Curatorial Blurbs

The Ritual of Everyday Consumption

The Constant Consumer focuses on the dilemmas and evolution of contemporary daily consumption. Struck by how disconnected we are from the products we consume, the Constant Consumer allows us as curators to delve into issues of consumption, community, morality, commodity, and ethics. Through the elevation of the most mundane of coffee-drinking vessels – the white paper cup – to the status of a precious “art” object worthy of our attention, Ashley Szczesiak’s LATTE dada showcases how modern coffee-drinking practices can impart “carefulness and thoughtfulness in regard to consumerism” (Szczesiak).

The ways our daily consumption consumes us.

SAIC undergraduate student Stephanie Chu’s animated feature Coffee satirizes the consumption of coffee as habit forming and at its extreme, addictive. Chu’s corresponding chalkboard drawing, a growing pile of cups representing a small percentage of SAIC’s coffee consumption will be executed at regularly scheduled weekly intervals. The artist will extend the pile each week to mirror the coffee consumption by students at the Neiman Center Café. Coffee plays an important role in the exhibition Constant Consumer in a humorous nudge at the personal and social ramifications of our daily habits, such as coffee drinking.


Interview: Ashley Szczesiak

Basic information (Name, age, department, year(s) working at a coffee shop, what coffee shop, additional occupation, etc.)

Ashley Szczesiak
Former Barista

Do/did you enjoy working in a coffee shop? What do/did you do?

When I first started working as a barista, I thought it would be fun and chill. In reality, it was a fast-paced and competitive environment in which you were at the mercy of the employer.

Do you still drink coffee, if so from where?

Yes, I do. I normally drink dark roast and buy it from Bittersweet, a pastry shop at Belmont; as well as from Metropolis Co. and Intelligentsia. 

Are you satisfied with the coffee you made for other people?

I am not intense about how I feel when I make coffee for other people. I followed the five steps I was taught when trained as a barista.

Are you satisfied with the coffee you made for yourself?

I don’t make coffee for myself. I end up making too much which can be bad for my health. Besides, I like the experience of going out to get coffee.

How much information did your employer/company provide you with about coffee and/or coffee consumption? Was there information about the company’s coffee that your employer required you to “sell” to your customers?

No, not really. Being in Brooklyn, New York, the coffee shop I worked for sold Brooklyn Roasting Co. coffee, which everyone assumed to be fair trade and organic.

How does your coffee shop place itself within the spectrum of its competitors? i.e., better quality coffee, locally roasted, free trade, etc.

Brooklyn Roasting Co. was the brand that was sold at my coffee shop. It is known as high end, but within high end coffee it is actually middle of the road. Viewed as artisanal, not gourmet, I usually buy bags and give them as gifts.

How does coffee (different amounts, times when consumed) affect or influence your academic, art and leisure practices?

I drink coffee when I have to grade papers, answer e-mails or work on my thesis. But when I make Art, I don’t drink any. Art is the coffee. 

Interview by Natalia Sanchez Hernandez

Discourse by the Cup

SAIC, in collaboration with The Storefront, is hosting a one-day event consuming, discussing, and understanding coffee. The reasons for choosing coffee for our event are many. Coffee consumption fuels conversation and thought. We are interested in the ability coffee has to inspire discourse, both physically and as a subject. Coffee consumption is massive and growing, despite its cost both to the consumer and to the grower as witnessed in the documentary Black Gold directed by Nick and Marc Francis. Coffee consumption can be healing. In the short documentary Yoshi’s Blend directed by Mackenzie Sheppard, coffee becomes the rich and idiosyncratic vehicle for healing in tsunami ravaged Japan. The troubling origins perhaps outweighed by the sincerity and generosity of Yoshi Masuda, who takes his beloved coffee on the road.

At the Storefront on Sunday, the two coffee-centric documentaries – one a sobering revelation, one an inspiring act of humanity – will bracket an “anonymous” local coffee shop tasting.

Please join us Sunday, October 20th from 1-6 pm at The Storefront for a screening of the two documentaries, an opportunity to engage in interviews and discourse on coffee, and a free tasting of coffees from coffee shops in the Logan Square area.

Beyond Sunday, artists are invited to submit creative responses to the event that can be exhibited at SAIC’s Flex Spaces from November 11th—December 11th. We look forward to you joining us for an opportunity to discuss and enjoy some coffee.


