A spotlight shows Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith sneaking out of a food banks debate. Credit: Youtube.
Back in October the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service, citing a relatively obscure piece of legislation, claimed that there was ‘significant public interest’ in prosecuting three men who had been caught taking food from the supermarket Iceland’s bins, a practice often referred to as 'skipping'.
The food was worth around £33: low-cost items like mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese. The public were outraged, damning the CPS. Iceland’s chief executive insisted that the supermarket hadn’t called the police and was not interested in prosecuting. Finally, the case was dropped yesterday.
As someone who has taken food from bins – though not nearly as much as I’d like to – I was shocked by the arrest, but not necessarily surprised. When I took food, I knew I was breaking the law; that technically, this thrown-away stuff was someone’s property.
Maybe I did it because I disagreed with the ideology that says that all things are owned and discarded when they are no longer profitable to the owner. Maybe I did it thinking of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, in which things are distributed based on how they will be used best. Maybe I did it thinking “to each according to their needs.”
Maybe I did it because it was fun. Maybe I did it because I was hungry.
But the mass outcry against the conviction of these three men was a response to a global scandal: the amount of food that goes to waste. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that 15 million tonnes of food is wasted in Britain every year. Out of the 15 million, 6.6 million tonnes is wasted by food retail, distribution and manufacturing.
Last year Tesco alone admitted to throwing away 28,500 tonnes of food.
The ecological argument against such an astonishing waste of natural resources is a strong one. But there is also the sense of social injustice. In the UK, more and more families are relying on food banks. In December Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith made headlines by sneaking out of a parliamentary debate on the issue while other Conservative politicians openly smirked. Throwing food away rather than providing it for those in need is a visceral reflection of an unequal society.
While there may be a law against taking food from bins, there is a moral imperative that not only justifies but even encourages such action. Paul May, one the three arrested men, expressed this in a statement yesterday:
It doesn't feel like we are doing something criminal. We are taking food that they have thrown away so it can be eaten by people who appreciate it. I think it is more morally questionable that they are throwing away that much usable food than that people are diving in and recovering it. In some ways I am proud of what we do.
The CPS had initially planned to prosecute the men for burglary but later turned to the Vagrancy Act. The act has been considerably rewritten since it was first made law in 1824 but still retains much of the solemn Georgian language, calling for any charged under the act to “be deemed an incorrigible rogue.”
I spoke with Ezekiel, who had been to court on the same charges levelled against the 'Iceland 3'. Ezekiel explained why a clearly outdated law is used:
The police don’t charge people with theft because theft is a crown offence and thus defendants are entitled to a jury. No jury is going to convict for something like this. Under the antiquated Vagrancy Act you will be judged and sentenced only by a panel of magistrates who are much more likely to prosecute.
A lot of the time, these prosecutions are successful.
Arrests like these expose the radical ideology of capitalism: that everything is owned, even waste, that everything is placed within a hierarchy of ownership. Within that system, to own something is always to throw it away. Ownership is a binary: if x has this thing, y doesn’t have this thing. So, for y, the ability to use the thing has been lost; on a practical level, the thing has been thrown away.
Even the manner in which things are discarded reflects an ideological hierarchy: people who don’t have property and who ‘mis-spend’ their money are wasteful, shamed, conforming to underclass behaviours; corporate entities, on the other hand, have a legal right to throw things away as much as they like.
As May says, there is pride in subverting this. Skipping, like squatting, draws on something creative. By turning wasted things into an opportunity, skipping is an optimistic re-imagining of the world. Just as squatting sees a geography of opportunities in which space is never owned but can always be transformed, skipping (and the ‘freegan’ thought associated with it) views resources as transformable. It’s a utopian activity in the midst of a dystopian system.
This is why skipping is so different to shoplifting. As someone who has done both, it’s only skipping that I can take pride in.
I shoplifted food at a time when I had no money. A combination of factors including losing a job, a violent mugging and a series of upsets in my personal life left me financially insecure and emotionally incapable of improving my situation.
In retrospect, I should have asked for help; I didn’t feel that I could, so I stole. The part that I hated was the thought of getting caught by a worker in the shop. I might be able to convince myself that I was taking from a faceless corporation, but I couldn’t justify putting someone else in a position where they could lose their job if they didn’t apprehend me.
If I were a true revolutionary, a superman, maybe these things wouldn’t matter to me. I’d see the shop assistant as fundamentally separate from me. I’d see their choice to work for the supermarket chain as a collaboration with an enemy of the people, a corporation driven by the profits of its shareholders.
I’d be like Raskolnikov at the beginning of Crime and Punishment: able to distance myself from immediate empathy in the name of a greater cause. But instead I felt greedy and selfish. Far from rebelling against property and greed, I felt that I was conforming to its worst aspects.
By contrast, the creativity involved in skipping makes it an enjoyable activity. The morality behind it makes it an honourable one. But this doesn’t change the fact that for many people it is simply a necessity. As Tristram Stuart, author of Waste, stated yesterday: “The majority of people getting food out of bins are doing it because they can't afford it.”