The problem of food waste is misattributed as an issue of consumer ignorance, over-spending, or negligence. The individual is blamed, distracting the from the corporate and government investment in food waste. The systemic production of food waste became clear to me as a I sat starving and soaked in rancid animal fat, staring at a heap of edible, discarded food.
I dumpster dived for my daily meal for a couple years, especially during the Great Recession when it was difficult to make ends meet even with a college degree and three jobs. But, I knew exactly when Andronico’s and Elephant Pharmacy brought out their green waste. I rode up on my bike with panniers and plastic bags three times a week around 10 pm, hopped the fence, then loaded up on fruit and vegetables. I’d find apples, oranges, and perfectly ripe plantains and avocadoes – no need to wait! Standing on over 200 lbs of food, I could be picky by checking if the apples were mealy, oranges pithy, and fennel fragrant. Then, I’d bike to the bakeries and get their day-old bread that they filled multiple dumpsters with. I visited those once a month because each time would fill a freezer and friends’ freezers.
The treasure hunt was an enjoyable part, but more so was the socializing. I occasionally met other regular dumpster divers, got to know their food preferences, and saved special finds for them. One man was a bus driver for the university. His wife had cancer, so all his money went to her care. “She loves bright flowers, but they’re so expensive. They have nice flowers at this store,” he told me as we sifted through food for flora. I saved flowers for him and his wife every week from then on.
Others were people who wanted to divert food back to people. They were part of the national, grassroots network called Food Not Bombs, which encourages distributing food instead of violence through war or incarceration. We dumpstered and solicited donations at farmers markets to prepare hot meals for anyone who wanted one.
On my personal dumpster runs, I’d bike home around midnight and start on several hours of food preparation. Scratches and bruises quickly spread to affect the rest of the fruit or vegetable, so I needed to immediately wash, cut, salt, and ferment my finds, and surgically remove the necessary damage as not to detract from edible parts. The discards went into the compost I managed for the community garden where I applied this nutriment to the berries, greens, and fresh produce I’d enjoy in summer.
I didn’t sign up for food stamps because I didn’t want to rely on the government. There’s a social stigma associated with it, so I ate garbage instead. I ate fresh food everyday and never got sick. I perfected fermentation and finding ways to preserve food for a long time without using artificially generated heat or cold. It seemed a sustainable life.
One night I jumped a fence and slipped in surprise rendered fat spread around the dumpsters. As I sat in stinking, sticky tallow assessing for injuries, I looked up at the towering dumpster overflowing with food. My hustle, resourcefulness, and will to live gave way to an honest look at the situation. Massive amounts of food sat before me as people starved and lived impoverished. How did this come to be?
The first reason that came to mind was the expectation that food looks perfect, and failure to meet the expectation meant expulsion. The Atlantic reported in 2016 that Americans waste 50% of harvested food, about 60 million tons, and a large reason is the cosmetic blemishes. We now see campaigns such as Ugly Produce is Beautiful, Imperfect Producr, and ugly produce boxes to get people to look past the surface. These initiatives are valuable to getting people to reconsider what they expect of food, but why do people have expectations of cosmetic perfection to begin with? And is the lack of scratches and bruises an accurate proxy for food food?
Marketing shows us dyed, elaborately lit, edited versions of food and conflates that image for good food. We constantly see food through a filter. Processed food, fast food, and a cultural pressure and norm to eat at the newest hot spot rid us of the need to know how to assess food. We no longer need our parents, family, community elders, and farmers who help us understand how to pick a green bean and cook it, too. We rely less on each other or even ourselves, and more so on Yelp reviews, Instagram likes, and professionals for our most basic need.
We rely on professionals all the way up the food chain, and at the top are the corporations that own everything right down to the seeds we rely on to make any food. They patent seeds from the commons and restrict how they can be saved and shared such that farmers, thus all of us, are beholden to them for our food.
They put out high yielding crops that create abundance of one type, and not the essential abundance of diversity, and creates the first major source of food waste. In the case of wheat, breeders created short stalk varieties so that the plant diverts energy from the stalk to producing a larger wheat berry. As I mentioned in my previous post, the nutritive parts are eliminated (‘waste’) and the endosperm is kept for flour that’s made into many different processed foods. With the flavor removed, who can tell the difference from one plant to the next, so why would it matter what seed it came from?
Note the shorter stalks. They would typically be used to return carbon to the soil. There isn’t enough nutrient cycling, plus the crops aren’t necessarily disease resistant or adaptable to different conditions, farmers depend on pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals provided by the very same seed companies or their subsidiaries. This results in the second kind of food waste: waste from the production of food.
The applications of petrochemical fertilizers lead to nitrogen run-off into waterways that cause algal blooms, choke fish, potable water contamination. Pesticides and herbicides accumulate in water, soil, air, and unborn children. This land use is applied to hundreds of thousands of acres, laying to waste once ecologically rich landscapes. The ripping of earth to imbue it with toxins also releases carbon emissions that cause atmospheric waste.
The waste from over-production and growing practices is government sanctioned and implemented by profiteering corporations. Government funded research and breeding efforts engineered high-yielding crops to solve issues of world hunger that were in reality results of colonialism and creating infrastructure to move food away from zones of production and to zones of consumption (of the wealthy nations, and wealthy people within those countries).
We see this lack of infrastructure needed to thoroughly distribute food and resources on the municipal scale, too. I see people talk about food waste as an issue of food scraps ending up in landfills. I heard from Dannon-Wave that Dan Barber is developing a pepper that has less stem and inner matter that is discarded by chefs. The argument is that it’s food waste that goes to landfill. That helps restaurants reduce their waste hauling expenses. The problem isn’t that it’s going to a landfill, the problem is that there isn’t a compost system to bring it back to the farm.
So, when the dialogue focuses on food scraps or people over-purchasing and neglecting to eat all their food as the reasons for food waste, it is only looking at the consumer end of the problem. Thus, the solutions presented, such as the less ‘wasteful’ pepper or eating more parts of the plant, only look at that part of the food chain.
The other piece I hear is that we need to take food waste and give it to poor people. Let’s remember that the over-abundance of food comes from a chemically-laden process that is carried with the food. Distributing that food means we are spreading food that is waste from the moment it started growing. That food will only worsen people’s conditions by contributing to endocrine disruption, diabetes and obesity in the case of processed foods, and carcinogen bioaccumulation.
Addressing the problem requires looking at the whole system, who’s responsible, and what interventions can be made that affect the entire structure. Production and consumption need to be linked. Food waste is desperately needed compost in this time of depleting top soil. Farmers rely on petrochemical fertilizers when they should be recouperating food that can be returned to the soil where it came from.
What we can do is direct public and private investment into the infrastructure that returns food to farms, seeds to farmers, and accountability to society. This shift will enable farmers to feed you quality food. Maybe it’ll have a cut or blemish, but it will be delicious.