In a Szechuan restaurant in Sheffield, I stare at a large circular table. On it are plates of glistening food – braised aubergine, sautéed water spinach with garlic, a bowl of soup and mounds of rice. I’d happily try some of the soft vegetables or scoop the warm rice onto my plate, but this is not my table. Nor is this the beginning of a meal. What I'm looking at, hungrily, are the remains of some fellow restaurant-goers, who, for whatever reason, have left without eating much of their food. Food that social protocol stops me from walking over and helping myself to.
Food waste is a problem in the UK. According to research by food waste charity WRAP, around 10 million tonnes of food was wasted from households, as well as the hospitality, food manufacture, retail and wholesale sectors in 2015 – 70 percent of which was meant to be consumed by people. This is valued at £20 billion a year, and associated with more than 25 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions. When it comes to restaurants, there’s a lot to do. The food sector is responsible for 0.4 million tonnes of “avoidable food waste” a year, and anyone who’s worked in a kitchen can testify for the unnecessary amount of food chucked every day.
Various solutions are emerging to combat the issue of food waste in the restaurant industry. Sustainable restaurants like Silo and CUB in London turn leftover ingredients into dishes and drinks, and apps like Olio and Too Good To Go encourage both individuals and companies to redistribute unwanted food. But what if we’re missing a trick here? Could social awkwardness and squeamishness about hygiene be getting in the way of a solution to saving loads of leftover food from restaurants?
After my experience in Sheffield, I just couldn’t shake the idea that we all needed to be a bit less weird about food left in restaurants, especially when it is basically untouched and unwanted. Arguably, restaurant waste – especially meals that have been served – make up a very small percentage of food wasted in the UK, but every little bit helps, right? Also, I’m a hungry person who will willingly eat more than my portion if it’s in the name of the environment.
So, on a mid-week lunch break, I head to a popular high street restaurant near my office to test this theory. My plan is to order my own food and then, like a food waste guardian angel, minesweep leftovers from the plates of others once they’ve left. As long as it doesn’t look weird, and the food is definitely unwanted, it’s mine.
I take a seat strategically away from the ordering counter to avoid being spotted and berated by staff. Also, coincidentally, I’ve come dressed entirely in black for maximum cat burglar vibes. Despite knowing that this food will literally be heading for the bin, I’m nervous. The social rules of dining out are that you definitely do not touch people’s leftover food, possibly for health reasons, but also because of a stigma around eating leftovers as an act associated with those who are homeless or have little money. Nevertheless, I ignore this fear and push on with my plan.
Sitting at the table with my companion, we wait for our order. I keep an eye on my surrounding diners, watching to see when they finally get up to leave. The first dish I steal is a perfectly good bowl of coleslaw, left on someone’s table. An easy win. Like an arsonist getting a taste for fire after setting a bin alight, I look for something bigger. I get up and survey some leftover chicken on a large table near me. Unfortunately, it’s almost all finished, so I leave the carcass where it is and pretend that I was simply borrowing the ketchup bottle.
Then – bam – a gold mine. I secure a bit of salad from one plate, and chips from another. This is going well, and I feel like a full meal could be on the horizon. I’ve carefully dodged the waiters so far, who are luckily too busy to pick up all the plates before I can get to them.
Suddenly, the man sitting alone on the table next to me looks like he is coming to the end of his meal. He gets up and leaves. All I have to do is reach over and bring the plate to my table, meaning little risk of getting caught by waiters, or publicly shamed and humiliated. Once he’s out of sight, I reach over and grab the plate and slowly start to bring it towards me. I look at my companion, who suddenly starts to gesture wildly. Oh God. Oh God. He hasn’t left. I repeat: the man has not left. In an intense panic, I place the plate down back on his table but I’m not quick enough. He stares at me like I've literally just murdered a cat and tried to offer it to him as a gift.
“What are you doing?” he says, angrily. A fair response!
I explain the situation and apologise profusely. I offer him some of my olives (not leftover) as an apology.
“Oh, OK,” he says. “I saw you looking at other people’s food. I thought you were just hungry.”
After he *actually* leaves, I steal half of his Coke.
As the lunchtime diners start to dissipate and opportunities to reclaim lost food disappear, I survey my winnings. One coleslaw, lots of chips, some salad, some cucumber and a drink. Almost some chicken and some pitta that I left because it looked too gross. Not bad, but not really a lunch. Luckily, the restaurant I’m in offers takeaway boxes, so if you really wanted to, you could box up strangers’ leftovers and enjoy a lukewarm version later.
Of course, stealing half-eaten food off people’s plates isn’t long-term a solution to food waste, nor is it particularly, uh, safe. Official NHS guidelines say that food poisoning can be transmitted via food that is left out for too long or handled by someone who has not washed their hands, so here is as good a point as any to remind readers: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. While we should all probably be a little less weird about eating perfectly good food that’s left over, the biggest food waste culprits are farms and manufacturers. This is where pressure from individuals, as well as government legislation should be focused.
“When you think of the amount of resources that go into growing, transporting and preparing food for human consumption, it’s shocking just how much is wasted,” Jess Glyn, from food waste charity FareShare tells me. “There’s lots of things you can personally do to help reduce food waste, from planning your meals in advance and buying only what you need, to sharing food with your neighbours using the Olio app. You can also pick up unsold food that's still good to eat from restaurants using the Too Good To Go app.”
Clearly, “eat food off other people’s plates” isn’t an official piece of advice from charities, but what do hospitality staff think? Before I leave the restaurant, I ask the manager how she would feel about a customer trying to take someone else’s leftovers, and what would happen if, “theoretically,” I were to try this.
“I would have to ask them to leave the restaurant,” she tells me. “If they asked the customer if they could have that food, that would be more than fine, but without the provision of the customer sitting next to you, I wouldn’t allow that to happen.”
Would it be weird if someone tried to eat the leftover food? “Yes, that’s very weird,” she laughs. “I would consider that as weird.”
Yes. Har har. Very weird.