Meditations from the Waste Stream

Last weekend, I had the amazing experience of being inside the first Rooting Symposium event, a springtime brunch at Ken Dunn‘s impressive City Farm. Dunn also runs the Resource Center, whose aim is to reclaim underused resources of all kinds, and much of the food was sourced from Chicago’s waste stream. This is of interest to me because, since giving up my university teaching position, moving to Chicago and becoming a graduate student, I’ve extended my urban foraging activities into what I consider their alternate form, dumpster diving.

To be more specific, I’ve learned a lot about what is euphemistically referred to as “food insecurity.” This term refers less to the fact that a person is going hungry as to the fact that she may not know where her next meal is coming from. Since the recession hit in 2008, it’s a situation more and more Americans, including middle-class Americans, are experiencing. As detailed on the USDA’s website, there are two levels of food insecurity including “low,” which means that the quality or desirability of one’s food has been compromised, and “very low,” which basically means that people in the household don’t have enough to eat. Interestingly, there are also two levels of food security: “high,” which means you have enough to eat, and “moderate,” which means that you are experiencing either anxiety about where your food is coming from or some food shortages. According to one report, in 2011, 17.9 million households, or nearly 15 percent of American families, were food insecure. My own dumpstering has been a direct reaction to my own level of food security, which I’d place at somewhere between moderate and low.

This has given me an interesting subject-position from which to make observations. I believe in buying organic (I used to insist on it), and am mostly-vegetarian for ethical reasons. I still shop, very selectively, at Whole Foods. (More on that later.) Having celiac disease and the good fortune to live in Chicago, I also shop at a range of ethnic markets, including Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican grocery stores. Though I’d rather not, these days I make the most trips to my grocery store for what Whole Foods likes to term “conventional” produce. I also frequent the bins behind many of these same stores. This range of consumer experiences has, suffice it to say, taught me a lot.

Because of the undeniable social stigma that surrounds dumpstering, I’d like to preface my discussion with a few notes and disclaimers. First, I consider dumpster diving, like urban foraging, to be a highly creative, adaptive, and environmentally-sustainable practice. As Dunn notes, tapping into the waste stream is another way of using resources from the environment. Second, forget your stereotypes of dumpster-divers as smelly, mentally ill homeless people. I’m not the only one who has embraced this solution. One fellow forager I ran into was an old woman, clearly a middle-class immigrant; one has to ask what has led someone’s grandmother to the trash bin behind her local grocery store. Third, it is legal in the City of Chicago to take what other people are throwing away, as long as you don’t trespass in the process. (Indeed, the absurdity of “stealing” trash is something to meditate on.) Fourth, I’ve applied for LINK benefits twice and been rejected both times, although my income qualifies me and my federal work-study is supposed to guarantee this benefit. (Beyond those rejections, there is an ethical issue of a person who is only “moderately” food insecure taking advantage of resources meant for the very poor, which is why I haven’t pursued this option more aggressively.) Finally, this isn’t a how-to essay, though I am happy to share what I know with the truly interested. (Like mushroom-hunters, good dumpster-divers don’t divulge their favorite spots to just anyone.) All that said, what I would like to do is share a bit of what I’ve come to realize about the waste stream and the food supply in the United States.

Here’s the main, and most shocking thing I’ve learned: the food in your neighborhood dumpster is probably in better shape than the food in your fridge. It might even be better than some of the food still on the shelf at the store. In Chicago, I frequently find perfectly good, crispy, organic produce and scrumptiously ripe fruit. Just today, I ate a small organic peach that tasted as if it had been picked right off the tree. What was wrong with it? Nothing, except that it was little and had a slight soft spot. A few weeks ago I recovered about fifteen organic Fuji apples. Each was perfectly ripe and harbored perhaps one tiny, fingernail-sized bruise.

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The last two organic Fugi apples, photographed before I finally gave in and ate them.

