Ever wished that you could cut down on your food bills? Artist and activist Spring Exprit (Eugenia Beirer) may have the answer. Call it "Dumpster Diving", "Skipping" or even "Freeganism", on the face of it “food salvage” is simply the practice of retrieving and eating food that others have thrown away. But it goes much deeper than that, calling in to question the workings of the entire capitalist economy. Oh, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun too.
"Food Salvage", "Dumpster Diving", "Skipping", "Freeganism" – words to describe a practice based on the belief that monetary exchanges within a capitalist economy contribute to myriad forms of exploitation. Accordingly, this most ethical stance is to remove yourself to the greatest possible degree from participation in the capitalist economy, either as worker or consumer. Definition from www.dictionary.com: put simply, rescuing food that other people including businesses like shops, supermarkets and restaurants have thrown away in bins and skips. Hattie Garlick visited New Covent Garden Market with a group of novice scavengers to learn the tricks of the dumpster diving trade, and interviewed Spring Exprit of Beyond the Free Market.
Beyond the Free Market (BTFM) is a collaborative platform that started life as Spring Exprit’s degree show at Chelsea College of Art and Design, and developed into a long-term project. It aims to explore the workings of Free Trade and Free Market policies through practices like food salvage. Hattie Garlick caught up with Spring Exprit to talk about bins, bombs, and shiny apples.
How much food do you find on a good day?
I take a bike to New Covent Garden market, with a trailer attached. I usually manage to fill it to the top with vegetables and fruit, about 30-40kgs.
Is saving money a big motivation behind skipping?
I think it goes beyond that. Of course it changes for different people; young people, old people, even nuns who go skipping. Another motivation is just the principle; I don’t see why I should spend money when I can go and salvage food that would otherwise go to waste.
When did you last pay for food?
I try not to buy fruit and veg, and I don’t think I have for two years. I’m vegan, so I buy rice, pulses, seeds, herbs, teas, bread. Most of those come from a shop called ‘Fair Share’, an anarchist food shop in Camberwell and other independent health food shops.
Is it safe? Have you ever made yourself ill by eating salvaged food?
Like anything, you’ve got to use your common sense. If something’s mouldy, you just don’t pick it up. That’s why I choose to go early; if you go later the food quality will go down. I’ve never been ill though, no.
Salvaging from markets is one thing, what about from Supermarkets?
You have to have a warrior-like attitude. You observe your target, then attack. You need to find out when they put their bins out, how to get access to them. It’s kind of like a survival game in an urban setting.
Marks and Spencer actually employ people to watch the skips. I once gathered all sorts of amazing stuff, only for a guard to come out and tell me he’d been watching the whole thing on a security camera and I had to take it back or else I’d face prosecution.
Because of private property, you’re trespassing. And the waste still belongs to the seller, so in fact you’re stealing. And that’s where it becomes a politicised act, because you question whether it should still be theirs by right, if they’re throwing it away.
Do you get a thrill out of the illicit side of food salvaging?
Of course, it’s fun! It’s like opening a present, you never know what you’re going to find.
What is it about food culture in the UK, or our attitude towards food in the present day that makes us so squeamish about ‘imperfect’ food?
A lot of that squeamishness comes from the media and food advertising. If you go to a supermarket the fruit is waxed shiny and perfectly shaped. They have an aesthetic appeal that we’ve been educated to expect. An apple flown in from Africa that has no marks is placed next to an English organically grown apple from Kent, with a bit of a lump perhaps and no wax coating. Despite the fact that the local apple might be more nutritious and tastier, a supermarket shopper would likely go for the South African shiny apple, even judge it better quality just on the basis of its aesthetic value.
Do your friends eat the food you’ve salvaged happily? Do you cook for others regularly with your salvaged produce?
Yeah, I live in a community and we skip for our food. Once a day one of us will cook, and we eat together. When I have friends over they get the same food. I have a plan to start a “Breakfast Club” for which I’ll invite the local community to share breakfast a couple of Sundays a month followed by a day of workshops concentrated around different issues. In order to make changes we need to reinvent communities, and food is an essential part of any community.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?
Once I found a child’s bike. A friend picked it up and made a trailer out of it. I’m always really thrilled when I find berries, anything I can make smoothies out of. It’s difficult when you find exotic fruit. You think “Wow, I’ve never even seen this” but you’re sickened at the same time thinking how far it had to travel just to end up in a skip.
How did you become so passionate about food salvage?
Eating is a political act. If I make a choice about what tea I buy, or even whether to buy tea or coffee, I’m affecting someone else’s life. I also saw the amount of food that was wasted, and knew that people are starving on other continents.
I wanted to find out the connection between food over-production, pricing, and the trading influence of the West over developing countries, and how that effects food insufficiency in those countries. The passion came from being outraged, and from the desire to draw attention, not just to everyday waste but to those direct connections.
The big question: Why is there so much waste?
I’m still researching to try and understand it all myself but simply, it’s that food overproduction keeps prices down. Often, food gets transported from very far away, and in order to ensure that enough arrives in perfect condition, you produce a lot more.
Who is to blame?
Well, the people who make the policies, largely: there’s the EU, America, the Commonwealth. The concept of free trade was born in the UK. Now, the “West” together with the World Trade Organisation demand no barriers on trade in developing and third world countries, though there are barriers on trade in the opposite direction. Through ‘food dumping’ in under-developed countries we dump our surplus on them, and by consequence their farmers can’t compete so it undermines their economy.
Can foraging for food really be seen as an art practice?
Being a political activist I became quickly frustrated with art because so often it fails to transcribe ideas to make them accessible to the mainstream. For me, using art or its institutions is a platform to reach out to a diverse group of people, people who wouldn’t necessarily go out to a meeting in a squat. The counter argument is that not everyone goes to galleries. That’s why it’s so important that BTFM exists both inside the art world or art institutions and outside of it, through our website and in different cultural contexts like social centres.
What’s going on outside of your own activities? Are there many other food salvage groups in the UK at the moment?
Yeah, there’s a global movement. It’s quite strong in the United States. In the U.K the movement isn’t strong, mainly due to the weather! Food Not Bombs has kitchens designed to be outdoors in the streets, in public places. There’s squat cafes that are mostly run as community social centres and their food will be salvaged and given out on donation basis. The ‘Food not Bombs’ movement was a big inspiration for BTFM.
On your website you pose the question ‘What possibility can you imagine for an ideal beyond the free market?’ What possibility can you see?
Well, I think to start putting a halt on food-dumping, thereby reducing food overproduction, banning corporate power over seeds and food brands, and giving third world and developing world countries a voice in decisions made by the WTO and IMF on agriculture and trade – that would be a massive change.
I can see the possibility of going back to supporting local food production, here and in developing countries. But BTFM is also about looking beyond to alternatives that exist in the present day, things that are available to us outside of the system, like food movements, skipping, allotments.