I first heard of London’s New Covent Garden Market five years ago. A couple of people I lived with sometimes cycled there on their way home after all night raves, coming home with heaps of free fresh food and stories of being run down by pallet truck drivers and robbed by security guards. They laughed, cleaned up their wounds, and made huge hangover soups and smoothies with all kinds of blemished, bruised and half rotten fruit and vegetables. I’d always wanted to go with them, but it had somehow never worked out and they left the house pretty soon afterwards.
In the five years since, the idea of “skipping”, as it’s known, had occasionally popped into my head, but with the convenience of my excellent greengrocer just over the road, why would I ever change my habits? I was always put off by the early start, the five mile cycle, my nervous inexperience, and of course by the security guards. But that’s the great thing about positive constraints: they force me into doing something different.
So I did what I always do when faced with a daunting challenge: I searched online and found a French blogger who had tried to start an online directory of the best place to skip free food in London. The website hadn’t really got off the ground (scroungers are understandably secretive about their grazing grounds), but there was one piece of information that surprised me: the bin men for New Covent Garden Market arrive around eleven in the morning, five hours after trading ends. The Frenchman recommended I turn up any time before ten – so much for the early start!
Emboldened by my Gallic guide, I set off on my bike at eight the next morning, garbed in workman’s fluorescent high-vis, an old trick to escape the attentions of security guards, hiding in plain sight. My first difficulty is finding the market. The area is pockmarked with construction, “the greatest transformational story at the heart of the world’s greatest city” according to developers. Cranes and steel support the groundwork for towers of five million pound apartments, interiors designed by Versace. And I’m here to swipe a shopping basket of land-fill fruit.
Cycling around the new soon-to-be American Embassy, I finally spot the drivers’ entrance, slip past the barriers, dip down under the railway and emerge into the market, a complex of warehouses, lorries, vans and pallet trucks zipping around. I feel out of place on my bicycle, but at least my high-vis fits in.
The market is based around three double-width delivery boulevards, onto which more than two hundred businesses open their shutters. New Covent Garden is the largest fruit, vegetable and flower market in the UK and according to their website it apparently supplies 40% of the fresh fruit and vegetables eaten outside of the home in London, catering for restaurants, cafés, schools and hospitals, as well as retail markets. And skippers.
I see a few other people on the prowl. One looks like he’s been printed out from stereotype, dressed all in black, tattoos crawling up his neck and bits of his face pierced to other bits of his face. There’s also an ordinary-looking guy rummaging through the bins, and one very elderly woman pushing a trolley, leeks poking out of the top.
My favourite, though, is a Vietnamese woman, crouched over a slush of cardboard and trodden in lettuce. She beckons me over. “You need lemon?” she asks. “Lemons? Lovely!” She wafts a hand over the other side of the boulevard: “Lemons, lot of lemons.”
I thank her for her help and cycle dutifully over to the stacks of crates she’d indicated. I turn over the rubbish thrown on top to reveal a dozen fresh melons. I laugh and pop a couple into my pannier, one honeydew and one bright yellow canary. The skin is a little discoloured and the top of the honeydew is slightly bruised, but when I crack them open later, the flesh is perfectly ripe, amply protected by the hard skin.
After my success with the melons, I toured the rest of the site, chatting with cleaners and shopkeepers, asking what was waste and what was waiting to go into vans. If you’re imagining me climbing head-first into skips and rubbish bins, picking through mouldy tomatoes and cigarette ash, then think again. At the market, waste is carefully separated, with plastic and cardboard recycled, and organic peelings and cuttings going into huge vats. The good stuff, the stuff that could be eaten by you and me, is piled relatively neatly on the roadside, there for the taking.
The stories my friends had told about aggressive security seemed very far-fetched. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and seemed well accustomed to the scroungers who made what they could out of produce that could never be sold. One energetic Eastern European fruit packer came out to help me pick through a couple of crates of bruised satsumas and apples. He had a good eye and I wondered whether he was himself a skipper.
My bags were filling up quickly: two heads of broccoli, tomatoes in green, black, yellow and red, lamb’s lettuce from Italy, a monster cucumber, horseradish from Austria, parsnips, a swede, pak choi, yellow peppers, an aubergine, ginger root, some limes, a dozen bananas, packed organic rocket, two melons, russet potatoes, green chillies, red onions, four artichokes, eight avocados, a box of lychees and a pomegranate.
