Pigs being reared on a blitzed area of north London in April 1944. Photograph: FLPA/Alamy
Swill was a matter of national pride in the war years. Households saved food waste in pig bins. Food, then and now, has become part of a national debate from where we bought it, to how we eat it and to how we dispose of it. In the rationing years, government set food prices; prices that were sometimes broken by some unethical people who got rich by inflating the price and then selling in bulk. In 1944, John Gilbert was exposed selling strawberries at 15/- per 2 lb basket which exceeded the maximum price set by the government. He was fined £2 but could easily afford it.
This problem is still with us today, food is costing us a fortune and we have become a culture of buy-to-bin when it comes to fruit and vegetables. We’re doing it now in our homes, at our desk at work; it is happening in our sandwich shops, fast food chains, supermarkets, restaurants and takeaways. In the five minutes you will take to read this article, 140 tonnes of food will have gone into landfill and a year from now an estimated 15 million tonnes of food will have been wasted. Food is costing us a fortune to bin. UK households alone chuck out 4.2 million tonnes of food a year, costing us £13bn.
UK households chuck out 4.2 million tonnes of food a year. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
So, now where do you stand on swill? Our buy-to-bin lifestyle could be blamed on supermarkets, a fast-paced society or our love affair with fast food. If you want to see who is to blame go through your cupboards, your fridges and the fruit bowl and tell me is there anything in there that is out of date or rotten? You are not alone in this problem, millions of us do it.
The way we changed our food waste habits started small, even before we started our wartime garden two years ago after moving to our current home, Pig Row. We started in our tiny kitchen in our suburban home and learned how to preserve. There were jams that reminded me and my wife, Carol, of our childhood making jams with our grandparents. Then there were other jams; niche jams made with some rum from Christmas, which obliterated most of our memories of being kids and left us with furry tongues.
Back then we didn’t have a large garden, allotment or access to a food co-operative. We did have local markets. Carol has always had an eye for a bargain – it is something that I admire but at the same time I know to get out of the way of her sharp elbows. We used to visit those local markets first thing in the morning and on our way back home after work. At the end of the day we would fill the boot of the car and find ourselves getting excited about buying all the strawberries left on a stall for pence, not pounds.
Even today, we cannot pass a market at the end of day without coming away with something in season to process: plums, apples, courgettes turned into pies and pickles. Long after the original produce would have rotted and gone into the bin we are eating fruit leathers, homemade ice cream, drinking our cordials and wines. In the kitchen we have a board stating what is ready to eat from the garden and we create meals to using what is being harvested. We still make mistakes but our gluts never make it to the bin; they are processed, pickled or frozen. If for any reason we do have anything rotten on the plot, it has a new life in the compost heap. The wartime garden has taught us that vegetables and fruit have a long shelf life when processed.
• Life on Pig Row is the story of Andrew and Carol Oldham’s move from urban life to semi-urban life in a small hamlet on top of the Pennines surrounded by the Yorkshire Moors.