Interview: Victoria Thurmond

Pueblo Semilla: Pilsen Mobile Seed Library

Interview with Victoria Thurmond

August 13, 2013

By Liana Li


L: What is Pueblo Semilla?

V: Pueblo Semilla is a seed library in Pilsen. A seed library is like any other regular library where people are expected to return what they take out. When you check out a seed, you take only what you need. You grow them out throughout the season, and then you bring them back once you save the seed. However, because that information is not very known nowadays, seed saving is a lost practice. Even within organic farmers, many people don’t save seed or save seed regularly. Usually it is bought. There are a lot of places where seeds are grown out in a different climate region. It’s only a few places throughout the US where you can get organic heirloom seeds. But they are only heirloom to that region, unless you save your own seed. The reason for saving seed locally is because it acclimates to the climate that you’re in. If there’s a drought season in Chicago, then that plant acclimates to the drought and if that’s the one that does best and you save seed from that, then you have a potentially drought-resistant seed. Or if there’s a heat wave, like there was this summer and last summer, and you save seed from that crop, you have potentially a heat-resistant crop. Growing out seeds in your hyper-local environment holds all of that history and that root system.


L: Why Pilsen?

V: Everything is transient in the city. I’ve seen more and more gardens that will go for a year, or maybe 5 years, and then be ripped up for some reason. Sometimes it’s development, or it was an empty lot that people were using and then something gets built on it, or people move on and move. And that doesn’t allow for the same root system or plants to re-seed themselves. So in a plant life-cycle you have the seed, and then it sprouts, it grows, you harvest. But to save seeds you have to go the next step, which means you have to leave it on there for the entire season and let it grow, get old, and start drying out. And then the seed produces, and it will disseminate itself. That’s the way plants work. That’s why they’re designed that way. They fall to the ground and re-seed, so they can grow the next year, even if it’s an annual plant. But in Pilsen, the soil is toxic. It’s filled with lead or other chemicals that have been laid down by hundreds of years of industry. You can’t just grow directly in the soil. Which is another reason why gardens are transient. The soil is usually brought in from somewhere else. Also in a city environment there is the added context that people have lost the practice of growing in general. A lot of kids in the city that we’ve talked to don’t even know that their food comes from the ground. They think that food comes from a grocery store and that’s where the line ends. There’s no idea of the whole system when you’re in the city and you’re not surrounded by this kind of thing. Even though Chicago is surrounded by agriculture, it’s not something that is known to people growing up in the city. In Pilsen, people are primarily Mexican immigrants. A lot of people coming from Mexico do come from agricultural backgrounds, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that knowledge transfers through generations, and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t. So there’re so many parts to the seed library that need to come before explaining seeds. There’s the soil, the industry, the growing practices, the cultural divide of what grows here and doesn’t. How things grow is very different according to region, and coming from a hot climate to a mid-western climate is very different for the way that you grow.


L: You mentioned that seed saving is an uncommon practice. How did you recognize this as something that needs to happen?

V:  So like anybody else, there have been a bunch of basic ideas that I’ve gathered over the years to understand a more complex idea. I don’t come from an agricultural background. I didn’t come to this with any of that kind of knowledge. I’ve only started actually gardening this past year, and the only previous knowledge that I’ve had is an interest in sustainability and an involvement with environmental justice and activism. That brought me to the smaller actions because I’ve moved from this larger-action mindset of thinking that all of our problems are sourced from government policy and all of these issues are systemic, which they are, but that doesn’t mean that big actions are the only ways to address them. And I’ve seen smaller changes happening in communities be just as successful or more successful. Gardening is a way to produce for people what has become a scarcity, which is good healthy food. You know where it came from. Know there’s no crazy chemical or hormone additives or genetic issues or homogenization of crops, which is what our culture has become. So bringing that to an environmental justice standpoint in a community that is working-class, minimum wage, growing your own food is like growing your own resources and capital to some extent. The logical next step is to have the very base of that, which are seeds. Plants are amazing. They produce so many seeds at the end of every season. Like 4 second-year beets that we’ve let over-winter and grow the next year produce enough seed that we can give everybody beets in the neighborhood, or at least it seems that way. So seeds are something that diverts the capitalist system. They’re something that can be given to anyone because of need, regardless of what they do for them, or pay for them. They just produce like crazy, and if everyone had that knowledge then you have a system of economy there.