Another time, I recovered a pound of slightly dried-out, organic medjool dates, the big kind with the slightly chocolatey flavor. Beyond organic produce, I’ve recovered ripe, sweet cantaloupe, beautiful mangoes, pounds of unblemished grapes, boxes of greens, enough broccoli and carrots to freeze up “California mix,” and even yogurt and tofu. Ok, the tofu had been frozen and was a little grainy. But much of what I find is astonishingly intact.

As Lars Eigner points out in his well-known essay “On Dumpster Diving,” all this raises the question pertinent to every dumpster-diver: why is this item being discarded? The sad truth is that it has much to do with the American food supply. As consumers, we’ve all been conditioned to want rows of perfectly-formed, familiar fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. According to Dunn, at Whole Foods, produce is pulled the day before its expiration date to ensure that customers always have an unblemished, eye-candy array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. In addition, says Dunn, entire boxes of produce are routinely thrown out because of a single soft fruit that might (but hasn’t) affected the rest. Sadly, these boxes not only represent food that could be going to feed the hungry; the process of growing, harvesting, and long-distance shipping has already consumed massive amounts of petroleum by the time they’re intercepted and discarded at the wholesale level.

I have to admit, I’m as guilty as the next person of wanting that array of eye candy in the produce aisle. Going to Whole Foods, I’ve realized, isn’t just about what I can buy there; it’s about how much I enjoy that consumer experience, that visually stunning presentation. The fact that we expect familiarity and perfection from our fruits and vegetables has much to do, of course, with the use of pesticides, the genetic engineering of foods, and mono-cropping that compromises biodiversity. These issues tie directly to large-scale factory farming. Interestingly, many of the folks I’ve interviewed for this Symposium page, including Adam Graffunder, Dave Snyder, and Nancy Phillips, have identified factory farms as the number one food issue we face today. Factory farming dramatically affects small-scale farmers as well as consumers. And it’s integrally tied to the food we all eat, every day.

From the start of their growing process, fruits and vegetables are engineered to stand up to long-distance shipping while looking pretty. They’re treated with petroleum-based pesticides and harvested before they’re fully ripe. We are all familiar with that mushy red delicious apple, or the perfect red tomato that tastes like cardboard. The importance consumers attach to appearance over taste is best demonstrated by an anecdote from my best friend in Michigan, who runs her own organic farm and has a stand at the upscale Ann Arbor farmer’s market. She reports that even her well-educated, upper-middle-class customers often don’t recognize something as “exotic” as yellow tomatoes.

“But what would I do with a yellow tomato?” one of her customers once famously asked.

“Well,” she offered, “the same thing you’d do with a red one! They’re great in salads and lower in acid.”

“Oh,” the woman replied, “but I don’t know if my husband would eat a yellow tomato.”

Such insistence on conventional-looking fruits and vegetables is directly related to the limited number of varieties available at most grocery stores in the US. That perfect red tomato? Recent genetic research reveals that it’s actually the slightly green shoulders of many heirloom varieties that makes them intense, distinctive flavors. Michael Pollan has written forcefully about this issue of decreasing biodiversity as it pertains to apples in his groundbreaking book, The Botany of Desire.

By way of example, let’s consider another fruit I’ve found in astonishing amounts behind my local grocery store. Worldwide, the market is also dominated by a single variety of banana, the Cavendish. It may come as something of a surprise to learn that bananas (like carrots!) come in colors including red, salmon, orange, yellow, green and black, and range in flavor tones from tart apple to raspberry to strawberry, from intensely sweet and soft to firm and starchy. They also range in size from footlong to pinky-sized. Why then, the focus on the bland 7-inch yellow Cavendish? The answer: it can be farmed by Chiquita on a massive scale, then picked and shipped long distances while still green.

