Or, what I learned about food supply chains from your trash

Abandoned Abundance

by Robert Booz

Abandoned Abundance

David Welch

Artist’S Statement: “These still life photographs of gleaned objects take influence from the Dutch Golden Age and 17th century artists like Willem Claeszoon Heda and Pieter Claesz. Theirs, as with the work of many other still life artists, evidences a reverence for objects and the celebration of bounty. Having recently read that an estimated 120,000 pounds of edible food is discarded every minute in the USA, bounty now translates into excess, and with excess comes considerable waste. For these still life photographs, I assemble these perfectly edible and gleaned items to serve as a reminder of the veneration from centuries ago as well as a point of reflection and contemplation into the unsustainability of our contemporary consumptive habits.” — David Welch  

It’s muggy and raining in Vineyard Haven; I want to climb in your trashcan. I want to “dumpster dive.” I’m hungry and I bet your trash has something to offer. As Jamie O’Gorman, coordinator for the Island Grown Initiative’s gleaning project pointed out, half the food in the United States goes to waste.

Sandor Katz says just this in The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved. He writes, “The greatest sources of wasted food are retailers and consumers.” So, a considerable amount of trashcans and dumpsters are full of perfectly edible resources, about $100 billion worth of edible resources.

At a time when food prices are steadily rising, when the economy is in ruins, when unemployment rates are alarmingly high, and the effects of decades of poor and misguided ecological and social management are becoming acutely evident, doesn’t dumpster diving make sense?

Here I am, a well-educated professional, with a middle class up-bringing, standing on beautiful Martha’s Vineyard, getting ready to crawl into someone else’s refuse. Is this what MSNBC’s Bob Sullivan was getting at when he called America the “land of the dumpster diver” recently? Granted I’m here for an article, but I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t some truth to his statement.

In The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving, John Hoffman states “Your modern dumpster diver…may be a full-time student, an apartment dweller, a semi-rural seeker of self sufficiency, or a young, educated professional.” Some may be motivated by civil disobedience and social reform, like the politically charged “freegans” and “opportunivores.” Others may simply be savvy consumers; the computer programmer profiled in Sullivan’s MSNBC article has “cleared about $2,400 [dumpster diving] this year…after expenses like gas…” Either way, dumpster diving provides practitioners with a viable source of food, indeed an abundant one.

I’m motivated to prove a point. Even on an island with finite resources food is the victim of larger, flawed systems. Sure you can buy local and remove yourself, to some extent, from these poorly crafted supply chains. But local isn’t going to get you everything you need right now. No one on-Island is making cooking oil, or wheat
flour, certainly not enough to satisfy the Island’s demands. For some residents, the imported “sustainable alternatives” can be prohibitively expensive when compared to the options from food and agriculture giants like Cargill, Unilever, and Dole. Some just don’t care where their food comes from. Dumpstering is a way to critique this, to illuminate what’s at stake, on the Island and abroad.

Dumpster Diver Corbyn Hanson Hightower makes just such a critique in the New York Times. She used to have her “threedollar organic peach [and]…thought I was voting with my dollar. I’m starting to realize that taking the dollar out of the equation altogether might be a better solution.” I will add that among the many divers I know in Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford, New Haven, and other areas, the preferred and most bountiful dumpsters are behind Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. What does this say about our so called, “more responsible” alternatives, and the role they play in prevailing food system norms?

Anyways, it’s muggy and raining in Vineyard Haven, and I want to climb in your trashcan. I want to see what’s being thrown out, but, as it turns out, I can’t. Most of the dumpsters are locked tight. There is hardly a scrap of retrievable food to be found in the few open dumpsters or looking through the cracks of locked ones. I can’t check every dumpster on the Island, but I checked enough to establish a pattern. So where is the abundant bounty I felt promised?

I was fortunate enough to speak with Sarah McKay of Cronig’s Market and the Island Grown Initiative. After sharing my inability to glean from the dumpster on the Island and suggesting that, perhaps, the food is being re-directed in a sort of institutional dumpster diving, I asked her to weigh in. She, and later other Island food and agriculture players, such as Jamie O’Gorman, Jefferson Munroe, Zephir Plume, Marcus Letourneau, and Hannah Beal, supported my speculation.

Cronig’s provides an illustrative example. Sarah points out that “waste is inherent in our type of business.” This is especially true on the Vineyard, which has to contend with highly variable seasonal demands. Also, in the past decade, items that never had expiration dates, like dog food and bleach, suddenly do. Do conventional
producers working with status quo thin profit margins have to invent shelf lives to protect profits? Perhaps. In any event, the staff is “constantly culling cases, all the time.”

Rather than funneling these culls to the dumpster, Cronig’s separates the food into a “slop bucket” for Island pigs, re-usable resources like compost, or to the Island Food Pantry. (The Island Food Pantry arrives tri-weekly to collect “non-perishables” like soup and cereal.) Systems like these help characterize waste management on-Island, especially pig slop. Jan Buhrman of the Kitchen Porch concludes on her blog that, “We have such an overload of food scraps that life without pigs would make it impossible to manage the trash.”

It is noteworthy that when I asked Sarah for a sampling of culled food we needed a large cart to carry it out. It’s also significant that the culled food all came from off-Island. I don’t want to seem overly critical here, the Vineyard should be commended on the creative and productive ways it has come up with to utilize what would otherwise end up in the dumpster. I’m glad that I’m not able to eat out of the trash.

However, it is vital to realize that the waste is still here, that, in a sense, dumpsters are still being dived. The Island alternatives parallel dumpster divers, who make use of things discarded as trash by wasteful systemic norms. Just like dumpster diving, the island’s ability to recycle this waste is a way to utilize a broken system. The fact remains; in a country that, despite over-consumption, cannot provide for a growing number of citizens, we produce, produce, produce, and it ends up in the trash.