On my way out, I stop to flip over a heavy box that had obviously fallen off the back of a lorry: full of spring daffodils. A young worker passes by as I’m wondering whether the daffs will survive the ride home. “You’ve come too late,” he comments. “You should be here at five, six o’clock, then there is so much stuff.” I stare at him in amazement: “But my bags are full, what more could I carry?” He laughs and we chat for a while about the waste he sees every day. “These are for luxury hotels and restaurants, so the vegetables must be perfect, absolutely perfect. For example, fifty boxes of aubergines, if there is one aubergine with one tiny scratch – ” he shows me a minuscule blemish on his index finger for reference – “they send the whole fifty boxes back to us, and we must put them out.”
I’m shocked. This is all good food; its only crime is to fall short of the standards demanded by mindless perfectionists. I ask him if he ever takes the thrown away food home with him, but he shakes his head. “No, it’s against company policy. Sometimes they give us a bag of grapes or whatever. It’s nothing for them, but for us it’s very nice. We’re like a family.” I’m shocked all over again. Here I am with enough fresh fruit and veg to feed a family of seventeen for a week, and he goes home with the occasional bag of grapes? It serves to remind me that taking food from bins is still, staggeringly, classed as theft.* I offer him a daffodil, but he just laughs and walks on.
Farmers of the United Kingdom grow astonishingly vast crops every year. Tragically, much of that crop ends up in landfill, or ploughed back into the land. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, up to one third of all food grown globally goes to waste. Some of that waste is unavoidable; by definition we must create more than we need because just one ounce less and someone goes hungry. However, we waste by orders of magnitude more than necessary, and people are still going hungry. According to WRAP, the average household in the UK throws out about 6 meals’ worth of food a week, and supermarkets are big wasters too: Tesco alone chucked out 119 million meals’ worth of food in 2015.
On my way home, I stop to give some bananas to a homeless man living on the footpath under Vauxhall railway bridge. He hadn’t realised he was sleeping two minutes from a nutritional gold mine and didn’t seem to believe it was possible. There’s definitely something weird going on here: we either don’t have the will to sort out these logistical problems, or we are complicit in deliberate attempts to keep people from a good meal. I’m really not sure which. In February 2016, France became the first country in the world to make it illegal for supermarkets to throw away or destroy unsold food. It’s a step in the right direction and Arash Derambarsh, the municipal councillor who inspired the change in France, is hoping to make it EU law.
Back home, the first thing I do is pile all the produce onto the table, cut away the melon bruises and bin the too-far-gone cavolo nero. I weigh everything and do a price comparison with Sainsbury’s online: this “shop” would have cost me over fifty pounds in the supermarket. Then I spend a couple of happy hours cooking for me and two friends, with more than enough left over for my housemates to take a bowl when they get home: a delicious broccoli and potato soup, an enormo-salad with peppers, tomatos, lamb’s lettuce and cucumber, and a spicy potato curry, all washed down with a banana and melon smoothie.
Far from bludging from my friends on this week of no money, I have more than contributed my share, and have to give away fruit and vegetables to everyone I meet. The benefits go far beyond saving money, though. Because I can only take what I find, my diet is much more colourful and varied. I’d never normally buy broccoli or parsnips, and until today I didn’t even know that earthy black tomatoes existed. I can feel good about my environmental footprint: the lamb’s lettuce travelled a thousand road miles all the way from Italy, only to go straight into the bin without getting near the chef’s table. That’s a tragedy and my interception felt worthwhile for everyone.
Best of all, though, skipping such a prodigious quantity of food means that I can “afford” to be generous. Not only that, but I positively must be generous, otherwise the food would rot away in my fridge before I could eat even half.
It’s surprising that living without money has showed me how easy it is to be generous. Before the experiment, I used to feel that I couldn’t always “afford” to be generous, but that has been exposed as a dog-in-the-manger mirage. If I’m able to be generous without spending money, then generosity has nothing to do with financial clout. Like any character trait, generosity is a matter of habit. I just wasn’t being imaginative enough to see how I could be generous with what I had. Now I can.
Scrounger turns provider, and my cupboards end the week far better stocked than they started it. Win-win.
* The law in England and Wales is that “[a] person commits theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.” The grey area lies in whether the goods have been abandoned (finders keepers) or discarded (theft) by their owner.
‘Food Loss and Food Waste’. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed 29 September 2016. http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/.
‘Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK 2012 | WRAP UK’, 5 November 2013. http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/household-food-and-drink-waste-uk-2012.
Wood, Zoe. ‘Tesco Food Waste Rose to Equivalent of 119m Meals Last Year’. The Guardian, 15 June 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jun/15/tesco-food-waste-past-year-equivalent-119-million-meals.