Despite being America’s most-consumed and least expensive fruit, bananas are neither local nor sustainable. As Dan Koppel points out in The New York Times, bananas cost about half as much as apples, although most apples are fresher and regionally-available. Sadly, the well-loved banana is also the direct product of cultural imperialism, labor exploitation, and massive oil consumption through long-range shipping. Moreover, all Cavendish bananas are genetically identical, meaning that not only is our eating experience of bananas severely restricted; the world’s banana supply is precariously susceptible to being wiped out by an encroaching fungal disease. In other words, this kind of large-scale monoculture not only decreases biodiversity, but impoverishes our eating experiences and contributes to global warming.

The fact that I often find loads of Cavendish bananas being thrown away–not even donated to soup kitchens or used for compost–should give us all pause. As noted above, we live in a time of decreasing food security and increasing economic disparity. Worldwide, the cost of food has been rising since 2008, and may continue to do so into 2020. This phenomenon is directly linked to the rising cost of fuel and to drought that may be a result of global climate change. These increases have affected the US less than other countries due largely to our reliance on highly processed foods. In other words, many of us face increasing economic pressure to eat food that’s both cheaper and less healthy; bags of Cheetos rather than those (wasted) fruits and vegetables.

Ironically, dumpstering has also made me ask questions about what stores, businesses, and other food establishments will sell as top-quality in order to ensure their own bottom lines. One other thing I’ve learned is that the food in the dumpster is not only better than the produce in most people’s crisper drawers; it was often on the shelf at the store about five minutes before. The situation is, to say the least, absurd. I’ve come to realize that not only the discounted fruit at my local produce market is a breath away from the trash bin, but also that the 2/$1 oranges on special at 7-11 are often drawn from a box that was clearly destined to be discarded and perhaps even obtained at no cost. These days, I frequently look at a $1 apple and reflect I know where to find one that looks better and is organic, for free.

In fact, dumpstering has dramatically enhanced my own level of food security. I cook and freeze the vegetables, and dry the fruit in the dehydrator I bought for $20 on Craigslist. I see this as embracing a classic American value: resourcefulness. I now have a huge supply of dried, non-sulphured fruit that my friends swear is more delicious than any they’ve bought. I have to agree. I also believe it’s important not to take more than I need (remember that old woman?) and to share what I find. When I find greens in large quantities, I cook them and invite friends for dinner; when I find lots of fruit, there’s fruit salad and applesauce for dessert. Of course, everything is well washed, though as someone who used to buy organic almost exclusively, I’m more concerned about pesticide residues on my food than about a bit of dirt from the bin. And no, neither I nor anyone I’ve known has ever gotten sick from dumpstered produce. When I do shop at Whole Foods, I’m able to buy small amounts of ethically-produced chicken. This is important to me. Dumpstering, in essence, allows me not to participate in I view as the unacceptable animal cruelty of large-scale meat production. Exploring the bins has also expanded my culinary repertoire. Because I am fortunate enough to live near a number of ethnic areas, I have discovered and learned to use vegetables and fruits, like okra and guavas, that I had only the dimmest idea about before.

In sum, the question is not one of whether such food can be good or healthy. Clearly, it can be and is. The deeper question is why such perfectly good food is being thrown away in a city suffering from poverty, recession, and food deserts–and in a world already suffering from global climate change. What if we, as consumers, demanded a range of foods available that were locally grown, produced, and distributed? We would need to embrace more diversity in our food supply, to be less wed to the idea that our food must look a certain way. We would have to accept some soft spots on our peaches, and would need to judge our food more on nutritional value, environmental impact, and taste than on appearance. But, after some initial resistance, such transitions should not be hard for many Americans. We are, after all, highly adaptable. The result would be, first and foremost, and enhanced range of eating experiences, and, perhaps, a greater sense of connection to the world around us. No doubt the would be less waste in the dumpster for folks like me. But I’m the first to admit that dumpstering is an imperfect and highly personal solution to the problem of food insecurity. What if we made a point of using only what we need and donating or composting what has been overproduced? The result might just be better food, a more connected sense of community, and greater environmental awareness. At the risk of being without bananas, I’d certainly like to find out.

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