A Free Lunch?

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It’s the early hours of the morning and I’m out in Portswood’s swanky restaurant district, filling up on food with friends.

No late night takeaways to speak of. Well, at least not in the traditional sense. “Point it over here!”, I’m told as I stand blindly waving a torch though the darkness.

Someone fumbles a tub of tzatziki. It crashes to the ground, splattering its creamy contents all over the floor. A frantic flurry of hands and tense whispers ensues.

It’s a controversial pastime, one which gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘eating al-fresco’.

Freeganism, a portmanteau of the words ‘free’ and ‘veganism’ is a unique approach to combating concerns over money in the context of rising living costs and mounting top-up fees.

Based on the rejection of materialism, it is an anti-consumerist lifestyle that makes good on the mantra that one person’s trash can quite easily become another person’s treasure. Freeganism’s most common manifestation? Eating for free.

‘Skipping’ – the art of finding food discarded by shops, often only minutes after it’s  been on the shelves – is just one of the ways to prolong the time between ritual outings to the supermarket for as long as humanly possible.

With little first-hand knowledge on the subject and a burning curiosity, I decided that I’d have to try it myself.

On a whim, I Facebook my friend who’s skipped for several months and ask if I can go along with her on her next outing. She agrees.

Despite its apparent spontaneity, it seems little is left to chance. Not even the weather. On the home waiting for a text when my phone buzzes in my pocket: “It’s not raining so we shall go skipping tonight!” Freegan or not, nobody wants to be outside in the rain.

So, a few minutes before midnight, armed with camera and an empty rucksack I meet my guide in the middle of the high street.

She’s accompanied by her next door neighbour. The choice of participants is no accident either. When out skipping, three is the magic number: while  one person holds the torch, the remaining two hold open the lid and delve in.

The mood is easy enough, but I’m apprehensive. The legality of skipping in Britain is questionable, and though laws which classify it as theft are very rarely enforced, the idea of explaining my presence behind a supermarket in the middle of the night to a police officer is something I’d rather pass up.

It’s a risk, however, that many are willing to take. With urban legends telling of huge wheelie bins filled to the brim with edible treats, it seems increasingly possible to subsist without parting with your cash for Kit-Kats if you know where to look.

We set off into the night. But I still don’t know where we’re going. Not yet. On the way I’m told an anecdote about a past experience in which my two companions crawled through the tiny gap between a razor wire fence and the floor of a supermarket car park to gain access to the bins.

By the time they’d brushed all the gravel from their cheeks and elbows, the skippers found that all but one of the skips was tightly padlocked shut. In the last remaining bin? Hundreds of heads of broccoli.

With its hit and miss results like these in mind, its easy to see why the best places for skipping are closely guarded secrets. It’s only as we begin to approach our destination that the location is finally revealed.

Physical security ranges from some premises protected like Fort Knox, to, in the case of skips located on the pavement for example, none at all.

Veteran freegans with experience in hunting out the best hauls coordinate their trips with times when shops and businesses have just closed. The less time the food has spent off the shelves and outside, the better.

I’m entrusted with holding  the torch. With only one free hand, it’s hard to really make the most of the orgy of stuff-grabbing and bag-stuffing. Not that it matters. It’s over as quickly as it started.

Less than five minutes later, and we’re walking home to assess the plunder. Like all good meals, we spread out the loot across the kitchen floor.

The result? I have to admit to being blown away at the huge quantity of unsold products discarded by supermarkets on a nightly basis. From bagels and bacon to bananas and blue-cheese. More food that you can shake a stick at.

It’s shocking to see just how much perfectly edible food is thrown out, some of it weeks ahead of its labelled expiry date.

With the huge amount disposed, it’s no wonder many Freegans call into question the ethics of the companies who do it.

Figures from relief organisation Stop the Hunger suggest that nearly 8 million people have already died from hunger this year; a figure set to rise steadily.

Though the ills of world poverty have little to do with Southampton supermarkets, they are a sobering highlight to a lingering social problem.

The overconsumption and insatiable demand of the public is just as deserving of criticism and blame for the quandary as the overproduction of big business.

Granted, the idea of filling your fridge with the contents of a rubbish bin isn’t for everyone. But despite the obvious taboo, with £14bn of food thrown away in the UK each year, it’s hard to know what can be done about what is quite clearly a serious problem.

Calls from the government to scrap sell-by dates earlier this month highlight the relevance of the issue. New advice says companies should only include use-by or best-before dates, removing sell-by and display-until labels relating to stock control.So while stumbling across a week’s groceries for free may be the perfect remedy to that inevitable time of the month when the student loan runs dry and the cupboards are bare, a Freeganist lifestyle is a unique approach not only to food, but changing the way people think about our culture of consumerism, one skip at a time.

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