#freeLEJOG: On Eating Food Out Of Bins

Filed under .

The West Midlands were not particularly kind to me.

As a result, of course, I learned a hell of a lot.

The weather was the least of it. Leaving Bridgnorth and finishing the last of my leftovers I found myself riding in the rain once again, with no food and no prospect of finding any. I was getting used to being utterly soaked, fingers wrinkly and cold, feet tingling and throbbing as they dried out after having been soaked for hours each day.

I followed railway-cutting green routes which in nicer conditions would have been lovely, but which today were just a traffic-free method of getting very, very wet. In Ironbridge I found frustrated tourists hurrying across the road to glance at Darby’s world-famous feat of engineering before dashing for the nearest safe haven of dryness; havens from which I, as a penniless tramp, was excluded. Polite enquiries at a couple of quiet-looking cafés yielded nothing but looks of pity and explanations that the staff rota was drawn up in advance, so there was nothing I could help out with today — and besides, it took time to learn the ropes. All of which was perfectly true.

Bleak weather up norf

Further on I spotted a signpost for a vineyard. Yes, a vineyard in the English West Midlands!

Weaving between industrial units I came upon the most unlikely sight: neat rows of bent trunks, branches wrestled and woven along horizontal trusses, the familiar-looking leaves with which I’d wrapped so many delicious little parcels of rice and meat and herbs while living in Armenia. It was an incongruous sight, yet it turns out there are hundreds of wine-producing vineyards in Britain, from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides. This may be old news to many, but to me it was a revelation and a mood-lifter.

I walked in to the visitors’ centre. In an adjoining café, a noisy collection of OAPs were enjoying a day of wine-tasting, clearly several hours into the programme.

“I’m a writer conducting an experiment to see if I can travel the entire length of the country without any money,” I explained to the most authoritative-looking figure in the kitchen, “and I wondered if you could use any help this afternoon in exchange for a square meal?”

(This was just the latest in a growing list of variants of my spiel.)

“I’ll be completely honest with you,” she replied after listening patiently, “we don’t need any help at the moment.”

Of course. It’s May. Hardly grape-picking season. Duh.

“But you’re very welcome to a slice of pie.”

Straight up. No fuss.

“Er… yep, that works too… thank you!”

“You’re welcome. Lindsay, get this gentleman a slice of pie, would you.”

The meat pie was deposited in front of me, a leftover from the pensioners’ lunch next door. I ate it with gratitude, said my thanks and continued on my way, perplexed. Spontaneous work-for-food exchanges were not really working very well, and I set to thinking about why this could be. But before long I found myself sidetracked once again by hunger.

Whitchurch on a Saturday evening was just about the least likely place to score a free meal, and it was here that I almost broke, emptiness tangibly clanging about in my stomach and reducing my thoughts to naught but endless elaborate food fantasies. I spotted a sticker in the window of a kebab shop, put two and two together and realised that if I could remember my debit card details and find a free wifi hotspot I could use my smartphone to order and pay for a takeaway online. Yes! And it would be the best damn takeaway I had ever eaten too — plus, I could fulfil a long-standing life ambition to have a pizza handed to me through a gap in a hedge by the world’s most confused delivery boy.

But I clearly was not quite hungry enough — either that, or I considered the integrity of my mission too important — for willpower prevailed, and in any case I could not remember my card details. But before heading off down a canal towpath to find a field to camp in, I did make a mental note of the location of the town’s most likely-looking supermarkets, as I planned to be back the following morning to try yet another increasingly appealing method of feeding myself.

The wild-camp was a lovely one, made all the better by the blessing of a local narrowboat resident and a tip-off about a roadside cafe whose back entrance was at the far end of a nearby dirt road. It had a toilet block which was left unlocked overnight; the ladies’ even had a hot shower! Together with unlimited fresh water from a tap intended for passing boaters, this earned my pitch the title of Most Luxurious Wild-Camp Ever (Probably) — even if I had eaten nothing but a slice of pie since breakfast.

