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Tristram Stuart, food waste and the freegan lifestyle

To effectively implement his freegan thesis, Tristram Stuart documented his efforts to shop in British supermarkets – picking his food from the bins.

Tristram Stuart‘s career as a writer took a new turn when his focus turned to the topic of food waste. With the sensitivity of an environmentalist, knowledge of an academic and passion of an explorer he has dived head first into the subject, writing articles for The Guardian and organising a rally in Trafalgar Square in the UK capital, London. Not content with tackling the issue from behind a desk in the city’s Trinity Lane, giving lectures and writing articles, he adopted a new daily habit, a brave choice: to live off leftovers. Literally.

Standing out among the numerous scientific publications written by the young Cambridge historian is the riveting book The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India. Published in 2007 and available in US bookstores, it recounts the origins of eating habits along a number of different trails in Western history.

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart

In 2009, his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal tackled the issue of food waste. To effectively implement his “freegan” thesis – a term coined from the merger of power, freedom and generosity – he began documenting the fact that for years, every week, he had shopped in British supermarkets. But coming in from the back. Methodically. And without spending a thing.

In the bins of a Waitrose supermarket near Brighton he collected food worth 80 pounds ($120): “Three packs of organic cheddar cheese, a pineapple, slices of organic turkey, a carton of cream, four pizzas, two hummus sandwiches, a sliced loaf, two pounds of carrots, two courgettes, a cauliflower, half a pound of sausages, ready chopped vegetables, a chicken satay, a pound of ground beef, an Italian sausage and two bouquets of gladioli not yet in bloom.” All perfectly packaged, expired or expiring in 24 hours that day or in the months to come. All edible. He regards the expedition “mediocre” in spite of the sweetness of the pineapple, because in another Waitrose he found 28 ready-made meals – including chicken tikka and lasagne – 83 yoghurts, 16 pastries, six melons, 223 fruits, 23 pastries, a chocolate cake, six sacks of potatoes, 18 loaves of bread.

 

At Old Spitalfields Market in London he returned home with 25 boxes of delicious mangoes. He also studied in Florence, where he would successfully trawl the supermarkets as he had done in London. Note that he isn’t stealing food from the homeless. Once, one of them, a man called Spider, told him, “That’s alright my friend. Even if all of England’s homeless turned up here for the food, there’d still be plenty left for you.”

Waste: the numbers

According to UK (as well as Italian) law, thousands of tonnes of edible products must be destroyed. Food safety and hygiene regulations forbid supermarkets from redistributing surplus food, bread or produce that is close to its expiry date via alternative channels. Meanwhile some projects to recover this bounty have been successfully launched: the charity FareShare has doubled its collection of unsold products from 2,000 to 4,000 tonnes per year, Sainsbury’s has saved 6,600 tonnes of food for the poor every year and Stuart himself founded the voluntary association Gleaning Network, as well as receiving Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie Prize in 2011. But the problem persists, with no legislative changes in sight aimed at remedying the situation – neither in the UK nor in Italy.

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