L: In your project, do you see seeds as a practical resource, or is it symbolic for those reasons?

V: I would say they are both. For the project there are so many things that need to be addressed.  I see seeds as the base value of all these things because they hold so much information. They hold what was in the soil. They hold what happened to the climate that year. They hold changes; such as the amount of times you watered them. They hold all that information; it’s just a matter of disseminating that.


L: What is the importance of keeping the network in Pilsen? If the soil that is safe for growing is being imported into the neighborhood, then it’s not actually representing what was already in the ground. What do you think about that?

V: Yeah. If this was a Chicago seed library, it would make a difference, but not a huge difference because it is the same climate and same environment. The reason for it to be in Pilsen is for it to connect things that are already here. There are already lots of community gardens and people talking about these issues. And there are also lots of people who aren’t. But to take hold of those systems that are already in place and connect people who are not already connected to gain a local knowledge that is already there and disseminating it, just like plants disseminate seeds. It’s easier to do it within a neighborhood, and I think it’s more successful to do it within a neighborhood that’s already an established community, rather than spreading it across borders. It’s not the only way, but there are pros and cons to that. Each neighborhood is different. There are different things that need to be addressed and ways of communicating and things that are important to them. Bridgeport, Little Village, and Pilsen are right next to each other and have similar issues going on environmentally, but they each have their own battles to fight. In Pilsen we can address one thing, while in Bridgeport we are able to address another. And we can keep those connections and those larger issues in mind, but having a sustained local community project that is connected to other projects is different than having something that spans a whole city..


L: You said that you didn’t have a lot of knowledge prior to this project, and there are people in the community who already have inherent knowledge from an agricultural background. How have you been learning from the community?

V: Because it’s something that has been a lost knowledge, I see myself learning with people. I had the idea to start saving seeds last year at the end of the season and then brought it to another community garden in the neighborhood as an idea and now everybody is starting to do it regardless of the fact that they have no prior knowledge of doing it. It’s more of an intuition, and there’s a lot to learn technically about it but there’s a lot that we can learn together. It’s a different way of approaching something than coming as a bearer of knowledge. It’s not a hierarchical system when everybody is learning. For example, at Roots and Rays community garden, we created a seed bed and have plants growing out just for seeds, and now people know that’s the way plants work, and people are learning by doing with each other. It’s not even my project there anymore. People are doing it, and I don’t want it to be my project.. Rather than saying “I know, and you don’t, so I’m going to teach you,” it’s more of an action of finding what’s already there and learning together.


L: Do you see this as art or social practice, and what is the connection for you?

V: I guess the art part, if there is an art part – everyone talks about an art part. I think the whole thing is art because I think living can be art, but not in the big A Art sense. I think the art part is seeing those connections and the things that are already there and drawing connections in my mind and bring that into a conversation. And designing something so that it can be understood and spread out between people. It’s a skill that’s learned or a design that works, and that can be passed on.


L: Who are some of the people that you are collaborating with, and are they other artists?

V: I don’t think anybody that has been in the project has identified as being an artist. Veronica Buitron identifies herself as a designer, and she very much is a designer. There’s people from Roots and Rays, specifically Patricia Bon. She’s a city planner. Jerry Mead-Lucero, who is an activist. And Stephanie Dunn who is an activist and educator. Right now it’s just connecting people who are already in the neighborhood, and who are already taking lead doing this kind of work.


L: Do you see a difference in your roles and do you think it’s even important to distinguish any difference?

V: I think there is a difference in people’s roles. When I say Veronica is definitely a designer it’s because she has those skills and that interest in making things able to be interpreted aesthetically and design them. While Patricia is very good at talking to people and figuring out how things work within a system. I think that’s her take on city planning, is doing that and figuring out what is there and what can be connected. Jerry is an activist, and is versed in everything specific to this neighborhood that is environmentally problematic, and organizing people to make changes in a bigger way. All the community gardeners who are a part of this to some extent are people who are interested in gardening, and they all have different things that they do. Everybody has different skills and everybody has different knowledge. And even if it’s knowledge of the same thing, everyone has a different take on the same thing, which is all important to know and understand.


L: How is the projecting moving forward?

