Tag Archives: food

Dumpster diving: reports from the food waste front

I just found out about a 2014 movie, Just Eat It, investigating food waste in America.  It looks fantastic; I can’t wait to see it.  The premise as I grasp it, is following a couple as they search for food in dumpsters and explore the epidemic of North American food waste, living on only food that would otherwise be wasted.

Is this dirty, shameful, disgusting?  Those people are, gasp, eating garbage!?

It shouldn’t be.  Because even if you don’t want to get in it yourself, you should know what’s in the dumpster behind the store you shop at.

Why? Because the cost of that food that’s getting thrown out is part of the cost of the food that’s getting purchased, and there is a great deal more food thrown out in North America than should be.  As consumers, we should all care.

We’re not talking about finding a half eaten sandwich with a soggy napkin stuck on it or an apple core in a garbage can.  We’re talking about unopened bushel boxes of fruit, still banded (never opened since leaving the farm).  Frozen foods in complete packaging, still frozen. Boxes and boxes of mixed vegetables with tiny flaws, or no flaws.  Bags of apples, carrots, baked goods, onions, potatoes, still in their boxes and bags.  Bread by the giant clear garbage bag full.

This is the hidden cost of your food.

At least 10 cents from every dollar of yours spent on groceries is walking out the back door and getting thrown in the trash.  The “official number” is 11%.  I suspect the reality is higher, far higher.  That’s like throwing a tenner in the trash can on the way into the store every time you spend a hundred.  Food banks don’t do that well at Christmastime.  Speaking of food banks, grocery stores almost never give their waste food to food banks, because it’s a liability.  The most progressive stores compost, but for the majority, hundreds of pounds of edible food go to landfill.

When you see the produce boy sullenly picking peppers out of the display and putting them in the cardboard box on his cart, that box is going to be closed up and thrown into the compactor. Often, when you return something to customer service, say at Walmart or Canadian Tire, it goes straight in the dumpster, not back on the shelf.  When inventory expires, or won’t be stored ’til the next holiday-appropriate season, ditto.  When everyone looks behind the front row of milk for the better expiry date and there aren’t enough suckers to take the milk in the front, it goes into the dumpster when it hits the sell-by date.  A bag of dog food gets snagged by a shopping cart and torn a little, or a box of cereal falls from the top shelf and gets a corner crushed, it goes in the garbage. When the purchaser screws up and the replacement stock arrives prematurely or in too great a quantity, the excess goes straight to the dumpster.  Every time the truck comes with the new fruit before the old fruit sells, guess where the old fruit goes?  Sometimes food goes directly to the dumpster without passing within eyeshot of the consumer.  If there are too many bananas warehoused to ever get sold – into the bin.  I’ve been told that at times, distributors sell food in combination (if you want bananas you have to take these coconuts too), and the less popular food will go directly out back.

Shall I even mention the manipulation of marketing?  Lots of exotic food (starfruit, anyone?) is stocked in produce just to give the impression of variety and possibility.  The store never expects to sell all the pink striped lemons and pluots, but their presence evokes feelings of abundance, progressiveness, and cosmopolitan choice!  Plus they make the normal lemons look much more affordable.  Guess where all that unsold showy food (imported from a great distance) ends up?  I’ve noticed a higher percentage of organics in the bin than conventional.  I guess they cost more, so sell less, so… get chucked more.

Extrapolate this across over 36 000 grocery stores in the US, and the waste of food is in the millions of tonnes.  Eleven percent of saleable produce, wasted before it’s sold.  It’s an obscenity that this much food is being wasted.  Specifically, destroyed, compacted behind grocery stores while people go hungry all over the same cities (more stores have compactors than still have open dumpsters that can be filched from and reported upon). There doesn’t seem to be much talking about it, nor lobbying against it, probably because so few people really know about it.

Ask a dumpster diver, though, and they will go off about all the great stuff they’ve hauled out of a dumpster.   They may even start rambling rhapsodically about those ultimate scores.

Funny thing though, not so many people want to admit to eating out of the garbage.

I know all about what I’ve described here, firsthand, because I’ve seen it.

