cover image: The Real Junk Food Project
I’m standing in a dark car park in west London with a man I met 40 minutes ago, holding a large plastic bag and a torch.
“Here," he says, handing me a black wool beanie, “it might seem like overkill, but loads of shops have much better security now and we don’t really want to get caught."
While to anyone passing by we might look like we’re about to pull off some kind of heist, we’re not here to rob anyone, instead we’re going to be looking through their bins.
For the next week I'm going to be joining the bin diving culture of the UK and only eating food that's been discarded by supermarkets and shops. It's a mission I've been nervous about for the past week, but now I'm here it doesn't seem so ludicrous...
My companion Mark* has been a part of the freeganism culture for years, after being introduced to it in Leeds through The Real Junk Food Project. Agreeing to help me in my goal of temporarily joining the skipping lifestyle, he’s brought me along for his "midweek haul".
The food he collects tonight will go towards food banks, shelters and community kitchens, along with filling his own cupboards - and for this week, mine too.
“ I was taken inside and a manager was sent for. There was talk of calling the police"
“There are certain shops and supermarkets in London that are easier to hit than others," Mark explains. “The big supermarkets in zone two and further out tend to have big fences and gates surrounding their bin areas now, as well as a lot of cameras and often a lot of staff around too."
“I have the best luck in central London and zone one supermarkets, especially with the slightly more upmarket shops that stock a lot of fresh produce.
“While this food makes shops look impressive to visit, the reality is that not many people buy it on a regular basis. There’s a lot of artichokes and fennel being served in community kitchens lately!"
This is the first of three supermarkets we’re planning to hit tonight and my first dip into the world of freeganism. Mark has planned out our schedule in order to get to each one just after they throw out stock for the night. This is clearly a more organised trip than expected.
Passing the store on the main road, we turn onto the street to our right before double backing into the alleyway behind.
Walking along and chatting, Mark doesn’t seem to be at all worried about sneaking or looking out for cameras, but what would happen if we did get caught?
“I’ve only been caught twice," he says, “the first time by a woman working on the checkouts, who didn’t know what to say, so I made a run for it."
“The second time I was taken inside and a manager was sent for. There was talk of calling the police, but I played ignorant and said I was collecting food for a charity and in the end they let me go on my way."
Going quiet, he walks towards a steel fence, and pulls himself up to peer over the other side- this is more like it.
“Ok, there’s no one there at the moment but the lights are still on, we’ll have to be quick."
One foot on a stack of crates, he lifts himself over the wall, landing quietly on the bin at the other side and motioning for me to follow.
On the other side and considering the fact that we’re now legally trespassers, I wonder whether I’ve put too much trust into Mark, as he opens his bag and lifts the top on two bins.
Peering inside however, I remember why I’m doing this in the first place. The bin to our right is full of bags of bread and pastries, both packaged and sliced varieties as well as bread left at the bakery at the end of the day.
None of this bread is mouldy or damaged in any way, only an hour ago I could have bought it from inside. Mark begins to fill his first bag and motions me to do the same.
In the second bin there are a variety of yoghurts, broken biscuits and vegetables, meat and even some tinned soups and vegetables with expiration dates in 2016.
We pack up the best food and sneak back out, we’re in and out in under five minutes and on to the second spot.
Although we have varying success between the different spots, by the end of the night I’m still struggling to carry my bag of food to the station.
Separating a smaller bag of food for me to take away, Mark will spend the rest of tonight dividing the food into his own meals and food to give to kitchens and food banks tomorrow.
Looking at the food we collected, although a little random and mismatched, it’s about the amount a four person family would buy for their weekly shop. It cost us nothing and would have been left to mould....
*Not real name
Freeganism, otherwise known as dumpster diving and skipping, is the act of taking and reclaiming food thrown out by shops and supermarkets.
With the rise of Food Banks in the UK over the last few years, it's unsurprising that the freeganism culture has grown also.
My bin diving guide Mark is from the Junk Food Project, the biggest freeganist organisation in the UK. Starting out as a small cafe in the North, they are now set up many cities countrywide.
The Real Junk Food Project does not just donate food and live off waste food themselves, instead they have set up unique cafes where people can choose to come and eat.
"We are a global, organic network of pay as you feel cafes" says the project. "We divert food destined for waste and use it to create delicious and healthy meals."
This is freeganism at its most basic, taking the food that we waste for no reason and utilizing it, giving a little balance back to unequal distribution of food within the country.
The amount of food that we will waste this Christmas as a country is enormous.
Think about it: All those unpopular Quality Street chocolates on office desks around the UK. All those office party buffets left untouched when the free bar opens. That's before we even start thinking about that food we'll all buy and put in our fridges, only to realise that after one Christmas sized meal, we're full enough to last until 2016 on satsumas alone.
One third of all the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted and at Christmas we waste even more than usual.