V: We’ve already had all these workshops and seed swaps and going door to door as a mobile seed library. We just started doing very quickly and trying to make it happen very quickly, and that’s not really how it works because we noticed all these things that needed to be addressed beforehand. Part of this is because we got a grant, so we wanted to start making and having it happen, but without connecting the people who are already here it’s not going to work. So we’re going to start having design building workshops and what we’re calling cross-pollination dinners. Hopefully we can create a system that we think can work for all these people who are in the neighborhood and are doing and want to do this work. Things that already exist and add to it. Creating a set of ideas that we think are important to share within the neighborhood. All these issues that we brought up that need to be addressed before seeds are talked about. So creating somewhat of a curriculum that people can take and do with what they will, and have their own events and own workshops. And having little hubs around the neighborhood that house seeds that are safe from that place. People can share their seeds because you can never use as many seeds as the plants produce.


L: Ultimately, why do you want to get other people to start saving seeds. Why is it not enough to just do it yourself?

V:  On a large scale, the industrial agricultural system has wiped out the diversity of seeds that exist when you grow seeds for yourself, as well as change the genetic makeup of seeds and patent them to be some kind of capitalist growth resource. But if we do it on our own and in our local communities, then we have access to that wealth of knowledge and also of good healthy food that we know was grown from us and that we took care of and know exactly where it came from and who grew it.    Like this is Sally’s roma tomato, because it’s going to be different from Tom’s roma tomato down the street. You know exactly who grew it where it was. Ultimately, on a larger scale it’s a subversive activist socialist action. But really it’s just seeds.

Interview: Poet Dave Snyder

I’d like to begin with some questions about farming and being a writer

You are an organic grower and community activist as well as an accomplished poet. Can you briefly describe the what you do in each area? Do you consider one or the other to be your main pursuit?

I call myself a grower, not a farmer. It’s silly to call yourself a farmer if you have a quarter of an acre, and the label doesn’t change what I’m going to do in a little piece of space. Today we think of “gardener” as a diminutive, decorative term. I like to say “grower.”

Dave Snyder

I got my start ten years ago when I moved to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood from Seattle. I came to go to grad school; I had no real interest in growing. I associated it with work I did as a kid, with being sweaty and wanting to play Nintendo. But Uptown is so urban. I reacted to that by being drawn to the community garden across the street, Ginkgo Gardens. They grow vegetables on a triple lot and donate them to a food bank. Annually, it’s around 1/2 to 3/4 of a ton, donated to Vital Bridges’ GroceryLand, a food pantry that donates food to low-income people living with AIDS. I really fell in love with that mission and started helping out. By “helping” I mean weeding and watering. Strangely, in reaction to this urban experience, I developed this weird addiction to gardening. Now I’ve been working there for ten seasons. It’s my favorite place in the city. But my only training is working there and with other growers.

How about being a poet?

As with gardening, poetry was not really part of my education until halfway through college, when I took a summer poetry class. I got a C or C- and the teacher was a jerk, but I was weirdly compelled by it. It was probably a bad decision [laughs], but I decided to take another poetry class. That was wonderful and fascinating. The teacher approached it like, “We’re going to spend the semester playing with language!” That, too, became a habit. Eventually I went to the School of the Art Institute and graduated with an MFA in writing.

What connections do you see between being a grower and being a writer?

The work of growing and the work of writing–there are lots of similarities and differences. Both require constant attention and constant work. It takes this sort of–tending–this constantly working on it. If you forget to do that tending, whether of your plants or your poems, they wither. I go through times when the poetry is withering, and times when the horticulture is withering. You have to tend to both.

Yes, I wrote a blog post about that–the connection between tending and paying attention.

Yes. Also, both require this sort of carefulness of looking, a fusion of perception and doing. In gardening, you are constantly reacting to what your plants are doing. You constantly have to be seeing and then acting. It’s the same with poetry–you have to be perceiving and doing, perceiving and doing. I’m suspicious of poetry that gets too far from perception.

Dave's Hands

You know, many people have this kind of divided interest in poetry and gardening. Emily Dickinson was well known as a gardener–no one knew she was a poet. Cicero said, “All you need is a library and a garden to be happy.” The correspondence between tending and attending is a real correspondence that has clearly been explained and examined for millennia. Its’ in our linguistic memory. That’s humbling.

What linkages are there in your overall world view that have led you to choose two socially- undervalued kinds of work?

