I met Tristram on the streets during the summer of 2012. My friend and I were sitting on the sidewalk after work drinking beer. Everyone wanting to relax and unwind in Hackney, the most hipster borough in East London, behaves this way. There are also many coincidental acquaintances. Thus, when Tristram approached us and asked for a cigarette, we hadn't thought that he was some stalker wanting much more than cigarettes – as I would previously think in Tbilisi. That's why I offered him two. After a brief moment of small talk, he said that he was an environmental protection activist. The environmental protection activists I had known before back in Georgia rallied against the logging of trees or the construction of a hydro-electric station. Tristram however, turned out to be a defender of leftover food. At the time, I was unable to comprehend what connection saving food had with saving the environment. But for me, because of this vague term, an ordinary acquaintance with a stranger became extraordinary. I was so taken by this incomprehensible term that I began researching it.
I already knew a few “freegans” and had already deciphered that the word “freegan” was created through its kinship with the word “vegan” and refers to people who are so fearless that they pay no regard to laws and dig through supermarket garbage bins, taking out new food fit for consumption, and distribute it to the poor or simply eat it themselves.
I have met some freegans who have sustained themselves over the years by fishing food out of the trash bin – not because they had fallen on hard times – but because this was an anti-capitalist act and they were protesting consumer culture. After getting to know Tristram however, I could already start to see the complete picture – I discovered that freeganism is the same thing as caring for the environment. I regularly check the website ted.com. Once I encountered a video clip on the main page – my coincidental acquaintance Tristram was standing on stage. In the video, he was talking about all the food being thrown out. The annotation read: “Tristram Stuart researches the shocking statistics of thrown out food and calls on us to use the resources of the planet in a wiser fashion.”
I was filled with pride. Before then, I knew no one who had given a speech on ted.com, but almost 1.4 million people had seen Tristram's fifteen-minute monologue.
He spoke about how in developed countries – the US and Europe – there is 150-200% more food on the shelves than the population actually needs. Accordingly, an enormous portion of this food, before expiring, ends up in the trash bin. It is exchanged on the shelves for newly received, fresh product. And this is despite the fact that of the seven billion people currently living on Earth, almost one billion of them are starving.
I understood from Tristram, that just as there are standards for super-models in the fashion industry, in the same way, products seen on supermarket shelves are also checked for their outward appearance. Thus if a potato does not satisfy cosmetic standards by not being round enough, it doesn't make it onto the supermarket shelves. Having been rejected, it is left to rot on the farm.
“Many have a hard time grasping that the choices they make every day when buying food, are in reality, moral choices. These choices define our morals in general,” Tristram explained during our first meeting.
“Look,” he pelted me without stopping, “You go to the supermarket, you buy what you want and you don’t notice that all the bananas are identical. It never occurs to you to ask yourself what happened to the remaining bananas. During every harvest, mountains of rejected – or those of an inappropriate size – warped or melded bananas, sit in Ecuador. You can't see this, it is too far away. But this is what I am implying when I mention morals.”
He has hit me in a tender spot.
“Fine then, is it representative of my immorality and that of my peers whether some Ecuadorian peasant's bananas are rotting or not?”
“Yeah, everything starts at the individual level. I'm an activist, thus I try to help you understand that not wasting food has to become a part of culture and as soon as this becomes a value then you will no longer throw a wedge of cheese yellowing on the edges into the trash – you'll peel the edges off and eat it with gusto. Are you unable to notice that you are the marketing victim of supermarkets and brands in general?”
It really is like this: I go to the supermarket to buy some bread and suddenly find myself in the yogurt aisle – yogurt with ginger, yogurt with honey, organic yogurt, skim, whole, with fruit, with chocolate, runny, expensive, cheap, three for the price of two. There is the cheese aisle with the same varied assortment… Tell me how can I pass by this extremely tasty goat cheese and maintain such indifference?
“You've come in to buy some bread!” I remind myself, but in the end, I don't know how I managed to leave with a stuffed backpack and a £30 receipt. Otherwise, the bread cost £2.50.
“Yet, that which ends up in the dump from our plate is a drop in the ocean compared to what they throw in the trash at supermarkets and then bolt the bins shut so no one opens them.”
