Interview: Fresh in the Trash
The way we consume affects food security in other countries.
For five days our author ate only on what she scavenged from supermarket rubbish containers – an activity known as dumpster diving or skipping. The upshot: it is more than enough to live on – unfortunately. But read for yourself:
We are accustomed to having access to food anytime we want, and making our selection from a huge variety shipped in fresh from all over the world. Our supermarkets overflow with an astounding range of products. The result: grocery stores toss out shocking amounts of food every day. Some people are fighting this colossal waste of food by dumpster diving or skipping. Instead of buying food, they forage in supermarket skips. I want to know if this really works – will I go hungry or be grossed out? So for five days I lived solely off the food I found in bins.
Monday: It is black as pitch outside as I enter the empty supermarket lot. For that I am grateful. It makes it a lot easier to overcome my inhibitions and start rummaging through the skips for something edible, surely not a common sight here in the middle of well-to-do Upper Swabia. My heart beats faster as I open the first lid. What am I going to find? After removing the top layer of expired baby food and plastic rubbish, I discover a package of espresso. It hasn't expired, though it has a small hole. No need to forgo my morning cup of coffee! The next layer reveals quite a few packets of gourmet smoked salmon with today's sell-by date. Of course supermarkets need to be careful when it comes to fresh fish. But why don't employees take such products home with them? Are they not allowed to? Do they not want to? I find some horseradish cream to go with the salmon. The skip also yields bags of gummy bears, some orange juice, and a piece of brie with a small dent in the packaging.
"I had worried the food would stink and disgust me, but it does nothing of the sort."
The cheese is still good for a few weeks; almost everything else is just past its sell-by date. Only one carton of milk is no longer palatable, which my nose picks up on right away when I open it. Otherwise I smell nothing.
I had worried the food would stink and disgust me, but it does nothing of the sort. At the next grocery store the skips are just as easy to access, though the company next-door has apparently just received a delivery. Around 50 meters away men are unloading a lorry and I am now a bit nervous following my initial euphoria. How will the men react when they see me, enveloped in dark clothing and equipped with a rucksack and headlamp, rummaging about in the skips? They don't react at all. And my astonishment at the contents of the skips quickly replaces any anxiety I felt: biscuits, chocolate, ready-made foods like dumplings, jars of honey and plum preserves, and even bottles of wine emerge. The compost bin is next. Although some of the fruits and vegetables inside are rotten, mushy or mouldy, there are still some real finds. Many of the items have just small cosmetic flaws. One apple has only a few brown spots and I think: if I threw apples away just because they had a blemish or two, I wouldn't be able to eat any from my parent's garden.
I head home with my heavy load. I have as much food as if I'd just done the week's shopping and didn't pay a cent for it. And while I am initially very pleased, my finds are also shocking. What has led to such overproduction, why does so much good food end up in the bin? To say nothing of the wasted resources and energy, since a lot of the food has had a long journey here after being planted, harvested and processed. I wash everything off thoroughly with hot water, and one look at my fully laden table reassures me: I will not be going hungry in the next few days!
Tuesday: Breakfast is turning out to be a bit more complicated than usual. I have cheese and honey, but no bread to spread it on. It seems some creativity is called for when eating out of a skip. So I dine on yoghurt garnished with pear-applesauce and oatmeal biscuits, accompanied by a glass of juice and an espresso. Having foraged for all my food myself the night before makes it taste even better. I feel a bit like a hunter-gatherer. Except that my meals aren't limited to berries, roots and meat. For lunch I enjoy boiled potatoes and fried smoked salmon in horseradish-cream sauce with a broccoli-carrot medley. The first market I visit that evening is off the beaten path and the skips are well hidden and unlocked on the other side of a ramp. The spotlights don't faze me. They actually make my search easier and I don't need to switch on my headlamp. With three containers of fruit yogurt, one onion and a tangerine in my bag, I move on.
I have more luck at the next discount shop: my finds include a bag of lamb's lettuce, organic grapes and quite a few bunches of radishes that, except for their wilted leaves, look perfect. I notice right away that the fruit and veg in the compost bin is still wrapped in plastic, which will surely keep it from composting properly. Most of the items I find only have small cosmetic flaws or appear completely undamaged. I can't figure out how they landed in the rubbish. Perhaps because one of the three peppers is smaller than the others? Standards established for appearance and size mean that between 10 and 50 per cent of all fruits and vegetables are rejected at harvest time. Wholesalers and retailers then sort through them a second time. This has been estimated to mean that around one third of all food worldwide is thrown in the rubbish bin on its way from the farm to the table. In Germany alone, 20 million tons of food land in the garbage every year. Every single German citizen throws away over 80 kilograms of food – the equivalent of two shopping trolleys filled to the brim!
Wednesday: After my successful skipping adventure the night before, I don't need to look for food today. So I visit a variety of supermarkets instead. I want to know what they do with expired food. In the smaller markets, employees are allowed to take expired products home. In the larger ones they are not.
"Most customers, it seems, expect to get 'anything at any time and always fresh'."
An employee at one of the larger chains is very cautious with his answers. He is not allowed to provide any information on this topic. But he does reveal this much: they pay half price for the expired items, or they go into the bin. I need to contact headquarters if I want any additional information. There I am informed that for economic reasons, the individual shops do their best not to throw out any food at all. Food approaching its sell-by date is offered at a discount, but not much gets sold. Most customers, it seems, expect to get "anything at any time and always fresh". Mentally I berate myself. I don't take the yogurt from the front of the cooler either; I automatically reach into the back for those with the longest sell-by dates. If the markets cannot sell the products, I am informed, they pass them on to regional food banks or animal shelters. This answer surprizes me, since other supermarkets have told me that food laws prohibit such donations. So I ask at the food bank. The director confirms that supermarkets can donate their expired products. "We don't accept everything, but if a yogurt expired one or two days ago, that's no problem." The veterinary association confirms this information as well. The manufacturer guarantees the safety of food until the sell-by date. After that, anyone who offers it for consumption is responsible, in this case the food banks.
Thursday: I head out again right after the stores have closed. This means some of the skips will be inaccessible behind closed gates, but I just can't bring myself to go during opening hours. Strictly speaking skipping is not entirely legal and I could be charged with trespassing. My prowl this evening is not very successful, though one skip I open is piled high with expired meat. Steak, mince, spare ribs – enough to throw a grill party for an entire football team. I can't even allow myself to think about how many animals here are raised on factory farms and then butchered, only to ultimately land in the rubbish. Friday: Since my store of food is still more than enough to meet my needs, I start passing out my treasures.
"We should not allow ourselves to be ruled by the sell-by date. Our senses are more than enough to test food freshness and quality."
After overcoming their initial scepticism and a first hesitant bite, my friends try both the chocolate and the biscuits. "You really can't taste the rubbish bin at all," says one, a fact that encourages her to take a few bags of gummy bears for the road. And she's right: we should not allow ourselves to be ruled by the sell-by date. Our senses are more than enough to test food freshness and quality. Sight, smell, taste – working together they can generally tell us if something is still edible.
Skipping is not for everyone – it is the most radical way to counteract the tremendous amount of food wasted daily. But you don't have to take it that far: small changes in consumer behaviour can also make a difference. Don't always take the yogurt with the longest sell-by date. Buy regionally, locally, directly from the producer. A crooked cucumber tastes just as good as a straight one. Use your nose and your eyes. And only buy as much as you are really prepared to eat.