I’m not a financially-motivated person. I’ve always chosen interest over a paycheck, and I’ve had almost nothing but fascinating jobs. The few times I’ve taken a desk job to pay the bills, I was able to make them interesting. I had great co-workers. It never felt meaningless. I look at people I grew up with and see different life decisions. Those people are financially more stable than me, but they don’t seem that happy. The way that you spend your time changes who you are. I choose interesting things because I’m interested in them. If I didn’t, I would no longer be interested in them–that, too, would wither from lack of attention. The most interesting people I know are interesting because of the effort they’ve put into reading, thinking about things–not watching every episode of their favorite TV program and eating caramel corn each evening.

Both growing and writing are demanding pursuits–vocations, even. How do you balance the demands of each?

I balance them very poorly. My strategy is to not get to get too stressed out about it. Writer Jill Riddell told me that at no point is your life ever in balance, but if you step back, over the course of a decade, there is balance. I took that to heart. This year, I was working part time over the winter. I decided not to teach this semester, and I spent a whole lot more time writing regularly again and producing new work. I started submitting my work to literary journals again. Now it’s April and I was out of the house at 7 a.m. for a compost delivery; after this I’m going home to plant. I’m basically working on growing from sunup to sundown. I’m not writing poetry, but that’s what happens in April and May. Things will chill out again in June. If things don’t slow down in June, they will later on. It’s ok. The process is cyclical and I try not to second guess it too much.

Many artist-farmers find themselves torn between their need of a rural environment and their desire to live in a city. Do you experience this conflict? How do you handle it?

I understand that conflict, but I don’t feel torn. I value and love both environments. I think the reason is that I’ve figured out a way to scratch some of that itch [for living in a rural place]. I have enough space at my home in Garfield Park. I have a backyard and an empty lot next door. The owners let me grow stuff if I keep down the weeds and shovel the walk in winter–that’s my rent. It’s a ton of space, and my neighbors grow there with me. I don’t have the peace of mind [of the country], I don’t have a vista, but I have the city of Chicago, which is mind-blowing. It’s such a culturally-rich city. My girlfriend and I say, “Live in Chicago like you’re vacationing in New York.” It’s a good model.

What is the most important thing you know about growing things? About poetry and writing?

Pay attention to those who are better at it than you are. There’s always somebody. That doesn’t mean emulating that person per se. If you talk to ten gardeners, you get ten different ways of doing something. Pay attention to how other people do things, because there may be something to it. It’s the same thing with writing. If you want to be a poet, read every single poem that you can. Recently, I read Gordon Massman, do you know his work? He writes brutal, ugly poems that couldn’t be further from what I do. But I read his whole book in a single sitting–it was completely compelling! It’s a kind of genius. I won’t write like he does, but my work will only get better from reading that book. In essence, don’t think another way of doing things is a dumb way. You can learn from it, so don’t dismiss things out of hand.

Now for some questions about food and farming.

What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

In the most literal way, we need to feed everybody in the best way possible. In the best and most just way. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The way in which you raise your food, the kind of food you raise, the way you allow people to make their money off of food, the way food is distributed–they are all important.

One thing I think is really important is that worldwide, it should be easier to make your living as a small farmer. This is a complex problem. How can we expect a small farmer to make an equitable living and simultaneously expect another small farmer in central Ghana to make a living when they are competing in the same world market?

But are they really competing with each other? Aren’t they really competing with Monsanto?

Well, yes. Large companies–seed and pesticide producers, food distributors–make it hard for small farmers to operate with a fair standard of living. There should be an expectation that you’re growing food for yourself and your neighbors. For example, in the global South and elsewhere, traditional crops are disappearing in favor of corn and rice that’s being foisted upon the farmers by governments and corporations. People aren’t growing the food that feeds themselves and their neighbors. A food stable region may become food unstable as a result.

What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

The monopolization by a few companies to try to make a lot of money off of farming. Monsanto isn’t a food company–they’re a chemical company. They produce seeds that are in a commercial package with their pesticides. It’s profiteering and doesn’t seem to be helping that many people in the long run, except investors. And there are a lot of other companies that do that, not just Monsanto.

What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

I can’t really say. It should be as specific as the community it’s serving. I could tell you how me and my neighbors want to feed ourselves. We want to grow goofy, hilarious stuff–

Like what?

