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Who owns discarded food? Kentish Town’s independent traders react to arrest of trio who raided Iceland food skip

10:00 06 February 2014

Paul May, one of three men caught taking cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and Mr Kipling cakes from bins outside Iceland in Kentish Town Road. Picture: Martin Godwin

Paul May, one of three men caught taking cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and Mr Kipling cakes from bins outside Iceland in Kentish Town Road. Picture: Martin Godwin

© Guardian News & Media Ltd.

A supermarket in Kentish Town has found itself at the centre of a raging debate over food waste and food poverty after three men were ordered to appear in court for taking unwanted food out of a bin.

Paul May, 35, William James, 23, and Jason Chan, 31, were arrested in October last year after scaling a wall and taking £33 worth of tomatoes, cheese, mushrooms and Mr Kipling cakes from a dustbin outside Iceland in Kentish Town Road.

Last week the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) revealed the men, who currently live in a north London squat, would appear at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court charged not with theft but with “being on enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose” –an obscure offence under the 1824 Vagrancy Act.

But a public outcry over the case of the “Iceland Three” – including condemnation from founder and owner of Iceland, Malcolm Walker – led the CPS to reverse its decision and drop all charges.

Despite almost appearing in court, Mr James said he would do it again.

He told the BBC: “I don’t think [the food] belongs to anybody, it is in a bin and no-one wants it.

“I couldn’t afford to feed everyone I live with and I don’t want to eat on my own.”

The affair has since led to much soul-searching about the amount our supermarkets waste and a rise of 12.6 per cent above inflation in food prices over the past six years. Almost 350,000 people in the UK rely on food banks to get their next meal.

According to the government’s own waste advisory body, Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the UK throws away 15million tonnes of food every year.

Tesco generated almost 30,000 tonnes of food waste across its stores in the first six months of last year alone.

The astronomical levels prompted calls by the British Retail Consortium to urge the big supermarkets to make public their annual waste figures – to which they agreed last week.

But they remain reluctant to give people free rein over their bins.

Opponents of the “bin-divers”, “skippers” or “freegans” – the names often given to those raiding bins for food – see them as shunning consumerism and benefiting while the rest of the public is left to pay for the cost of producing food.

But many of the independent restaurants and cafes neighbouring Iceland along Kentish Town Road disagree.

“We give food all the time to the local church and school,” said Nicole Catarau, deputy manager at Tolli Patisserie.

“Bread, chicken, sausages, cakes – all to people who can’t afford to buy stuff anyway. It’s completely crazy to take someone to court just for rummaging in bins.

“If I saw someone like that I’d invite them in for a coffee and a sandwich - that’s what we should be doing – not locking them up.”

Harry Dasht, owner of Harry’s Fine Food, agreed, calling it “madness”.

“We are social creatures - we live together and nobody can survive on their own,” he said.

“These are hard times and we need to help each other.

“I don’t have much but I give what I can to a few families who are really struggling – one is a single mother whose kids are barely getting enough to eat, it’s shocking.

“In other parts of the world big supermarkets actually have their own soup kitchens where they give away what they would normally have to throw away.

“Maybe that’s what they should be doing here.”

One organisation hoping to match the waste with the needy is Foodcycle.

Set up in 2009, it has branches across the country including one in north London.

“We have working partnerships with a number of supermarkets to take food between its ‘best-before’ and ‘used-by’ dates,” said Steven Hawkes, communications manager.

“We give people a three course meal in comfortable surroundings and all for free.

“But to those calling them freeloaders – that really is bizarre.

“The vast majority just need the help we are more than able to give them.”

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