Guest blog by Jackie Powell with WASH Advocates
Salvaging, binning, urban foraging, waste reclamation, dumpster diving, gleaning, trash picking, curb crawling, scavenging, freeganism
These terms are commonly used to describe an alternative lifestyle drifting its way around North America, Europe, and Australia. The basic idea behind “dumpster diving” is to reduce consumption and waste—and, of course, get food for free.
I first heard about dumpster diving in 2008, but only recently found a group of friends audacious enough to come along. We dressed in black and wore boots, to really get ourselves into the spirit of the event. However, we had much more than appearance in common: the three of us recently returned to the United States, coming from parts of the world where the majority accept scarcity as standard.
Among the treasures that we found in the dumpsters of high-end grocery stores in suburban Washington DC were 14 pounds of perfectly good apples, over 20 bouquets of fragrant, beautiful, flowers, along with heads of cabbage, portabella mushrooms, bananas, and fingerling potatoes. My dumpster diving friends and I were shocked by both the quality and ease of access to these items, which seemed to have no place in the garbage.
As we drove back with our bounty and prepared our upcoming menus (e.g., apple butter, apple pancakes, apple pie, etc…), we tried to make sense of our experience. How was it that so much food was casually thrown away? What was our role in this food system? Were we complicit? How had our overseas experiences influence our reactions?
Over the next couple days, we continued to have casual conversations about these issues. The following are some issues we explored, which I see as fodder for a broader conversation:
Food scarcity and food excess lie at polar ends of the spectrum – a contrast that cannot be easily understood, let alone explained in one blog post. How can we, on all levels of society, work to create a solid color Meal Gap Map? Oftentimes when we consider food scarcity, we think about arid environments and the famine in the Horn of Africa. However, food scarcity is often more about equal food distribution than climate.
A likely solution. The problems and solutions are complex. But ironically, the answer to combat food insecurity in Mississippi is sometimes not so different than the approach needed in Africa. There is food available. Much like we found while dumpster diving, the problem isn’t always about lack of supply, but lack of accessibility to excess food and lack of priorities to protect and serve those most in need. What communities often lack is the infrastructure and systems that evenly distribute excess food. For example, despite our dumpster diving haul, inner-cities in the US are often described as food-deserts, where good, healthy food is unavailable for sale. Food banks around the US are also reporting that they are running low—particularly in times of economic recession.
Farmers in many developing countries, on the other hand, are often counseled to grow cash crops for export, despite high rates of undernourishment in their own communities. In addition, the West often floods larger markets with subsidized agricultural goods and bars import of the same from these countries, thereby distorting foreign markets and making cash crops the only choice for many of these farmers. Because of distorted markets, poor distribution systems, lack of purchasing power amongst segments of the population and other factors, undernourishment remains a pressing issue in these countries.
What can we do? Community organizations like DC Central Kitchen, a community kitchen that recycles food from around Washington DC and uses it to provide 5,000 meals per day to local service agencies, offers the opportunity to reallocate excess food that would otherwise go to waste. In addition, a whole host of innovative programs, from inner-city farms to subsidized farmers markets help bridge the food access gap in our cities. Groups such as DC Hunger Solutions offer ways to get involved.
In addition, we can also speak up and make our voices heard on the upcoming reauthorization of the Farm Bill—a bill that covers everything from food stamps to farm subsidies. Understanding the Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Food System is a good introduction to the issues, and Food and Water Watch offers one perspective on what should change this time around.
What are your thoughts on this issue? What do you feel we can do at both a community and global level to reduce the issue of unequal allocation of available food, as well as the development of more equitable and sustainable food systems? What are some resources that you have found useful in better understanding the issues?