It’s 2am on a bitterly cold winter night, and my friends and I are nervously looking over our shoulders in an exposed supermarket forecourt. As certain as we’ll ever be that we’re alone, one of us clambers over the fence that protects the back lot and disappears on the other side. We pause, nervously silent, listening for footsteps. There’s a click and a squeak; our friend opens the gate and we slip in.
We pull on our gloves and head to the bins by the shop. We try the first one: locked. The second is locked too. We head to the third, breath held, and pull at the lid. It’s stacked high with casually discarded food: pâtés, grapes, bacon, bars of chocolate, curries – it was all there, if a little the worse for wear and, legally speaking, unfit for human consumption. We unfurl some bin liners and, quite literally, dive in.
My friends and I have been living off bin food for more than two years. We’re students, so the quick and easy access to seemingly limitless and varied free food is too good an opportunity to pass up – and it’s changed our lives. Somehow, with no time, barely any cooking ability and little money, we’ve been feeding ourselves better than we’d ever have been able to if we’d stuck to the usual student staples of eggs and bread-with-stuff.
A couple of years ago, some older students told us about one particularly middle-class supermarket in town, which had easily accessed bins. The first trip, slipping in between a gap in the fencing, was terrifying.
Bin-raiding is illegal, so if you get caught skipping a fence, there’s no easy way out, except to explain politely and hope the nightwatchman is feeling kind and doesn’t call the police.
Despite the risk of arrest, though, it was always worth it. We’d find food that exceeded our most aspirational fantasies: king prawn jalfrezis, luxury sandwiches, macaroons, all manner of exotic fruit, butter croissants... in short, we were horribly spoiled.
All at once we found ourselves eating like kings. Well, actually, we still ate like students, but suddenly the component parts of our bizarre meals were top quality. So, rather than eat a basics-range cheese toastie after a night out, we’d grill a Camembert and dip (relatively) fresh bits of baguette into it; instead of bacon sandwiches, we’d have salmon and fried quail’s eggs for breakfast.
Cooking with bin food forces you to be rather more creative with the ingredients you find, and we mostly did pretty well with it, but the trouble was that even with the best food stocking our cupboards, we still only had the average student’s ability in the kitchen. So, while we did very well with the gourmet ready meals and snack food, occasionally we were defeated. We once found several bin-bags’ worth of ripe bananas and, desperate not to throw any of them away, racked our brains for days for innovative ways to eat them. The worst was an attempt to create banana fritters, but we really just ended up with a warm, sticky banana flavoured mush. We eventually dipped them in chocolate and froze them all, in a delicious nod towards Arrested Development.
The best thing about bin-raiding (apart from the free food) is the communal aspect it brings to living with other people. When you forage together, you eat together. We have cupboards and shelves full of food to which anybody can help themselves, and we celebrate a particularly decent haul by having feast nights, where we cook up a bizarre buffet of what we’ve found and all eat together.
Those who condemn us for eating from bins often do it without realising the scale of the food that is wasted by supermarkets on a daily basis, and the fatuous reasons for which some of it is thrown away. The food we eat is perfectly fine; you just need a basic knowledge of food safety in order to avoid getting sick. We’ve even eaten mussels and prawns from the bins, without ever getting sick ourselves. Quite often perfectly good food ends up in the dumpster just for superficial packaging damage.
There are unwritten rules most bin raiders abide by (oh yes, there are lots of us). The most important is never to take everything in the bins. I will never forget the guilt of seeing people who clearly needed the food much more than we did rooting around after we had been raiding the bins empty for weeks. Another is to leave the bins as you found them (if slightly emptier) – there’s no way the supermarkets aren’t aware that people live off their waste, yet they let it slide if you don’t mess up their back yards.
Being confronted with the daily reality of perfectly edible food being wasted, in a world where starvation remains a very real threat to so many people, makes the idea of living on food from bins much more preferable to participating in the culture of waste that prevails in the rest of our society. It’s rare that being ethical ever tastes quite so delicious, and I’m not planning on giving it up any time soon.
PENNY’S PIGS: THE CO-OP’S NATURAL RECYCLERS
By Jamie Merrill
Penny Reid has been raising rare-breed pigs on her small farm in Oxfordshire for 20 years, but it was only four years ago that she struck on the idea of feeding them waste food from her local supermarket.
The 73-year-old breeder and smallholder has two Tamworth pigs on her 100 acres at Down Barn Farm, near Wantage, and every day she collects “two heavy bags” of leftover bread, vegetables and fruit from the Co-op four miles away in Lambourn.
“The problem of feeding pigs started with the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001,” she said. “Before that it was OK to feed pigs leftovers from schools, barracks and canteens – but, since, everything has been clamped down, and we cannot feed animals cooked leftovers, or what they call swill.”
So Ms Reid wrote to the supermarket’s head office. “It’s a natural cycle of pigs using up waste,” she says. “And, luckily, I ... could compose a letter the supermarket were happy to agree to.”
Now, alongside her daily newspaper, she collects uncooked leftover food to feed the two pigs, Goldie and Rosy. “I pick up my Independent from the paper shop then collect the pig food; they are the two indispensable items of my day.”
Ms Reid isn’t alone in believing in the recycling power of pigs. Chef Thomasina Miers from Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca, set up The Pig Idea campaign this summer to push for a change in the law and is supported by industry names such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Michel Roux Jr, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Giorgio Locatelli.
Ms Reid’s two pigs – which are due to farrow soon and will one day end up in her freezer as bacon – each eat about two loaves of bread a day, plus “some bananas and vegetables for a balanced diet”. “Pigs,” she adds, “will eat everything we eat.”