If you’ve ever worked in a US supermarket, you may be psychologically unable to comprehend the concept of a global hunger problem. Perfectly good food is thrown away constantly for silly reasons, like blemishes on fruits and vegetables, or arbitrary and exaggerated sell-by dates. You quickly infer that there might be plenty of edible food for everyone in the US to eat and eat well, if only food providers didn’t overflow their dumpsters with what seems like OK food.
Enter the Urban Foods Initiative (UFI). Spearheaded by former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch, the project hopes to provide expired, but otherwise edible food, to low-income people who may struggle to put food on their tables. The idea is nothing new: church groups, soup kitchens, and charities like Food Not Bombs have been providing expired food to the needy for many years. But up until the UFI, nobody ever thought to charge them money for it.
Rauch is currently on a PR campaign to install the first of these in Boston, a 10,000 square foot food complex in working class Dorchester’s Codman Square.
For some perspective on this, I spoke to a few low-income people who already benefit from expired food and have even made entire underground communities all over the country around obtaining and sharing what ends up in the trash. And they don’t even have to pay.
“This makes sense coming from [Rauch] because Trader Joe's has always been a great place to dumpster dive, and they’re aware of this,” veteran Dumpster diver Nate Daniels remarked. “They’ve taken all kinds of steps to prevent people from doing it: locking Dumpsters, purposely doing things like mixing edible and nonedible things together. They don’t want to lose money by people getting free food instead of buying it. It’s like antirecycling!”
“Dumpster diving is an inevitable result of a our horrifically mismanaged economy,” said long-time Dumpster diver Randy Crary, who gave me an expired block of vegan cheese that still tasted… as good as vegan cheese ever tastes. “Some reports claim that up to 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted.”
“For the privileged, Dumpster diving is an easy way to eat well and work fewer hours. For the unemployed and underemployed, it can be one of their only dependable food sources. Both groups intermingle at the Dumpster and share with each other. This is the most political aspect of Dumpster diving I can think of—when perfectly good food becomes trash, there is little reason not to share it.”
Nate understands the social stigma of rifling through the trash for food, but he’s been eating like a king for years and has his doubts about why the food ended up in the trash in the first place.
“A lot of it is aesthetic. Brown marks on zucchini, blemishes that aren’t bothersome to the eater but won’t make that particular item sell. This guy’s plan is actually proof of that,” he noted, as Rauch tacitly acknowledges that much of what is thrown away is perfectly edible.
Nor is the social aspect of dumpstering by any means a new invention. Nate explained how the community aspect of dumpster diving, seen in programs like Food Not Bombs, arises as a practical matter. “You get large hauls of one thing. We got 110lbs of salted butter one time! You’re always sharing. You get big amounts of food, give them to people, and know that they’ll get you back if they find anything.”
The sheer bulk of homogenous food the dumpsterer gets, and the need to optimize its use, lends itself to a dynamic social process that points toward mass distribution. “A lot of that food is stuff that needs to be cooked. You need to have a certain access to cooking supplies in order to deal with it,” Nate told me. “That’s one of the reasons Food Not Bombs is a really awesome service, because people with enough privilege to be able to cook food, but with an income low enough to realize why it's valuable, can go do that. Homeless folks can’t necessarily deal with the expired vegetable and such that need to be trimmed down and cooked to be safe.”
Supply is abundant, but it's here that distribution becomes a problem. Food Not Bombs faces harassment by police and city officials all over the country because their food distribution carts attract homeless people and make them comfortable—the exact opposite of modern urban policy, which uses the hunger and discomfort of the homeless against them, to get them to simply go somewhere else.
“People don’t like homeless people hanging out anywhere,” Nate said, “which makes it difficult to be homeless, obviously.” New York is the epicenter of this aggressive antihomeless policy and a model for the rest of the country. Many interested charities looking to publicly distribute food to hungry people are told they cannot feed them. The food, along with the undesirable people, can just rot.
It’s only natural that a retail venture would step into this void. Everyone agrees that working class people need food, if for no other reason than to continue working. We spend our days working for a little bit of money, though never really enough, to provide for basic means of subsistence like shelter and low cost food, which our work requires.
The modern city needs an army of low wage workers to run it, no matter how far away they’re forced to live. What it doesn’t need, are homeless people who don’t work, don’t spend money, drive down property values, drive away tourists, and generally bum everyone out. Therefore, Rauch’s plan to reintegrate wage labor into charitable food distribution is a novel solution to the problem of feeding the right hungry people for pennies on the dollar.
“Mass agricultural goods are themselves the product of this desire to conquer scarcity—the unpredictability of the environment, being unsure if we will be able to find food to survive.” said Dumpster diver Mary LeMont, “Capitalism, through austerity measures, is trying to recreate this sense of scarcity, but only at the bottom: finding new ways of sustaining the working poor with even less.”