On stealing food

Iceland Foods - Kentish Town RoadWithin a mile of the Iceland on Kentish Town Road (the Trussell Trust’s find-your-nearest-foodbank map provides this information) there are two foodbanks: Chalk Farm and Camden.

A recent food banks report discovers 960 emergency food providers (food banks and soup kitchens) operating in the UK, and this may not be a complete list.

The Kentish Tower ran an article on then-new foodbank at Chalk Farm Baptist Church in April last year:

Who comes to the foodbank? In theory, people can receive a maximum of three vouchers in a row to discourage reliance, although longer term support is available at the discretion of the foodbank manager. “One thing that has surprised me is how open people are,” said Sammy, “when talking about their current situation. A lot of it is delayed benefits – or people who’ve had an injury and can’t physically work.”


The media picture of people who eat food raided from supermarket bins is rather different – in October the Independent got a student at York University to write about her experience as a bin raider:

Those who condemn us for eating from bins often do it without realising the scale of the food that is wasted by supermarkets on a daily basis, and the fatuous reasons for which some of it is thrown away. The food we eat is perfectly fine; you just need a basic knowledge of food safety in order to avoid getting sick. We’ve even eaten mussels and prawns from the bins, without ever getting sick ourselves. Quite often perfectly good food ends up in the dumpster just for superficial packaging damage.

There are unwritten rules most bin raiders abide by (oh yes, there are lots of us). The most important is never to take everything in the bins. I will never forget the guilt of seeing people who clearly needed the food much more than we did rooting around after we had been raiding the bins empty for weeks. Another is to leave the bins as you found them (if slightly emptier) – there’s no way the supermarkets aren’t aware that people live off their waste, yet they let it slide if you don’t mess up their back yards.

The three men were caught by the police when someone called in that they’d seen figures climbing over the wall into the supermarket’s back yard. The Crown Prosecution Service can’t charge them with burglary, because they hadn’t broken in and they technically hadn’t stolen anything from Iceland, as the food they took had already been discarded:

Police arrested the men as they left the area with a holdall and trolley containing food. The total value of the items taken allegedly amounted to £33 and they were of low value, consisting of tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and Mr Kipling cakes.

Initially arrested for burglary, the three men were charged under an obscure section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, after being discovered in “an enclosed area, namely Iceland, for an unlawful purpose, namely stealing food”.

Police returned the items to the Iceland store.

…and the supermarket would then have returned them to the rubbish bin from which they were taken, to be thrown away. [See Iceland’s statement.]

Paul May, one of the three men, is a freelance web designer who lives in a squat. His case will go to court in February. His defence is expected to be that “he does not consider taking the mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, and cakes from the garbage outside of Iceland as illegal, because the food was going to be disposed of and he needed it to feed himself”.

As part of Mr May’s case, magistrates are expected to take into consideration the practice of “skipping”, where people retrieve and eat food discarded by supermarkets as waste, as well as the reasons why people may need to resort eating food from bins.

Lawyers for the three men have asked the Crown Prosecution Service to consider dropping the case, but the CPS said this month that the case would continue, citing “significant public interest in prosecuting these three individuals”.

The BBC was reporting last May that the increase in need for foodbanks in London had been huge.

Food For All, a charity based in Camden, reports:

We are feeding 1,000 people daily from 5 locations in Central London alone. Due to the recession, the council has cut the funding to most of the day centres, which includes ours in Kings Cross. Services were already grim before the cuts and now the council are unable to offer adequate help to the marginalized community.

Trussell Trust Food banks - rising useA Greater London Authority project, the London Food Board, worked with Ipsos MORI to provide a “snap shot of child hunger and food poverty“:

Aware that the prevailing economic climate and rising food prices have placed family budgets under increasing strain, we interviewed over 500 parents and 500 children, at all income levels and across London, to understand the impact that hunger has on their lifestyle.

The Department of Work and Pensions has been busily denying that there is any such thing as food poverty in the UK. Conservative MPs treated the foodbanks debate in the House of Commons as a joke: Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey both left the debate early, and 296 Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs voted against having an investigation into the rise of foodbank use.