Like cardoons and blue tomatoes and papalo, a Central American herb. We grow weird stuff, a lot of it, we work a lot together, share, and barbecue afterwards. That works for my community. There also tradeoffs. There are literally whirlwinds of litter in my neighborhood [of Garfield Park]. There are gunshots. But that’s the exact reason we are able to have land there, so we accept that. It works for us but not for everybody. Some community in the South Islands of the Philippines will have a different way of doing things, but they know how to feed themselves. If you have the skills and the land and a small amount of economic capital, you can do this. But every community does it in their own way.

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I do. I don’t spend a lot of money there, or anywhere I shop. But let me say this about Whole Foods. Their meat program is the most progressive that I’ve ever seen. It’s more progressive than grocery stores in Europe, more progressive than co-ops I’ve been to. It’s not the most just. The most just is to raise the animal yourself or work with a farmer who raises the animal humanely. But if we’re going to have cities, we’re going to have people who have to buy meat.

It’s hard to get people to think ethically about meat. There’s an information disjunct out there. You have two chicken quarters and you don’t have any information about where your chicken quarters are coming from. One costs 99 cents a pound and one costs $7.99 a pound. They seem the same, but you don’t see chicken #1 getting dipped in bleach or sitting in a cage on top of another chicken, or chicken #2 being raised by a family. Whole Foods has done the most remarkable process in trying to communicate all this information. They have a 5 step rating scale, from 1 to 5, rating how animal-friendly the process was. Five makes the meat most expensive and they tell you why. It’s there at length on their website. Often their criteria are as strict as other certification programs, but even if you’re a casual consumer, you can make way more informed decisions just at the meat counter. That’s just remarkable.

Everybody talks about misperceptions about organic food, because we allow all these values we have about food to stand in for it. “Organic” is almost the only info we have about the food we eat, other than the old system of USDA nutrition. We have little or no information about where the food was produced. Organic is the only other largely accepted way to get information about food. Whole Foods has done a wonderful job about creating information about meat. What if that were true at Jewell? What if they had to tell you it’s a 1, or below a 1? Normal people make more responsible decisions when they have this kind of information.

And finally, a few political questions…

“Radical” in its original sense means getting to the root of a problem. Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?

The idea of a radical in common usage is someone on the fringes. I find myself on the margins a lot of times, by virtue of being drawn to these interesting places. I live in a marginal neighborhood and do marginal work. Renata Adler writes about the radical middle, and I’ve always been drawn to that concept. Maybe being a radical means being the most central. I don’t know….I’m still thinking about that.

What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to improve or alter their relationship with food?

Grow something from seed. Don’t be afraid of it dying–if you’re growing vegetables, you’re going to kill them anyway. Grow something silly, not just basil or lettuce from the DIY grow kit. Save that avocado pit and sprout that. Sprout some popcorn from the bulk bin. Grow some wild flowers in your window box. I was sprouting taro root the other day that was left over from my fridge. These things are all around us. The potatoes we buy are still imbued with life. Cheetos aren’t. They are dead food. But a potato you throw out back will continue to be alive. It’s no wonder it’s healthier for you–it has all the things that keep things alive in it. A potato does you better than a potato chip.

What else would you like to say about these issues?

I had this amazing moment where my own stereotypes were really challenged. Years ago, I was at Kilbourn Greenhouse out on the northwest side, out past Cicero. I was out there doing a seed saver workshop at a harvest festival, and this guy came up. He was a stereotypical west side dad–big, broad-shouldered, with a sports jersey. He was like, “So, tell me about these Monsanto folks–what’s the story with that?” So I talked a little bit about my own thoughts on intellectual property rights in terms of genetics. Then he said, “You know, that stuff really interests me. Me and my wife, we adopted this little girl from Vietnam, and when she came out here, she couldn’t eat any of these processed foods, you know? They made her sick. So we had to get her on this totally non-processed food stuff. Then she was, like, a little bit better. Now we’re moving to the all organic stuff. We were thinking, if it’s better for her, it’s going to be better for us too, you know?” Here was a true blood Black Hawks fan, raising this little girl and completely rethinking the way that he sees food as it relates to nutrition. That may be a different thing than food as it relates to the environment, but it made me so stoked. He probably wasn’t thinking about this stuff beforehand, but faced with the responsibility for the health of another human being, he started to rethink things. As we were talking about with meat, it reinforced my belief that ordinary people will make more responsible choices if they have information to do so.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! And by the way, as a poet and grower and someone who is chronically embarrassed by her nails, I love the photo of your hands on your website. It’s perfect.

Yeah–chipped and a little too long! Just be proud of it.

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.


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.