“Fine, Tristram, come, let's follow it from the beginning. How does the chain beginning with the consumer continue?”
“The supermarkets are the strongest body in the food supply chain and they have the luxury of loading their expenses on someone else. 80% of the food on the market in Great Britain is controlled by 4-5 companies, yet thousands of farmers supply them. Only three years ago, I had Parliament establish a law of landmark importance, according to which supermarkets no longer have the right to cancel an order and the expectation that a supply farmer will pick up the charges. The company is duty-bound to divide the charges with the farmer. Today there is already a person in the government who can levy fines to supermarkets at 1% of the general return if it breaks the law. In the case of Tesco, this is almost a billion pounds.
Yet, the products that the supermarket gives up to be thrown away are only a small percentage of the rejected or excessive food at the consumer level. One-third of the harvest doesn’t make it onto the shelves when the supermarket cancels an order at the last minute due to a decrease in product demand or because the food is cosmetically defective.
If you were to ask me, I am confident that I would answer that it is unacceptable for a family living in Kenya to remain without food and education simply because it has spent all its money in bringing the harvest to us. Because of our laws, they had to throw this harvest away and no one compensated them for this. This is despite us paying money for the system to exist,” Tristram laments.
On that very sidewalk, I realized that our meeting wouldn't be an ordinary one, but after our first interview, I became even more convinced in this. I visited him one morning at home to take some photographs. He was eating a bowl of oatmeal along with a young child. He lives in East London, has a small house with a garden and beehives. Fruits and vegetables are received either from a community garden (they are also called neighborhood gardens and quite a few have them already sprouted-up in Britain), or it comes from a village farm along with meat products. This environment – uncut grass, an old, but good household, a few bushes left to their own devices with red flowers, and Tristram, wearing an old turtleneck sweater and rubber boots living modestly among it all – finally convinced me that a completely tangible routine can be found beyond the sermon that he gave to me during the interview. It seems, I still needed the facts before being convinced that the things Tristram was preaching were not just empty words – people really can live this way.
Tristram grew up on a farm in Sussex. He was 15-years-old when they bought some pigs and chickens. He has been observing discarded food since that time – once he even tried the bread he originally had prepared for his pigs. “This was the first occasion when I ate food set aside to be thrown away, and I did this with a complete purpose – I had then shown those around me for the first time that throwing out food is an injustice to nature and starving people,” Tristram tells me. “I was ten-years-old when I wrote a letter to McDonald's informing them that I would henceforth no longer eat anything at their restaurant if they didn't stop using CFC packaging. The manager of the local restaurant responded to me via letter: 'You will probably be happy to understand that we will soon no longer use CFC packaging.' Of course, I thought this change had been caused by my letter.
What naïvety – but what can I do? The belief that people can really change something on an individual basis follows me to this day.”
In the beginning, he was an ordinary freegan. While studying at Cambridge University he had eaten almost nothing else – only food gathered from garbage bins. After graduating from the university however, he began a public campaign: In 2002, he took various media outlets into supermarket yards and showed them the wasted food.
“At this time there was no law in existence pertaining to discarded food, people's perception at the governmental, corporate, or individual levels was naught. In order to get the media interested, I had to supply them with stories and this is why I invited them to supermarket bunkers, showed them the food, and told them that it is possible to distribute all of this to shelters, as it is unspoiled. This was a really good way to say that thrown-out food is an enormous problem and we are the problem as well, the people who willingly or unwillingly facilitate this,” Tristram tells me.
Clearly, the situation radically changed after 2002, even freegans and activists who lobbied for a change in the legislature multiplied in number. Yet still, in 2009, he thought no one would go to a gigantic feast he had scheduled at Trafalgar Square. The event was named “Feed 5k” and every guest would be treated to dishes made from left-over products.
“At approximately 12:30, I looked out across the square from the balcony. There was a vast line of people and I realized that I had achieved my goal,” he says.
