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Submitted by KAT on Thu, 11/08/2007 - 3:09pm.
Wretched excess is the recurring theme of our food chain from start to finish:
First, Agribiz monoculture deadens and depletes our topsoil, sucks up an absurd amount of water, and contaminates our air, land and whatever water it’s not already wasting growing commodity crops.
Then, all that corn and soy gets converted into feed for livestock or the crappy convenience foods and sodas that we now produce in such abundance that every man, woman and child in America could consume 3900 calories a day, as many of us already appear to be doing.
Finally--because even our ever-expanding appetites can’t handle all the surplus food created by this uber-efficient assembly line of agricultural atrocities--a staggering amount of food goes into the garbage, and, eventually, a landfill, where it rots and generates yet more greenhouse gases.
So, to sum it up, we’re depleting our resources and destroying our environment in order to gorge on garbage and then create even more garbage, bringing this truly vicious cycle full circle.
America spends an estimated $1 billion a year to dispose of excess food, according to the EPA’s own website, which also notes that:
And while some of this food isn’t edible, a tremendous amount of it is, but only a fraction of that food finds its way to soup kitchens and other institutions that feed the hungry.
That’s why I’m all in favor of the freegans, the hunter-gatherers of our hyperconsumptive era who’ve transformed dumpster diving from being a means to a free meal into a social movement. Freeganism offers spent shoppers a new way to sustain themselves without buying into our big box culture.
As someone who’s salvaged just about everything but food off the eternally bountiful sidewalks of New York City, I’ve always been curious about the whole freegan culture, so I was happy to have a chance to hear a couple of New York City freegans speak last Tuesday at an event sponsored by NYU’s Footprint Forward No-Impact Week, dedicated to inspiring NYU’s student body to shrink its collective footprint.
New Yorkers throw away an estimated 50 million pounds of food a year, according to the Los Angeles Times, of which 20 million goes to the poor. So that leaves 30 million pounds of food for the freegans.
You may assume that a lot of discarded food is past its expiration date and unfit to eat, but as the freegans have found, much of the food that supermarkets and restaurants throw away is perfectly fresh and fine to eat but can’t be donated to charity because of food safety concerns, which is understandable.
But a lot of food gets thrown out for reasons that seem arbitrary and stupid. A woman who attended the talk, an employee of a certain Austin-based upscale food chain, described how the store would have to discard entire boxes of organic apples simply because they had been stored adjacent to conventional apples, which violates the standards that regulate the sale of organic produce.
The apples can’t be sold as organic, but no one has the time to remove the little “organic” sticker off each apple so they could be sold as conventional. So they go into the garbage, along with perfectly fine, fresh bread products shipped to the wrong vendor—say, with a label for Trader Joe’s instead of Whole Foods. They can’t put it out on the shelf, and it’s cheaper and easier to just throw it away. Presumably some of this food could be donated, but that requires arranging for pick-up and distribution.
The bonanza of edibles the freegans routinely discover in their dumpster dives is both jaw dropping and heart sinking. And I’m sure they’re only salvaging a tiny fraction of the tons of food that are being discarded.
Someone at the talk asked whether dumpster diving is illegal. According to the freegans, it’s kind of a gray area. Urban freegans are less likely to run into trouble than suburban freegans, who have been charged, on occasion, with trespassing.
Of course, the real crime is throwing away billions of pounds of perfectly fine food, and spending billions of dollars to dispose of it. But that, unfortunately, is just business as usual in our crazy food chain. So don’t turn up your nose at these rebels who rummage through our refuse. If, as Benjamin Franklin said, “God helps those who help themselves,” then I guess the freegans are doing the Lord’s work.
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