Wild camp outside Whitchurch

Early the following morning, two old ladies strolling past the car park behind Iceland in Whitchurch were alarmed by the sight of a pair of human legs hanging over the edge of a skip. As they watched, the distant figure struggled before dropping to the ground, triumphantly clutching a large bag of carrots, still in their packaging.

The figure mounted a rickety-looking bicycle, deposited the carrots in the bike’s front basket with an audible whoop, and set forth from Whitchurch, destination Burnley, where — unbeknown to the pensioners — he would find himself sanding seats in Turf Moor’s away stand in exchange for two days’ food and a bed for the night.

And they shook their heads and tutted.

Manchester Ship Canal

Burnley FC (Turf Moor)

Will work for food: Burnley FC

First and last time in a football stadium press room

My carrots kept me on the road for two days. They were a mere sample of the collateral from an astonishingly wasteful globalized grocery supply chain. It’s not just supermarkets sending edible food to landfill: the consumer is equally wasteful, an appreciation of the human effort required to grow food having been eradicated, reduced to a number on a sticker. In such a way it transpires that we now take a full quarter of the food we buy and throw it in the bin before it reaches our plates.

In rural Devon — I forget where exactly — I experienced this madness first-hand when I happened across a recycling bin outside somebody’s house, full to the brim with unopened cans of food bought absent-mindedly from a supermarket, shoved to the back of a cupboard and forgotten for several years. Best-before date lapsed and misinterpreted as meaning the contents were no longer edible (untrue and the subject of ongoing changes in legislation), cans of still-edible food had simply been chucked.

Unable to glean much in the way of energy from the wild garlic by the roadside, I’d selected a can of Tesco Value Broken Mandarin Segments in Light Syrup for a balance of vitamins and sugar, then hacked the can open with the novel combination of Allen key and rock. Then I’d devoured the contents with a tyre lever, citric acid stinging my mouth, the sugar propelling me the final 20 miles to where I was staying the night.

At that moment, the contents of a discarded can of mandarin segments (in light syrup) was the only thing in the universe that one human being had needed to further his existence, the focus of his sole desire, the very means by which he would prolong his life. And someone had simply flung it carelessly in the bin and dumped it on the roadside to be buried out of sight for a million years. That this is considered normal is, to me, and indication that something is wrong.

People of a like mind are attempting to tackle it. There are organisations like The Pig Idea, working with the catering industry to turn leftovers into bacon; Fare Share, who collect and redistribute sell-by produce from supermarkets to people who can’t afford to buy it when it’s on the shelves; and Love Food Hate Waste, who campaign for awareness of the issue.

And there are people like Tristam Stuart, part of a movement now known as freeganism; people who — despite usually not being short of a penny — make a point of dieting on so-called rubbish, as I did for one memorable day on the road in Cheshire. Tristam’s message is so poignant that he received the ultimate accolade of being invited to give a TED talk on the subject.

Lancashire cycling selfie

I don’t like to draw conclusions too quickly from experiences like this. But I learned a lot of new things about our society from the act of ditching money and going hungry, coming across both reassurances and repugnancies. This is just a tiny portion. (Excuse the pun.)

Comments (skip to respond)

14 responses to “#freeLEJOG: On Eating Food Out Of Bins”

  1. Barry Davidson avatar
    Barry Davidson

    Hi Tom,
    I’m a little late for the party but this subject really interests me. I’m a senior LD touring cyclist trying to figure a way to supplement my meager pension while on the road as a way of life.
    Two ideas I’ve thought of: 1. busking for change 2. in Canada almost every community has food banks and church suppers for low income people.
    I always carry a harmonica with me to entertain myself and ward off bears but I’m not much of a player…but in a pinch who knows, if I was broke on the road I might try it in front of a liquor store or farmers market.
    The second idea is fairly effortless…just ride into town and talk up a street person and ask where I can get free grub. Here in Peterborough CA one church does a free full breakfast on Sunday mornings. Other churches do a lunch or dinner for homeless or those down and out. And there are a couple of food banks where a person can just show up and walk away with an armload of food, mostly packaged Local food store donate fresh produce and bakery items on last best before date. So the food is there for the asking, I just need to deal with a personal pride issue.

