The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Supermarkets and the question of throwing away good food

Photo: Suoermarket bill

Photo: Suoermarket bill

Sunday was my bi-weekly shop with my mum. This is usually hugely enjoyable. We have a light lunch and tootle over for the last hour of Waitrose Sunday shopping. This trip has all the drama and pace of a decent documentary. Will we make it out of the store before the lights dim?

We always flop into the car with minutes to spare. Meanwhile cars are racing in for the final five minutes. Are they just getting that one vital ingredient or doing the weekly shop in almost empty aisles? This Sunday our cashier remarked that they are still asked to sit by their cash tills for an extra half hour to accommodate the shoppers that are shopping after four when the store is ‘closed’.  I was shocked that the late comers could be so selfish and thoughtless. Everyone on the staff has to wait and welcome them.

Last year I met an electrician on a building site. His wife works for Waitrose. I discovered quite a few good things about this store. They start to mark down food within three days of expiry, Tesco marks down within one day.  In the old days (Christmas 2006) you could order a Christmas turkey at Waitrose without a deposit. So loads of people ordered turkeys and didn’t collect them. Then they whistled into the shop and bought one of the knocked down turkeys five minutes before the close of business on Christmas Eve. Two years ago, Waitrose in Newmarket fought back and gave their staff these unclaimed turkeys. They were not put on the shelves for the general public. Tiny paint smeared hands clapped with glee. I’m up for a bargain but not a scam.

We have three supermarkets in Newmarket: Neto, Tesco and Waitrose. The staff in each look (in the same order) unhappy, not happy and happy. If all goes belly up for Danny he wants to work in Waitrose. I agree. But Waitrose for shoppers is much more expensive than the rest. Even with the staff discounts I often see the Waitrose staff shopping in Tesco. Most must be on the minimum wage and on very tight budgets.

All of the supermarkets have skips that they fill with food past the sell-by date.  A small Tesco Metro can easily fill a skip a day This can be very different  from the consume-by date which can be a couple of days later.  This is food that has been offered hugely discounted maybe minutes before. Why not give the staff, homeless and any one needy access to those skips that are filled every night and sent to landfill. Landfill sites are filling up around here but even if they were empty it’s crazy to trash good food. I’m sure that everyone, including me, would take a chance on the remote possibility of food poisoning.

Years ago (1979) when I was making and selling toys in Covent Garden Market, London, I met someone who belonged to a large alternative community in Teddington. A deep throat in the local M&S would ring them when there was something good in the skips. Perhaps there are deep throats in our local supermarkets that still do the same. I do hope so. I hate the idea of good food being trashed when so many families in our community are struggling. It’s not just a credit crunch thing. There are loads of people in the UK who have struggled for years. Loading food into skips has happened for at least 30 years. Suddenly, we’re all aware that landfills are getting a bit full..

How about ten minutes before closing time, lay the food outside the back door? People can take the food for free, without sifting through a skip. Most of these people can’t even afford the ’value’ products so the supermarkets wouldn’t be losing custom.

I’d hail the people who ate this food as heroes as they are stopping good food being poured into landfill.

I‘d prefer to shop at a supermarket that implemented this sort of programme.. I’d be happy to pay 10% more for my food if I knew that people in need were being looked after.

And suerly, that’s what it’s all about.

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  1. For the last year I’ve been eating out of Waitrose bins, out of necessity as I’m poor, but also because having started to do it, i can’t bear the waste! Often we get so much we need to share it wih friends. Last summer I made GALLONS of wine with red grapes from Waitrose bins. This year I am still enjoying the benefits!

    We never need to buy things like bread or potatoes, but sometimes come across real gluts of things like sliced ham (which our freezer is now full of) or for some reason, hundreds of those little live yoghurt drinks. Bacteria never tasted so good…

  2. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Steve

    I’m intrigued and would like to read the rest of your ideas. Today’s comments have been illuminating and I’d love to hear your ideas and response.

  3. hmm half my above post had disappeared for some reason!- not to worry, please delete the remnants!

  4. >>The last swine fever epidemic was blamed on a ham sandwich<>The government refused to legislate to make deliberate spread of the disease illegal. By 1955, about 95% of rabbits in the UK were dead.<<**
    if this post is too political, please feel free to delete!

  5. I hate waste, all of it. I cant see anything wrong with taking other peoples rubbish out of a skip, at the car boot sale (Sues comment). How is that not better than having it dumped? Seems weird to me to want soemthing to go to landfill.


  6. The last swine fever epidemic was blamed on a ham sandwich from imported ham being thrown from a footpath on to a field where outdoor pigs were being reared. I’m all for food being used (and have little truck with use-by dates, using my nose and tastebuds), but living in an area where livestock farmers have been rocked by foot & mouth, swine fever and bird flu in the last few years, I think controls have to be strict. Swill has always been fed to pigs but it was boiled first and nowadays people just don’t understand basic hygiene in the same way.

    The local Co-op and bakery both sell bread cheap to my husband at the end of the day for his bantams. My son gives away all his thrown-away stuff to several people – for pet rabbits and guinea pigs, to an animal sanctuary, to a couple of people who have a pig or two – first come first served but they’re welcome. If no one comes and the fruit flies are gathering, it goes to the compost heap. Nothing is wasted.

  7. I used to work in a Scottish bakery chain that was eventually taken over by Greggs. When I first worked there I was delighted to discover that every night at closing time a man in his van came to collect the filled rolls that had been made that day but not sold and any of the other goods that was past its sellable ‘shelflife’. The man with the van would take these goodies away and distribute them around homeless shelters. Bravo to the company (the name escapes me) until some bright spark caught up in some bureaucratic frenzy decided that the remote threat of getting sued over food poisoning justified throwing good food then pouring bleach on it.

  8. Contamination of food you give livestock has been dramatically cut since it became illegal to feed pigs etc with food from any catering establishment. Foot and mouth used to be a lot more common than it is now, thankfully.

    But that doesn’t mean that the bread in the supermarket bakery has been contaminated: that would only happen once it’s been chucked in the skip.

    I also worked in a supermarket and one manager and I would smuggle loads of great stuff out of the shop at closing but on other nights, it all got skipped.

    Shops should take more responsibility for the food they chuck away: reducing it down to pennies long before closing would sort things out nicely. And then maybe they’d get their ordering right so they wouldn’t have excess stock in the first place!!

  9. When I was a student, some years ago, I worked part time and my local supermarket. The food they ‘skipped’ at the end of each day was disgraceful. The worst thing I saw though was one Christmas Eve. As the store was not going to be open for 2-3 days or so, sacks of potatoes, bananas, and general fruit and veg was thrown away as it was going out of date whilst the store was closed over Xmnas. At the time of discarding all of the produce was fine. I offered to take the unwanted produce to our local Salvation Army to be used for the homeless over Xmas, but was told that that was not allowed and that the food HAD to be destroyed. Makes you want to cry!!!

  10. I agree entirely that food should be given away rather than just dumped in a skip, however, I can imagine the chaos that would ensue when the greedy not needy found out about it.

    Last year we did a car boot sale. The owner of the site where the boot sale was held had kindly put out a couple of skips to allow people to dump any unsold items if they wished. I honestly could not believe my eyes – people were actually lowering children into the skips and instructing them what to grab!

    The self satisfied smirk on one guys face as he walked away with a couple of umberellas and a rather grubby looking lampshade said it all. But he took the biscuit by walking over to his wife -who already had several bags of stuff that she had obviously bought at the boot sale – and proudly showing off his spoils!

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