PARIS (Reuters Life!) - It’s closing time at a market in Belleville, a working-class neighborhood in Paris, and a young woman in a black parka and white cap is rummaging through the abandoned crates.
After a thorough inspection, she slips a cauliflower and some slightly squashed oranges into her shopping bag.
“That’s going to be my dinner,” says the woman, who will only give her name as Yng.
Nearby, an old man with a black beret selects two mangoes from the bottom of a battered cardboard box. He earlier bought a bag of apples, then filled his basket with discarded fruit and vegetables.
“Glanage,” or gleaning, is a French tradition that reaches back to the Middle Ages, when people would go over the fields after the harvest and gather any crops that remained.
But today, the practice is becoming more widespread in cities, in what charity workers and social activists describe as a sign of growing economic despair.
At the market in Belleville, three women curse each other in French and Arabic as they fight over a bag of leeks.
“Those are mine, I picked them up,” one of them says, pressing the bulging bag to her chest.
“Thief!” another one shouts at her.
Around them, more than 10 other people of all ages gather as much as they can before the cleaning crew arrives. Some of the traders encourage them.
“It’s a gift, a gift,” says Ali, a stall owner who declines to give his second name. “I give it away, otherwise it would just be discarded anyway,” he adds, as two women hastily fill their blue plastic bags before hurrying away.
“It’s difficult for me, I have six children and my husband is dead,” says a woman in a black headscarf. Like the other foragers, she prefers to remain anonymous.
Fields and markets are no longer the only hunting grounds of thrifty “glaneurs.” Every evening, people collect fruit, eggs and yoghurts past their expiry date from containers behind the big supermarkets.
Christophe Auxerre, national secretary of Secours Populaire, a charity, sees the revival in foraging as a symbol of growing social problems.
“There are people who go hungry in our country. On the 15th of every month, there’s no money left to fill the plates,” he said. “There are shop owners who deliberately put the eggs on top in the rubbish bin so that people can pick them up.”
His charity has helped two million people in 2008, compared with 1.5 million in 2007.
A report presented last week by Martin Hirsch, a left-wing former charity boss who is now in charge of a government-backed social welfare program, found that today’s “glaneurs” come from a great variety of social backgrounds.
“(The economic crisis) is one more element in the picture of a vulnerable section of society, who have to be helped in a very concrete way,” Hirsch told reporters.
“Apart from the poverty line, there’s the concept of ‘what’s left to live on’ — what’s left to pay for food, clothing, transport and so on — and for some people, that’s just a few euros per day,” he added.
For a small group of scavengers, gathering discarded food is also a way of protesting against a consumerist society and its wastefulness, and against the rising cost of living in France.
Left-wing activists have been organizing “wild picnics” in supermarkets for the past few months, taking products off the shelves and offering them to customers for free — a creative interpretation of a French law that gives customers the right to taste certain products before buying them.
“We do that at the end of each month, when the pockets are empty. It allows us to pass on a message: everything is going up, except salaries,” said Victor Porcel, a member of l’Appel et la Pioche, a left-wing movement.
Writing by Sophie Hardach, editing by Paul Casciato