    Thanks for the story Tom and I will continue to read your chronicles. Cheers!

  2. Tony Beasley avatar
    Tony Beasley

    Hi Tom,

    Many thanks for a great and enjoyable read, I have just found your blog after searching Touring bikes.

    You will enjoy this story http://www.abc.net.au/austory/content/2003/s1097558.htm John is what we call a swagman and lives off food and drinks he scavenges from food and drinks thrown on road sides here in Australia, he never lights a fire, shortly after this story was aired I actually saw John wandering along the Hume Highway which is the main Highway from Sydney to Melbourne. 


  3. Jack Simpson avatar
    Jack Simpson

    A truly enjoyable story , Tom 🙂 Kind of reminds me of my travels in Europe
    in the mid-70’s …. to a degree 😉

    Cheers and continued Happy Trails 🙂

    Jack Simpson

  4. Excellent post Tom, I especially appreciate the “junk food” part! I find it fairly grotesque that freeganism and dumpster diving are some sort of a legal limbo. It’s really insane how the abundance of, well, pretty much everything makes us wasting so much. It certainly would be different if we would need to grow our own food or living in a place where you are not only a short ride or even walk away from the next supermarket…
    Only recently I came across another fascinating project. There are restaurants that use solely “waste food” and donated leftovers from other food places to cook meals which they offer on a “pay what you want” base: https://www.facebook.com/TheRealJunkFoodProject
    On another site I read of places in i.e. Belfast that apparently follow that concept since years already. Anyway, great reminder Tom and thanks for the (pun intended) food for thought! 😉

  5. Adrian Bryan avatar
    Adrian Bryan

    Hey thanks! Amazing! I’m gonna be trying that…we’ve all been stuck without a tin-opener at some point, right?

  6. Misha Meng avatar
    Misha Meng

    Tom… Fantastic ! Your writings are humorous fun, lively & engaging ! I love your authentic honest inquiry you happen upon in every journey ! Being a free range freegan has allowed me to go on many bike tours. Thank you for busting out of the normal riding format of paying for everything ! Cheers !

  7. How to open a tin can without a tin opener, althout allen key and rock is much more poetic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH2NahLjx‑Y

  8. So the moral of the story is: If you ever leave home without your wallet, make sure you take a can opener.

  9. Hilary avatar

    Well done Tom; shows it can be done if anyone really has the heart to do it. I am writing this from Tangiers and arrived yesterday from Spain and have cycled all the way from Aberdeen on a budget of fifteen pounds a day.…much easier than you are doing now by going without money. I stopped for two weeks in San Roque where i worked for the campsite owner to pay for my camping. This arabic keyboard set up is driving me crazy so just to say thqnks for showing it can be done.

  10. Wonderful stuff Tom 🙂 I checked in a couple of weeks ago and saw that you had embarked on this trip. 

    Best wishes…

  11. You survived for a whole day on just one bag of carrots? How much weight did you lose on this trip?!

    Great writing Tom, I’m really enjoying reading about this adventure.

  12. A most enjoyable read with some very amusing anecdotes (though at your expense — sorry). I’ve been waiting for this one and it didn’t disappoint 🙂

  13. Great post Tom. Emma and I had the same experience when we asked to work in exchange for food in South America. Usually people were confused or made awkward excuses, but often would also just give us free food. Interesting.

    Good to see that you’ve been skipping. I’m yet to try that, unbelievably!

    Anyhow, following your updates with great interest. I’m just trying to condense my own experiences now into some kind of book, so reading someone else’s thoughts and experiences on it all is a welcome break!



Something to add?