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Monday, 6 December 2010
Skippy, or on Food Waste
Any way before I launch into today's main subject, I owe you the story of what we've done to that spiky bit of veg I found the other day and asked you about. It turns out it's a spiky courgette simlar to a chayote (which I hadn't heard about before either). Thanks everybody for the info. Once shaved, I sliced it into thick slices, removing the one long, soft seed out of the centre, turned it in a mixture of flour and salt and fried it in olive oil.
It was absolutely delicious. I think in terms of flavour this may be my favourite vegetable from the curcubita family. I must find myself some seeds to grow it myself (unfortunately I sliced the seed inside this one before I realised it...).
Anyway, I digress. I was going to talk about food waste today as a follow-up to the book review of Mark Boyle's the Moneyless Man. I had talked about the practice of 'skipping'. I believe in America this may be known as 'dumpster diving'. I also like 'bin raiding'. All of it meaning the same thing: searching through rubbish tips, trash cans, waste skips at the back of supermarkets. Inspired by the book, I decided to give it a go. Now is the time to distance yourselves from me if you think I'm overdoing things, but hear me out first.
An e-mail conversation with my bloggy friend Angela made me realise how little is known of the extent of food waste in the industrialised world. Here are some stats: According to British non-profit organisation Food Aware there are some 18 million tons (EIGHTEEN MILLION TONS!!!!) a year of food in the UK, which ends up on landfill sites. According to a 2004 study around half of all food produced in or imported into the USA ends up in landfills (HALF OF ALL FOOD!!!). Japan and Australia are not far behind those statistics. The only slight exceptions are in fact Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland who have managed to reduce the percentage of food in landfills to below 5%. Other countries have pledged to reduce (reduce! Hah!) this percentage to 20% from a current 40-50%. Even in Italy, where people are justly proud of their 'cucina povera', their poor (wo)man's cuisine, where the old generation who have lived through the war and won't let anything go to waste, a new generation of supermarket goers is growing up, who no longer realise the real value of food. To put it into the words of the UN: the USA produces enough waste food to fill every hungry stomach in Africa, France could feed the Congo and the crumbs falling off Italian tables could feed Ethiopia.
Now excuse my excessive use of exclamation marks and capital letters, but isn't that a crime! And a shockingly under-reported one. People say with a growing world population there's not enough food to go around for everyone. Apart from the fact that people in industrialised countries often eat more than is good for them, there's plenty of food there, if it was only distributed to those in need, rather than going into landfills.
The problem of course is not only the complete and utter injustice of this, it's the environmental impact of it. Some this food gets shipped halfway around the world to end up on a landfill site near you. Not to mention the packaging. And slowly decaying food produces methane, rather than CO2 had we eaten it. Methane is a much more poweful greenhouse gas than CO2.
Now where does all this waste come from? Much of it gets sorted out at the production end. According some EU regulation or other, this carrot is too bent, long, thin, that cucumber to pale, ridgy, small, that banana, too straight etc... Nothing for it but chuck it. Other bits go off or get damaged in transport, kiwis from Kiwi Land, Bananas from Panama, garlic from China (honestly, I recently saw garlic from China on sale in an Italian supermarket! I mean, WHAT????). It's a long way from some of these places.
However the worst offenders are supermarkets and consumers themselves. Food distributed to supermarkets mostly has to have a best before date stamped on it. This does not necessarily mean the food will go off on or imediately after that date of course. In fact many foods will literally be fine for consumption YEARS after their sell-by date. Have you ever noticed, mineral water has a sell-by date stamped on it. What could possibly go wrong with water in a hermetically sealed plastic bottle? Or canned vegetables or jams, for that matter can safely be consumed for years if left unopened. A neighbour recently gave us a large bottle of Tabasco sauce, because she was worried it would go off as it was nearing it's sell-by date. I have absolutely no qualms about using it for several months yet.
So anything that reaches this date in the supermarket, by law, has to be removed from the shelves and ends up in the skip around the back. Any damaged packaging... out with it! Bread going a tad stale, veggies looking a little wilted, fruit a bit bruised... bin, garbage!
For consumers supermarkets have become the one-stop-buy-all places. Rather than going down the market, the greengrocers, the local butchers, the bakers for a daily trip for fresh goods, people go once week or once a fortnight and, being unable to plan that far ahead how much they'll be eating, invariably buy far too much, a percentage of which ending up in the bin. Then of course there's the leftover's in restaurants and fastfood joints. No wonder city foxes, cats, stray dogs and I believe in some parts of the world bears, hang around rubbish bins for a living. There are plenty of rich pickings to be had.
Right, enough of the lecture. I have decided I was going to have a go myself at this skipping business. At the moment, this wasn't quite out of a real need yet, but this need may arise and I'd like to be prepared for that eventuality. One quick word on the legality of this. At best this can be described as a grey area in legal terms. In theory you can be prosecuted for trespassing on private property as well as theft. In practice this is rarely done. Supermarkets don't want the negative publiciity that might go with this, revealing just how much they throw away and then denying it to a hungry person. And morally, would you call this theft?
I decided a Sunday early evening was a good time for the particular supermarket I had selected, as it is only open a few hours in the morning that day. During the day I had already looked for a way into the property which didn't even involve climbing any fences. Needless to say, I felt a little apprehensive on my maiden skipping expidition. Early nighfall and cold weather as an excuse to wear a woolly hat and scarf to obscure my features from security cameras are good friends of the skipper (I did bring Eddie though, so he might be identified in an identity parade).
I was surprised how brightly lit the back of the supermarket was late in the evening, and the security cameras were visible, so I didn't want to linger too long. But just a few minutes rummaging revealed this:
I have since eaten the foccaccia for a starter, made a cabbage & marrow soup with loads of croutons and had about 12 slices of toast for breakfast this morning. I was kind of hoping for some out of date cheese or so, but hey, I think I did quite well for my maiden skip. Anything I won't be able to eat will be turned to breadcrumbs (there are seriously people out there buying ready made breadcrumbs...) and used as and when.
Of course governments and businesses don't want you to know about the extent of food wastage, because it's bad for business. Every item scavanged from a supermarket bin is one not sold through their tills. Bad business for retail slows economic growth, the be-all and end-all mantra of our oh-so-wise leaders. Of course skipping is not a long-term sustainable option. For a start much of the food you'd be likely to find is neither organic nor particularly healthy. But while there is this food out there I regard it almost a civic duty to save at least a small portion from being dumped and I shall repeat yesterday's little trip as and when the weather permits (It luckily did last night, but today the miserable weather returns... ).