How hard is it to just live off other people’s left overs for a week?
They called me the Tom Daley of bin diving
The soaring cost of living, and drive to live as cheaply as possible to maximise booze funds, has seen a huge rise in frugal penny-pinchers living just off food waste and freebies.
Freeganism, as its known, relies on its followers not buying any food to eat, but rather scrounging through bins and pleading with shops to give you their left overs. Having become increasingly interested in food waste and the idea it may be possible to live off it, I decided to take a plunge into the unknown by becoming a Freegan for five days.
I stripped my cupboards and ordered my housemates to hide my wallet. Without any money and food reserves, I had to rely solely on my hunter-gatherer instincts to put food on the table. The question was: is it really possible for the modern day man to survive with nothing?
The unusual diet is more than just a fad though – it is a way of living. Freegans reject consumerism and seek to help the environment by reducing waste, especially by retrieving and eating discarded food. In the UK, 15 million tonnes of food goes to waste each year, with more than seven million tonnes of that being household waste. Over half of this food could have been eaten.
Given how much food continues to be wasted, I just couldn’t understand how one million people in the UK could still be going hungry and relying on food handouts.
On my first morning, I set out to local shops and pubs to ask for their food waste and out-of-date stock. At Greggs I was told there was no way they could give me anything for free, unless I had written permission from head office first. Today’s Local told me it was company policy not to give anything away, but I could go and speak to the store manager about it when he’s next in. A member of staff at the Co-op on Erleigh Road said they throw out waste every morning, and it is company policy not to give out any food past its sell by date. And in The Queens Head Inn, I was told all food past its use by date is “not fit for consumption”.
Not the most successful of starts. Hungry and feeling down in the dumps, I returned to campus to start looking and asking around halls. After asking about, I finally got lucky with a group of students who were moving out of accommodation later in the week, and were clearing out their cupboards. Over the course of the week, waste produced by students provided a lifeline again and again.
When I wasn’t gathering trash, I took the time to forage for wild food on campus. With mushrooms in season I considered looking for some, but with no previous experience of foraging, I decided it best to stick to something easier to find and identify and which I knew wouldn’t kill me – stinging nettles. Nettles are an amazing source of free food which lose their sting and taste similar to spinach once cooked. They kept me full when nothing else was available.
Luckily for me, I also have a part time job in the student union. I was able to take advantage of the food waste in the kitchen, and on my third day I managed to grab loads of sandwiches, samosas and blueberries which were on their way out.
I was amazed to find some of Reading University’s waste compounds are locked up at night, like they don’t want people going through the bins. But I managed to rummage through local dumpsters a number of times over the week. Food is so over packaged it was easy to find food which had not been contaminated. And despite what our society thinks of garbage, the goods I recovered were all safe, usable, and often in near perfect condition. The best thing I found was a fresh pack of mini chocolate chip brioches.
I lived comfortably for the week and I didn’t even have to leave campus. I did have one of the easiest weeks to do it in because of the numbers of students leaving halls, but even so, I was surprised at the amount of food I got hold of. Students are so wasteful because we’ve been brought up in a time of plenty. Never have we had to be resourceful with our food, and as a result we don’t appreciate its true value. There are over one million people in the UK in food poverty – if we start being more resourceful with how we consume food, these people wouldn’t be going hungry.
While I survived five days without getting into trouble, being a Freegan for the long term remains a choice only for the hardiest of souls. It is still illegal to dumpster dive under the 1968 Theft Act, and many businesses take extreme measures to make sure Freegans can’t get at their waste. Surely it is time for this to change.
We are so detached from where our food actually comes from it is easy to forget all the steps and people who are involved with getting food to your plate. Being a Freegan for a week has reminded me just how important food is, as I have had to take more time to find and prepare what I eat.