I spent a week eating discarded restaurant food. But is it really a waste?

It was 10pm on a Wednesday night and I was standing in the Blessings, a deli in south London, half-listening to a customer talking earnestly about Jesus. I nodded in agreement, trying to pay attention as the reggae music echoed across the small yellow storefront. But really, all I could really think about was: What’s in the bag?

Today’s bag is blue plastic. A smiling man passed it across the counter. Only when I escaped the religious lecture and returned home did I discover what was inside: Caribbean salted fish, white rice, vegetables and a bowl of thick brown porridge.

All week, I’ve been living off mysterious packages like these, given away by cafes, takeaways and restaurants across London. Inside was food that had once been thrown in the trash. Instead, I rescued it by using Too good to go, a Danish application that is becoming more and more popular and selling more and more 120 million meal last year and expanding rapidly in the US. For five days, I decided to switch my weekly food budget to eating only through the app, paying between 3 and 6 pounds (about 4 and 8 dollars) for meals ranging from a few cakes to a giant grocery box, in an attempt to understand what a tech company can teach me about food waste in my city.

Users who open the TGTG app will see a list of establishments that have food on hand now or are expected to have it in the near future. Provided with a brief description of the restaurant, prices and times. Users pay through the app but this is not a delivery service. Surprise bags—customers only have a vague idea of ​​their contents before purchasing—must be picked up in person.

I began my experiment at 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning, in the sparkling lobby of the Novotel, steps from the River Thames. Of all the breakfast options available the night before, this was the most convenient—it was on the way to my office and offered a pick-up spot, meaning I could make the 10 o’clock meeting am. When I said I was here for TGTG, a vested receptionist nodded and pointed toward the breakfast buffet. This branch of Novotel is a £200-a-night hotel, yet staff didn’t seem to begrudge the £4.50 entrance fee I paid in exchange for leftover breakfast. One homeless charity told me that their customers like the app for exactly that reason; Cheap food, no discrimination. A polite waiter handed me a white plastic surprise bag with two polystyrene boxes inside, as if I were another guest.

I opened the boxes in my office. One is filled with small pastries, while the other is filled with full English. Two fried eggs sit on top of a mountain of scrambled eggs. Four hot dogs jostle for space with a bunch of mushrooms. I diligently began eating – a cold fried egg, a mushroom, all four sausages. I finished with a croissant. This was enough to make me feel extremely full, almost sick, so I donated the croissants to the office kitchen and put the rest in the trash. This seems like a disappointing start. I should have rescued the leftovers, not thrown them away.

For the next two days, I lived as a forager in my city, spending my days around pickup trucks. I walk and cycle to cafes, restaurants, markets, supermarkets; to familiar places and places I had never paid attention to. Some surprise bags can only be used for one meal, others can last for several days. On Tuesday morning, my £3.59 surprise bag included a small cake and a loaf of slightly stale sourdough bread to provide breakfast for three more days. When I returned to the same cafe the following week without using the app, the loaf of bread alone cost £6.95.

TGTG was founded in Copenhagen in 2015 by a group of Danish entrepreneurs. They feel upset about the amount of food wasted by all-you-can-eat buffets. Their idea of ​​reusing that waste was quickly successful and the application’s scope of operations expanded to restaurants and supermarkets. A year after the company was founded, Mette Lykke was sitting on a bus when a woman showed her the app and how it worked. She was so impressed that she contacted the company to ask if she could help. Lykke has now been CEO for six years.

“I just hate wasting resources,” she said. “It’s just a win-win concept.” To her, restaurants win because they get paid for food they would have otherwise thrown away; customers win because they get good deals while discovering new places; and the environment wins because, she says, food waste contributes 10 percent our global greenhouse gas emissions. When discarded food rots in landfills, it goes to waste methane into the atmosphere—with homes and restaurants being the two largest contributors.

But this app doesn’t leave me with the impression that I’m saving the planet. Instead, I feel like I’m on a daily treasure hunt for bargains. On Wednesday, TGTG took me to a railway arch that functions as a warehouse for the grocery delivery app Gorillas. Before I could utter the words “Too good to go,” a teenager with excessively long hair quietly appeared from the alleys of shelves with tonight’s bag: groceries, days away. freshly expired, which suspiciously adds up to create an entire meal for two people. For £5.50 I got fresh pasta, pesto, cream, bacon, leeks and a bag of sautéed vegetables which my husband combined into a (delicious) pasta dish. It feels too convenient to be actual trash. Maybe Gorillas are trying to make me their own customer? When I asked its parent company, Getir, how selling food on time helps combat food waste, the company did not respond to my email.

I was still thinking about my Gorillas experience at lunchtime on Thursday when I followed the app’s directions to the Wowshee falafel market stall, where 14 other people were lining the street. After a few random conversations later, I realized I was one of at least four TGTG users. Seeing so many of us in the same place makes me wonder if restaurants are just using the app as a form of advertising. But Wowshee owner Ahmed El Shimi describes the marketing benefits as just a “small bonus.” For him, the main appeal of the app is that it helps reduce waste. “We have to sell the product we were going to throw away anyway,” he said. “And it protects the environment at the same time.” El Shimi, who said he sells about 20 surprise bags a day, estimates using TGTG reduces the amount of food the store wastes by about 60%. El Shimi said when I paid £5 for two portions of falafel – for lunch and dinner – the business received £3.75 before tax. “It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.”

On Friday, my last day of testing, everything fell apart. I didn’t sleep well and woke up late. The loaf of bread from earlier in the week was very hard. I had a couple of mini apple pies for breakfast, part of a generous Morrisons supermarket delivery of £3.09 the night before. Browsing the app, nothing appealed to me and even if it did I was too tired to leave the house to get it. After four days of eating nothing but wasted food, I sought solace in familiar ingredients hidden in my cupboard: two fried eggs on my favorite brand of grainy brown bread.

TGTG is not a convenient solution. For me, this app is the solution to office lunch discomfort. It pulled me out of my lazy routine while also helping me eat well — in central London — on a £5 budget. While waiting in line for falafel, I met a friend who uses the app who told me that before she discovered the app, she would eat the same sandwich from the same supermarket every day. lunch every day. For those without access to the kitchen, it provides a connection to the underground world of surplus hot dishes.

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