnt the hard way while at university, when too many people started doing it in the wrong way and shops began disposing of their surplus food elsewhere. She’s always careful to tie the bags back up now.
Has she ever been caught on her evening dives? 'It’s right next to a bus stop so I have a full audience of twenty people. Some people look at me like "Cool!" because often, what I pull out looks completely perfect. But some look disgusted and are obviously questioning why I’m doing it. Others look on with pity. They must think "she doesn’t look homeless – why is she doing that? Is she just greedy and doesn’t want to spend the money?" I keep my headphones in and bike helmet on so I don’t make eye contact or hear what they’re saying.'
The combination of paying London rent and earning very little in her marketing job, means that Grace is struggling to make ends meet. She used to spend £150 a month on food shopping, but spends more like £30 now. Her colleagues were curious when she began producing pre-packed branded lunches without leaving the office. 'Eventually my manager asked so I had to tell them – my whole team and the team behind was listening. Their big question was whether it was safe to eat. People in general seem to understand when homeless people food skip but then they are shocked when I do it. It seems a bit degrading that any of us have to do it. People see it as an interesting pastime for me because I’m middle class and in a full-time job – like it’s the latest pop-up restaurant. It’s entered urban folklore, that it’s a fun thing you can do, as opposed to doing it for survival.'
Grace and her group of friends who food skip graduated from top universities, with many working for high-flying corporate firms. 'I’m not making a statement about food waste or how wasteful our society is. I am making a statement about how tightly squeezed the millennial generation is in London' she says.
We're throwing away an alarming amount of food that's still fit for consumption. It's sold to many of us at a premium thorughout the day and discarded, as though worthless at night. At the moment, there is enough food being produced to feed all those who need it – perhaps several times over. That's something we should all think very seriously about. If there's food going spare, outlets shouldn't be spoiling it or locking it away and nobody - not low income families, not the homeless and not squeezed millennials - should have to rummage through bins in secret to access it.
*some names have been changed
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.