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The night I ate out...of a bin

We throw out £17bn of food each year. Is it all inedible? Charlie Cooper joins the 'freegans' who live on little else

It is a drizzly October midnight, and Marc Brown is lifting the lid on bin after bin in search of food.

Every Sunday night, Brown visits five supermarkets – two Co-ops, two Waitroses and a Tesco – around his home in Leeds and West Yorkshire, and uncovers enough discarded food to feed his family, and many of his friends, for a week.

Bungle, as Marc prefers to be called – but we'll stick with Brown – is a "freegan", the term used to describe people who live off the food that others call waste. Tonight, our bin expedition uncovers, among other things, several packets of bacon and sausages, a bag of chocolate mousses, dozens of peppers, countless mushrooms, yoghurt, cheese, two pizzas and nearly 100 tomatoes and half a duck. All the food, Brown insists, is perfectly edible.

As the recession continues to eat into household incomes, the food we bin has become more valuable. More than 2.2 million children and two million adults are now living in absolute poverty in the UK – earning household incomes less than 60 per cent below UK average.

Soaring food prices are contributing to a growing national poverty crisis. Oxfam reported on Thursday that, in the past five years, food prices have risen at twice the rate of the minimum wage. "In the UK alone, three million tonnes of food are wasted by the food industry," says Oxfam's Adam Askew. "The perverse nature of this is that nearly a billion people globally go to bed hungry every night. We need to tackle food waste here in the UK and rising food prices that are driving people into poverty and hunger across the world."

Brown does not live in poverty – he lives in a small house in the suburbs of Wakefield in West Yorkshire. He never buys food and lives entirely off what he finds in the bins of his local supermarkets – what he can't eat, he hands over to family and friends. "I wish that there wasn't so much wasted, and that I couldn't do this," he says. "But I don't think the supermarkets are ever going to change their ways." Most – though not all – of what he finds has gone past its sell-by or best before date, but this means nothing to a freegan.

"It's common sense," he says. "You can tell for yourself whether something's good to eat or not. You just have to smell it."

To prove his point, he offers me a bottle of Actimel yoghurt he has just salvaged from the depths of a Waitrose wheelie-bin. It is several days past its best, though when I tear off the foil lid with apprehension, I find that it tastes fine. Brown says that, in more than three years as a freegan, he has never once been made ill by food found in a bin.

The entire haul of Brown's after-dark shopping trip carpets the floor of a friend's kitchen, where he unloads his wares. He estimates that, at store value, the amount of food he finds in a week would be worth around £1,000.

The Government estimates that the UK throws out £17bn of food every year. Two-thirds of that is in the home. The rest comes from the food industry. Last month the Government blamed confusing labelling for a huge portion of that waste and called on supermarkets to scrap misleading sell-by, or display-until dates, which have no bearing on whether or not food is actually safe to eat.

The food charity FareShare, which last year redirected 3,600 tonnes of surplus food to the poor, says that demand for their service is at an all-time high. "If manufacturers would state that their food is safe to eat after the best-before or display-until dates, then we could redistribute more pasta, cereal, rice and other food that poses no risk when eaten shortly after the sell-by date," said Jim Trower, the charity's director of operations.

Legally, charities cannot redistribute food that is past its sell-by or best-before date. The Government wants supermarkets to make more use of use-by dates (which relate to safety) to avoid confusing customers about the when food is and is not safe to eat. But supermarkets say that sell-by and display-until dates are vital for their stock rotation and waste-reduction systems.

Waitrose said the amount of edible food thrown out by their stores was "very small" and that "any surplus stock produced by our own-brand manufacturers is given to worthy causes". Tesco said it was reducing waste by sending excess food for use as animal feed and for fuel to generate electricity.

The Co-op is also working with FareShare and the Government to reduce its food waste. The supermarket said it was "concerned that freegans pose themselves a risk by taking food that may no longer be safe or suitable to eat".

The freegan lifestyle inhabits a legal grey area. Earlier this year a woman was cautioned by a court in Chelmsford for "theft by finding" after taking food she found in a Tesco bin, but convictions have been rare.

Brown is careful not to do any damage – he does not break in to refuse areas if gates are locked, and he has a key that opens most plastic wheelie bins without damaging them.

Supermarkets have secured their bins against freegans and staff at some have even been known to sabotage edible food before putting it in bins, to discourage freegans. In London, with its large homeless population, many supermarkets have made it near impossible to gain access to their bins without breaking and entering.

Although the amount of good food thrown out by stores is shocking, it's nothing compared to what goes to waste at the manufacturing level. The Government estimates that, whereas 362,000 tonnes is goes into bins at store level, the figure for the manufacturing stage of the food chain is closer to 2.6 million tonnes. This is the food surplus that FareShare really wants to get is hands on. The 3,600 tonnes that the charity gave out last year – the equivalent of 8.6 million meals – represents only 1 per cent of what is wasted in the supply chain.

"The majority of food waste occurs further up the chain, where inaccurate forecasting, expired promotions and packaging errors all contribute millions of tonnes of waste," said Trower. "We need more manufacturers to use FareShare as an ethical way of dealing with it so that we can do more to alleviate the shocking levels of food poverty in this country."

The biggest source of food waste in the UK, however, is in the home. The Government estimates that 8.3 million tonnes is lost this way. Changing attitudes is at the heart of the Government's campaign, Love Food Hate Waste, which wants to get people making the most of ingredients – using food in imaginative ways rather than just throwing it away.

On this front, at least, the Government and the freegans are united. Brown is incredibly resourceful with his bin food. He can think of an application for even the most dubious of finds. A bagful of slightly squidgy tomatoes will make "a lovely soup". Meat just past its best-before date can be dried and made into jerky.

"There are so many solutions for keeping food edible that have been around for as long as people have been cooking their food," he says. "In an ideal world I wouldn't be able to do this because there wouldn't be any waste. People are starving in this country – there's no justification for anyone throwing anything away."

In the bag one night's haul

1 packet of sardines

12 packets of bacon

2 gourmet pizzas

10 packets of sausages

1 pecan cake

2 curries

1 chicken casserole

1 bin bag of yoghurt

1 bin bag of cheddar

1 packet of brie

2 chickens

100+ tomatoes

100+ mushrooms

40+ peppers

2 chorizo sausages

1kg sausage meat

1 tub of ice cream

2 bin bags of bread

1 box of bananas

4 packets of chocolate mousse

2 bags of sugar

Half a duck