In the coming months, three men will face trial for vagrancy for taking discarded food from a skip. Dr Andy Balmer argues that the actual crime is systemic waste throughout the food production and consumption chain.
The practice of ‘skipping’ or ‘skip diving’ features intermittently in the news. Often an intrepid reporter dons his or her warm clothes and pals up with a group of skip divers or freegans for a midnight raid of some supermarket bins.
It all seems a bit of a joke when written up as a faux adventure into urban hippy lifestyles, but the issue of food waste is of pressing concern both locally and internationally and shouldn’t be taken so lightly.
Indeed, in the coming months three men, Paul May, Jason Chan and William James, will face trial for taking waste food from a skip behind an Iceland store.
Although initially arrested for burglary they will be charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act for being in an enclosed area for an unlawful purpose. The three men took waste food totalling a value of around £33 and consisting of low-value items like tomatoes, mushrooms and Mr Kipling cakes.
Throughout the chain of food supply and demand there is food waste, from so-called ‘losses’ during harvesting, threshing and storage, through to the food that we, as consumers, leave on our plates at the end of a meal.
The oft-cited figure is that one third of food produced globally is wasted, amounting to around 1.3 billion tonnes.
In much of the academic literature and in the media the cause of food waste is the ignorant or vain consumer who fails to prepare food from fresh ingredients or throws out the less aesthetically pleasing banana at the bottom of the bowl. But even food left on the table or left to rot in the fridge cannot easily be attributed solely to wasteful consumer practices.
First, supermarkets are notorious for controlling the supply chain in ways that suit their brand image. Fruit, vegetables and other fresh foods end up as feed for cattle rather than humans because it doesn’t have the right look. Of course, supermarkets then sell food to consumers based on these aesthetic ideals which become entangled with concepts of quality, nutrition and feeding your family properly. But a wonky carrot is no less nutritious than a straight one.
The issue is further compounded when one considers the way in which supermarket supply chains and aesthetics of branding are understood as part of the global organisation of agriculture and consumption.
Reports that farmers in countries like Kenya can be wasting up to 40% of their crops because of corporate requirements for food size, shape and packaging should surely give us pause to think about the ways in which our consumption is shaped by norms of beauty, the ‘natural’ and taste. This kind of food waste comes about because of the extraordinary power that multinational corporations are able to exercise over growers.
Second, food consumption like other forms of consumption has to be understood as part of a dynamic and complex set of social practices that are connected to the management of neoliberal globalised societies. Too often the contemporary obsession with consumer choice and individual responsibility is used to lay blame at the feet of individual consumers for making bad choices.
However, individuals live within these webs of interrelated practices and cannot easily make choices about food purchasing, preparation, eating and disposal without also altering some rather obstinate norms and structures in the material, temporal and spatial dimensions of the family, care, health, illness and work.
David Evans from the University of Manchester has conducted work that is exemplary in this regard and challenges the idea that people waste food because they don’t care about it or are ignorant of problems we face with food wastage.
Indeed, his research suggests that people often do care about the food they waste but have to live within regulatory structures. Some are encouraged to adopt norms around health, for example by not eating products past their use-by dates.
We all also have to prepare food in ways that can fit our working and personal lives. For example, Evans relates the difficulties and decision-making processes of a young woman living alone as she tries to avoid food waste.
For her, ingredients for freshly-prepared meals waste too quickly. Unpredictably long working days, commuting home and exhaustion mean that the prospect of cooking a whole meal from scratch is difficult to stomach. A microwave portion for one would be so much easier and quicker.
So norms around nutrition and health lead her to buy vegetables and other ingredients that then go to waste because those norms don’t sit easily with other practices of managing time, space and work.
So skip diving doesn’t seem so silly, outlandish or – let’s be honest – criminal when seen against the background of corporate and social practices that structure our consumption of food. When supermarkets are throwing out literally tonnes of food because it has gone past its sell-by date, looks wrong or has damaged packaging it isn’t a crime for someone to make good use of this waste.
Skip diving and freeganism often do involve a whole scale shirking of contemporary practices of living and working.
I’d argue that this is because so much of what goes into food waste is interconnected in ways that is difficult to change without just rejecting it outright.
Blaming faulty consumers or criminalising skip diving is getting us nowhere. We need to change the way that food is managed throughout our practices – yes at the levels of local consumption but also all the way up to international production.
Forget the arcane laws about vagrancy – the real crime is systemic waste.