Fiona Twycross wrote in London: A Zero Hunger City, the aspirational document produced by the GLA in March 2013:

Among those resorting to foodbanks are people in low paid work and all too many people in London who are in work are still earning below the London Living Wage. They are no longer able to juggle the pressures of rising debt, increasing rents and escalating fuel bills. At the same time welfare changes and effective cuts in pay are hitting people.

Large numbers of children are fed by foodbanks in London. Many children in our schools arrive hungry. The survey conducted for this report shows that over 95% of teachers who responded said children in their schools regularly went without breakfast. Over half said this was because families could not afford food. These children’s health, educational attainment and life chances are threatened by hunger. This is shameful and is completely unacceptable. Neither breakfast clubs nor free school meals reach all children living in
poverty nor do they feed all children who are hungry.

Britain Isn't EatingWhy, in a city where people going hungry and charities which provide food to those who need it want donations, is any supermarket throwing out food?

A sales associate at Iceland is paid on average £6.30 an hour: the duty manager is paid £6.76 an hour. (From the Glass Door website.) The UK Living Wage is £7.65 per hour and the new London Living Wage is £8.80 per hour. You won’t find Iceland – or any other supermarket – on the list of Living Wage employers.

That it is Iceland who will serve as the test case to prove the “public interest” in prosecuting people who steal discarded food is almost incidental: it could have been any supermarket. None of them pay a living wage: all of them discard tonnes of edible food.

Pedro Pete wrote in Boycott Workfare in July last year, about an “assessment session” that he and a number of other unemployed people had attended, hoping for a job at Iceland. It was revealed at the assessment session only that the jobs Iceland were offering were 7 and a half hours a week (at £6.30 an hour, £47.25 before deductions). Then the Iceland staff all left, and:

The immediate chatter around the room was that of “if we leave now our benefits would be stopped” and “we can’t live on 7 ½ per week” etc.

I may be paranoid but several points concern me:

• Application forms were given out at the [job centre] so they (the JC ) could monitor who had collected/returned those forms

• The length of contracts was kept secret so that people were “entrapped” into applying for what most believed would be full time jobs or contracts of at least 16 hours per week

• If anyone should leave the “assessment session” due to finding the hours insufficient then Iceland would inform JCP/Work Program and would have their benefits sanctioned

And where do people go when their benefits are sanctioned? To a foodbank: or to steal the edible food thrown away by the supermarkets.

In effect, employers who do not pay a living wage are demanding that taxpayers subsidise the cost of their staff. This situation of people who cannot afford to buy food stealing the food the supermarkets throw away is a telling illustration of the economic benefits of paying a living wage – and the economic cost of sanctioning benefits.

Anatole France

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.
(La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain. Le Lys Rouge [The Red Lily] (1894), ch. 7 – Anatole France)

Update, a few hours later

The Crown Prosecution Service have decided not to prosecute.

“While the decision to charge was taken by the Metropolitan Police Service, a subsequent review of the case by the CPS did not give due weight to the public interest factors tending against prosecution,” said Baljit Ubhey from the CPS. “In reconsidering this case, we have had particular regard to the seriousness of the alleged offence and the level of harm done. Both of these factors weigh against a prosecution.

“Additionally, further representations received today from Iceland Foods have affected our assessment of the public interest in prosecuting.”

Curiously enough, “significant public interest” was the reason originally given by the CPS for following through on the Metropolitan Police’s decision to bring charges.

My guess is, the order of events was: the police were called by someone who saw three men climbing over the wall. (Fair play: could have been anything.) The men were held for 19 hours while the Metropolitan Police tried to find something to charge them with, since burglary didn’t fit a non-break in and non-theft of goods already discarded by their owner. The Crown Prosecution Service simply regarded the Met’s desire to prosecute as “public interest”. The public outcry (and Iceland’s realisation that this would be a public relations disaster for the chain) made CPS reconsider.

Shouldn’t questions be asked why the Metropolitan Police ever thought it would be “in the public interest” to prosecute three men for the crime of “stealing” food that had been thrown away?

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Filed under About Food, Charities, Children, Poverty

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