While Christmas has become a time of fun and excess for most of us, many organisations use it as a time to gather all the food we throw aside in our excitable party mood and redistribute it.
795 million people on the planet don't have enough food to live on a day to day basis, but bin divers in the UK say that they can feed themselves on what we deem unsuitable for consumption.
If freeganism really does work, something needs to change...
Can You Really Live Off The Food We Throw Away?
Bin diving is legal in the UK (although people are occasionally prosecuted by big supermarkets), so if it's as clean and easy as freeganists claim, why aren't we all at it?
After my bin diving experience with Mark I got back to my flat, bag heavy with food and started to plan my week of eating.
In the spirit of not being wasteful, I decide on one important rule for my week- any food left uneaten in my cupboards should be allowed into my meals.
I had porridge, milk, cherry tomatoes, a sweet potato, two eggs, a tin of chopped tomatoes and some cous cous. Apart from that little collection however, only food thrown out by supermarkets would be allowed in my meals.
Here's how I did.....
I'm heading to work with a brie, cranberry and salad sandwich.
As someone who generally packs the blandest and simplest lunches imaginable (vegetable soup is a staple), this is pretty unheard of.
In the kitchen at lunchtime, three colleagues note my impressive looking sandwich, while walking through with bags of Pret goodies that most likely cost them eight pounds a head.
It's hard to not feel a twinge of smugness when looking at my food. I can't believe that had Mark and I not gone on our scavenger hunt, this food would be rotting at the bottom of a bin container right now.
By day three I've noticed something interesting happening.
While none of the food in my fridge is in anything other than perfect condition, one difference from my usual week shop is that it's a fairly random collection. There's no dreaming up tasty teas and popping to the shop to get the missing ingredients for me this week however, I have to create meals using only what I have.
The big difference this makes is that I've started to consider food by how perishable it is. Instead of going in blindly every dinnertime, I'm using the freshest food first and saving the food that I know will last till the end of the week.
Tonight I have the craving for a risotto, yet know that the salad needs to be used first. I make a big buddha bowl full of salad, brie, cous cous and vegatebles. It's delicious, healthy and super filling.
Washing my chopping board and bowl after I've eaten, I can't help but consider how we all usually follow our random food cravings everyday. It's easy to see how food is wasted when so much more is all around us constantly on the street and on adverts.
After having cravings for a subway sandwich all day, I decide to make , shakshuka, my favourite meal, tonight.
Looking in my fridge after five days, I'm amazed and slightly disgusted by how not one item of food I found in those bins nearly a week ago is showing any signs off mould.
While best before dates are now widely known to be far from gospel when it comes to when food is safe to eat, its hard to believe that this food could have been discarded a week ago.
My subway craving suddenly seems faintly ridiculous when there's so much food in my house that needs to be used before I think about buying more.
Nearly a whole week has passed without buying food!
The fridge is looking pretty bare so I decide to bake one of the potatoes and stir fry up some of the leftover vegetables with lentils.
Sat eating some biscuits (from a pack I'd actually forgotten about from the bin haul, score!) I realise that I've only got one day left.
For the past six days I've fresher and healthier than usual and while some mealtimes have been a little dull, I haven't felt hungry once....
The chopping board above is what I had left on the last day of my week of freeganism.
I imagined mouldy bread and rotting veg, yet neither of these things happened. I thought I'd be hungry and the week would be a test of my endurance to not buy more food- but I fed myself happily all week.
My diet wasn't fancy and I couldn't have had anyone around for dinner, but I didn't feel like I was missing out.
The vegetables in the picture above were roasted to make a meal that anyone in the world without access to food could only dream of.
So why were they sat in a bin a week ago, ready to be dumped in a landfill?
What Food Crisis?
I thought my week would simply show me whether bin diving was a legitimate lifestyle choice or a protest, but it showed me much more.
There's tonnes of perfectly edible food being thrown out at shops every night across the UK, while thousands of people are struggling to feed themselves and their families. We could feed so many more people with the food we simply throw away.
Supermarkets say that they cannot legally sell food past its best before date and that stopping people from bin diving is for their safety- yet this doesn't excuse them for the amount of food left to rot.
Projects like Real Junk Food is showing the ridiculous level of food wasted and how it can be used, but shops themselves need to look for an answer to stop it being in the bins in the first place.
We have a food crisis in the UK, yet we're throwing 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food. It just doesn't make sense.
While we can't all commit to diving through bins every week, we can promise to curb our own waste.
Going for a weekly shop and throwing out old, forgotten about food is something I do regularly. Making a portion too big and throwing away the rest is a habit I didn't even realise I had.
We can also support groups who do redistribute waste food and make it known that we want change about regulations in the UK regarding waste food.
A week eating out of supermarket bins was easy and that's terrible. We need to stop food going in the trash and directing it towards all the people who need it.
Find out how you can support your local Real Junk Food Project here.