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April 22, 2011 10:15 pm
I first began looking in skips for food when I lived in Berlin. I went to the market at the end of the day to pick up the food that was being thrown out. It didn’t feel like a particularly momentous event. It just felt like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
When I moved to London, three years ago, I began regularly getting my food from skips. I’d go to New Covent Garden Market at the end of the day and I’d find food stacked up in boxes next to the bins. An average haul might be three or four crates of tomatoes, four pineapples, random numbers of avocados, lemons, maybe 10 packets of lettuce. It was exciting to find food like this. I felt like a hunter-gatherer and of course it was all free and perfectly edible. I’d even say the produce is at its best at exactly the moment it gets thrown away. Whatever I found, I’d hide it inside two suitcases and wheel it all home.
There were always other people there at the end of the market doing the same thing, especially students. Even though some people seemed to frown upon skipping, most market stallholders realised that it was pointless to waste what they didn’t sell. The security men caused the problems; it’s their job to protect the economics of the market. I think deep down they thought what I was doing was sensible.
I wanted to find a way to use the waste food to help others. I realised I could use it to cook “freegan” meals and people could give me donations to eat, like a supper club. I’d give the profits to charities concerned with the better distribution of food. For my first dinner I used my friends as guinea pigs. I invited about 25 of them over and cooked a three-course meal with food I’d scavenged. Everyone said it was great. I think people imagined they’d be getting a bowl of slop, so they enjoyed the fact that I was able to cook quite delicate things. I can’t remember exactly what I cooked that first night, but it was something like a clover leaf, frisée and avocado salad, a lentil and mushroom mousse with mushroom sauce followed by a caramelised pear compote with vanilla and cardamom.
After the success of my practice dinner, I started a website and called the project The Dinner Exchange. I did the first one for strangers 18 months ago, in a warehouse in north London. We were given the space for free. I spent all day gathering food, cooking and driving between my flat and the warehouse. The menu was celery, cabbage and aniseed soup served with homemade bread; then soya flake and aubergine bake, and kiwi and orange cake for pudding. For the first one, about 15 people came and everyone paid the suggested £5 donation. There were a few things I had to buy, such as oil, vinegar and flour, but still I made a profit of £60 and donated it to a food charity called FareShare. By the third dinner, I increased the donation to £10. At the fourth dinner I had 25 people and at the sixth it was 42. We had a live musician and a songwriter. I invested in cooking equipment and more wine glasses and still managed to make a £110 profit.
Since then, I’ve had one dinner a month. I have tried to restrict myself to 35 people – 42 was too many. Sometimes the dinners take place at my flat, which is a tight squeeze, and in other venues across London. I have also made contacts within the food industry who donate their surplus food. Langridge Organic Products in Vauxhall give me their waste produce. But other companies I approach brush me off. Some places say they don’t throw anything away, which I find very hard to believe.
Lately, I have been reconsidering the way I do things. I’d like to reach a wider audience. I’ve thought about doing dinners for 150 people, with live bands and entertainment. But however I end up changing the dinners, my main concern is that people start to think about the way they store and buy food. With a little effort, we could send so much less to landfill sites.
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