Needless to say, communication with the media, large campaigns to increase awareness and meetings with members of Parliament to improve legislation – this is now Tristram's schedule. It's been a long time since he was just a freegan, sometimes alongside this he spends a few days in a field – he picks cabbage along with other volunteers, which are then distributed to philanthropic organizations. Gleaning Network – a collection network – is another one of his projects that connect volunteers, farmers, and charitable houses with one another. When a member farmer of this network gathers up the harvest, the excess harvest is given to volunteers. The volunteers go, gather up the vegetables themselves, and deliver them to charitable houses.
From 2012 to 2015, the Gleaning Network of Great Britain has saved 188 tons of products from spoiling, which is comparable to more than 2 million portions of fruit and vegetables.
I remember when I returned home from Tristram's house, I stealthily opened the refrigerator door, stood for a few moments with eyes closed, then looked in and... Now I try not to let what I encountered in there happen again. If prior to meeting Tristram I would go to the supermarket hungry and without a list and throw everything that my starving brain wanted into the cart without thinking, I now go with a list, having eaten on purpose beforehand, buying only that which lasts me for about a week. I'll confess to you that at times I even eat products with gusto after the date has expired – cheese, eggs, milk, vegetables... In other words, almost nothing is thrown into the compost bin from the refrigerator, apart from the peels. If I'm eating in a restaurant or cafe, I only order one dish and if I'm really hungry and ask the waiter to bring too much, I bring the remaining food home.
My friends make fun of me and will probably make fun of you as well when you demand two khinkali and half a kebab to be bagged up at the Tbilisi-based restaurant Shemoikhede Genatsvale, but then remind yourself where the left-over khinkali and kebab will end up if you won't take them with and you will be more ignore the friends' laughter.
Soon, living like this will become a habit for you as well: you will no longer throw out food, you'll toast old bread, use wilted vegetables in borscht, fruit in juice, and however many times you are unable to save a shrunken, dried-out carrot in time from throwing away, your heart will be so broken that you will slowly but surely reduce your food garbage to zero.
Activists say that before food from our refrigerator winds up in the bin, at a minimum we can give it three other purposes – share it with another (before it’s spoiled), feed it to domestic animals, or turn it into compost.
I even know the newest British statistics from Tristram: the wasting of domestic food remnants has decreased by 21% in Britain. In industries, it is comparatively less, at approximately 15%. These numbers already reveal to me that we can change the entire system and our own morals if we try.
“It will be an achievement if we stop the logging of forests, if the world is not hungry, if we eliminate the process that suppresses biodiversity and causes the erosion of the soil. If we have a one-percent chance of waking up the giant that now sleeps, then we truly must not be reluctant to spend our energy on this,” Tristram tells me.
“Who's the giant?”
“We are. We, the mass of world citizens. We can change everything if we wake up and oppose the machine that desires to change nature into money at the expense of producing food. I'm not saying we must eliminate capitalism in order to solve this problem (which itself wouldn't be bad), but we can begin producing food through our moral principles.
Let's produce food so that the planet and its resources aren't destroyed, so that a billion people aren't left hungry in the face of a flood of food, so that a third of the food produced in the world is not wasted.
Yet, I don't like waving my finger and being a moralist, there is a celebration in the very heart of this campaign – a celebration of humanity and nature, taking pleasure in life. I also like feasting, I like hedonistic pleasures, and I like food as a connecting bridge between people and the planet. The important thing is becoming conscious that we now have this feasting and hedonism every day and we don't think about the planet that sustains us.”
After meeting with Tristram, I also better see the entire picture. I don't like beer, otherwise I would only drink Toast. Tristram and his friends are bottling Toast, this is their most recent project. A contract was signed with the cafés that have sandwiches on the menu and they no longer waste the unseemly ends of the bread loaves, Tristram and his friends take theses unneeded parts of bread and make beer. That's why they named it “Toast”.
Toast was for sale in Notting Hill at one newly-opened café called Tiny Leaf, which for London is one of the rare restaurants that serve food remnants. This means that everything they have on the menu is made from cosmetically defective products destined to be wasted. “It is true, people turn their noses up at it, but our clientele is growing slowly but surely,” said the founder of the café.
That evening they invited Tristram Stuart to Tiny Leaf. He gave a speech, then began a Q&A session. He enthusiastically answered everything. I was happy that I already knew all of what he said.