Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Diving Into Action: Organizing and Responding to Food Waste

Food Politics and Popular Culture
Much in the way that the problems with throwing out recyclable goods made its way into popular consciousness from the environmental movement in the 70s and 80s, concerns over food waste, global warming and increasing worldwide hunger are sparking conversations in popular culture today. Several documentaries have surfaced in the last few years which discuss the importance of food, where it comes from, how it’s produced, and who has access to the freshest items. These films connect food consumption with human health concerns, environmental degradation and social justice.

Forks Over Knives argues that a healthy diet of fresh, unprocessed, plant-based food can prevent degenerative diseases and in some cases reverse their effects. Similarly, Food Matters looks at the connections between our consumption patterns and illness. According to their website, Food, Inc. “exposes America’s industrialized food system and its effect on our environment, health, economy and workers’ rights.” What’s on Your Plate? follows two eleven year-old girls as they look into food politics in New York City, speaking with farmers, store owners, food activists, friends and family to better understand how food is grown, how it gets to our plate and what it all means.

Jeremy Seifert’s 2010 documentary Dive! looks at the practice of dumpster diving in Los Angeles, CA. Dumpster diving, the act of “rescuing” trash from dumpsters, is for Seifert a means to feed his family, save unnecessary waste from entering landfills, and, by the end, a call to action to help end waste and hunger in America and the rest of the world.

Hunger and Food Loss
Worldwide, there are over 925 million people going hungry. Bread for the World, a non-profit working to end world poverty and hunger, estimates that every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That’s one child every five seconds. In 2005, the last year we have accurate data, the 1.4 billion people lived in extreme poverty, or on less than $1.25 a day.

In the United States, a 2008 USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) reported 17 million households in America, or 14.6%, were “food insecure,” struggling to put food on the table for their families. These were the highest numbers the ERS had seen since they began the national food surveys in 1995 and represented a massive jump from the year before, when 13 million, or 11.1% of households, experienced food insecurity.
In 1997, 96 billion pounds of edible food in America, about 27% of food available for consumption, was “lost” during one of three stages: on the farm, on during processing and marketing, and in foodservice and consumption.  Examples of food loss include: misshapen or blemished produce not deemed cosmetically appealing, dented cans, overstocked or seasonal packaged goods, and food that molds in our refrigerators.  The report states that if just 5 percent of Americans’ 96 billion pounds of food scraps were recovered, it would represent one day’s worth of food each for 4 million people.

In terms of food waste (as opposed to loss), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated more than 34 million tons of food were thrown away in 2010, making food waste an environmental and economic issue. According to their website: “Whether you are an individual, family, or business, chances are a considerable portion of your budget goes towards buying food — either for you, your family, or your customers. That means we are throwing away a lot of our money. Often, simple changes in food purchasing, storage and preparation practices can yield significant reductions in food waste generation. Not only will this reduce waste, but it will make your food dollars go further. Food waste cost savings have even greater potential at commercial establishments. Saving food means saving money.”

Dealing with food waste is costing Americans an estimated $1 billion a year, according the 1997 ERS report on food loss.  “If 5 percent of retail, foodservice, and consumer food losses in 1995 were recovered rather than discarded as solid waste, about $50 million annually could be saved in solid waste disposal costs for landfills alone, “ the researchers state. “If 10 percent of food losses were recovered, savings for landfill disposal costs would be about $90 million. These savings would increase to $200 million with a 25-percent recovery rate.”

Dumpster Diving: Local Solution to a Global Problem
Solutions to food waste in the United States are popping up in organized and organic ways. Dumpster diving, like Seifert documented, is a popular practice for people interested in reclaiming waste and is practiced by people all over the world. Reclaiming food by rescuing food from dumpsters, trash bins, rummaging through the dump yard or gleaning leftover fruits and vegetables in the fields, are not uncommon activities. According to a 2009 UN report, scavenging is on the rise in Côte d’Ivoire, a country in West Africa, as slightly under half the population is living in poverty. In Quetta, Pakistan, an estimated 10,000 children as young as five years old pick through the garbage, harvesting recyclables in order to earn money for food for their families. In Delhi, India, every 100th person earns a living from recycling part of the country’s 16 million truckloads of annual waste.

As waste becomes more pervasive and people are pushed farther into poverty, people all over the world are organizing. In March 2008, the Bogotá Association of Recyclers, which itself had over 18,000 members, hosted the First World Congress of Waste Pickers. Funded by international non-profits, informal trash recyclers from over 40 countries gathered for the four day event which allowed waste-pickers to create national and international alliances and share strategies which could help move them from the margins of society.

The logic and need of dumpster diving is inspiring people in the United States to organize and call attention to food waste and its broader connections to hunger, environmental problems, economic and social justice. Everyday Trash is a blog that looks at trash as artistic and political. Gary Oppenheimer founded AmpleHarvest.org, a non-profit which connects gardeners with local food pantries, increasing access to fresh, nutritious food to people in need and keeping edible food out of the trash.
In Oakland, CA, Dana Frasz is creating Food Shift to help systematize the salvaging of food from retailers that would be tossed into dumpsters and divert them to agencies which help feed the hungry. Her goal is create a food waste reclamation sector, similar to recycling programs, which incentivize businesses to donate a larger variety of food. (For example, currently many grocery stores donate canned goods and bread, while edible meat, dairy and produce are tossed in the trash.)

The rising attention and responses to food waste offers anthropologists a wide variety of avenues for further inquiry and activism: How does (or doesn’t) dumpster diving disrupt our ordering of dirt and waste (ala Mary Douglas)? Affect cultural capital? Help create an archeological record of waste? What influence does greater access to fresh, less processed food have on low income areas, food deserts, childhood obesity and nutritional education? How are communities organizing and articulating their concerns over food justice?  I would like to hear what other anthropologists are doing in this realm in terms of theory and practice; it’s an arena of research and activism that could benefit from our perspectives and methodologies.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.  

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