My latest story for Al Jazeera project What Food Means to Me? is now online. Meet Paul, a chai store owner, artist and political activist running for Bristol mayor next year, reflects on being a freegan and choosing to eat discarded food.
Getting food out of a rubbish bin is something I have done many times over the years, both out of necessity and because it made so much more sense than paying full price at the counter. I came to Bristol in 2008 to do a degree in sociology and criminology. Through my studies, I became increasingly interested in politics and social justice and got involved in local community projects.
Throughout my student years, I lived in a squat, which was much more than a rent-free shelter. It was a place where people met, shared ideas and got organised, so it’s no wonder that the new government made it their priority to put an end to the unauthorised occupation of abandoned residential buildings in early 2012.
At the time, money was scarce, so most residents opted for finding rather than buying their meals. I vividly remember the first time I dived into a bin, my legs dangling in the air, my heart pounding in my ears, trying to grab anything I could get hold of. I was very naïve back then, and have learned a lot over the years.
There are few rules to follow: go at night when the place is closed to avoid being caught, don’t leave a mess behind you and don’t take more than you need. Most bins can be opened with a regular triangular key that you can buy in a hardware store; I carry mine around on a key chain at all times.
Sometimes you find plenty; at other times, all you end up with is a bunch of flowers. You might get fruits and vegetables of all kinds, sacks of bread that are just starting to go stale and even cakes – a special treat.
When I was living in the squat, we once found about 150 parsnips, so we ended up cooking a pot of soup that lasted for days and shared or traded the rest with other squatters. Another time, a freezer in a large supermarket went out of order, so all its contents went into a bin. We got a call from a friend, who was ecstatic, shouting: “Get here quickly, you have about 20 minutes until all the ice cream melts!” There was a real sense of community – working together and supporting each other through hard times.
In Western society, we are conditioned to turn up our noses at food that has gone out of date, even if there is nothing wrong with it. We use the term “food waste” to describe products our grandparents would have eaten without thinking twice, forgetting the real meaning of the “best before” label.
There is a lot of stigma surrounding freeganism, and, 10 years ago, I would likely have refused to eat from a bin too, but it’s not as disgusting as you may think. Sure, the smell is often repulsive, but most food is wrapped in layers of plastic anyway, so it doesn’t matter if it comes from a bin.
I worked in a small supermarket for a few months, and was repeatedly asked to put food that was still fine to eat into a bin. Once, around Christmas time, we got nine boxes of the highest grade oranges delivered to our store by mistake. Instead of sending them back or giving them away to customers or staff, I was told to put the whole load into a bin. My conscience told me this was wrong, but I had to follow the order out of fear of losing my job.
I still get food out of a bin from time to time. I now work full-time, sometimes 45 to 50 hours per week, but after paying rent for my small apartment, I often have no money left at all. So, if I have just paid my rent and I need some food, I will go across the road to a supermarket and have a look in the bins.
Recently, some supermarkets have started throwing chemicals like blue dye over discarded products to stop people from taking them. Staff often refer to freegans in derogatory terms, calling them “scavengers” or “tramps”, not understanding that these are just people trying to get by. This attitude needs to change if we are ever to see a lasting change for the better in society.