Once I pulled up to our usual dumpster with my partner, and another truck was already there (yes, a truck is appropriate for the quantity of food).  The pig farmer it belonged to was standing atop the dumpster with a hayfork, stabbing 1-3 plastic bags of potatoes at a time and pitching them into his pickup bed.  The dumpster was too full to shut, with five pound bags of Yukon Golds.  He filled his truck, then we took all we could imagine eating and giving away, and left the dumpster still far from empty.

One time a Walmart dumpster right after Easter was filled with individually bagged one pound solid milk chocolate bunnies.  I mean filled.  It looked like a wharf-side container brimful of fishes, only with chocolate bunnies.  We tired of scooping them with our hands into the truck and left to drop the first shipment and return with shovels.  Yep.  Shovels.  Those rabbits exceeded our chocolate “needs” for over two years.  Chocolate chunk cookies, chocolate fondue, shaved chocolate, chocolate cakes, chocolate trail mix… you’re picturing Forrest Gump now, right?  Ok, moving on…

One time the open dumpster was mounded high with banana bunches.  Perfect bananas, even slightly green.  The bananas were piled a good 3 feet above the lip of the dumpster, and littered liberally around on the ground, like a dump truck had dropped them into the dumpster and many had spilled.  It’s a strong possibility that a forklift did dump a palletful straight into the dumpster.  Inside the store, there were multitudinous bananas for sale  as well.  They were even greener.  What can a person do with that many bananas?  Banana bread, banana muffins, banana creme pie, banana…well, that’s about it.  I tried to dehydrate the bananas and unintentionally made banana jerky.  That is not as good as it sounds.

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A 100% dumpster salad

We’re still using extra virgin organic olive oil from Trader Joes, because one jar in a case of 12 obviously had broken, oiling the labels of the other 11 bottles in the box.  Unsaleable; into the dumpster, conveniently still in the box they were delivered in.

I’ve been in a lot of dumpsters, since the early 90’s.  I’ve been flabbergasted at the quantity of food I’ve found.

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One half of one night’s good haul (the frozen foods half). Must have been a freezer-cleaning day.  Food not expired, all still frozen.

Yes, I was introduced to the bounty of back alleys when I was a messed up homeless kid and needed to eat, but that was a long time ago.  My on and off dumpster diving adventures for the last 20 years have had little to do with not being able to afford what’s inside the front door,  and everything to do with curiosity and fascination with what’s out the back door.

It’s just too damn interesting and easy; it’s straight up fun, with a dash of social subversion!  Coming next: a piece I wrote in 2008 on how to be a dumpster diving ninja.

Let me say that I am effing fortunate to be able to brag that I don’t need to dumpster dive; I do it for kicks.  Many people do need to.  It’s a social crime that 1 in 10 people are hungry in this culture of bounty and perfection that throws out so much.  Hunger is a tragic aspect of this story.

A modest night's haul of fruit (packages opened for display)
A modest night’s haul of fruit

This story of food waste is a layer cake of problems.  We garbage food instead of sharing it with the needy, because it’s too legally risky. It’s inconvenient to separate waste on the commercial scale and compost.   We’ve made salvaging food from the garbage illegal (it’s theft or trespassing), and employees are forbidden to take the waste food.  We use fossil fuels to grow the food, then more fossil fuels to transport the food 100’s of miles to throw 11% of it in the garbage, and then burn more fossil fuels driving it to the landfill where it creates more carbon emissions rotting.  Food prices are high, and rising, while a thick slice of the percentage of food produced is garbaged!  The expectation of food waste is built into the planning of the grocery store so that the shopper can have a certain experience – how is this ok???   How did we get here?

And this is just the post-retail waste.  Waste happens at the harvest point, in transportation, and if it is sold, is also wasted by the consumer, spoiling in the fridge and going uneaten.  With all the tiers of food waste, it’s possible 40% of edible food is wasted in North America.  I’m not even touching the extravagant waste that happens before food even reaches the grocery store, and after, when I talk about dumpster diving.  The film covers that(My numbers are old.  It’s closer to 50% )

Every time I’ve furtively approached a dumpster, opened the heavy lid with a metallic creak, and gasped with delight and shock when I look in at a mountain of food treasure, I’ve simultaneously felt a heart-sinking sense of the tragic imbalance of things.  This should not be!  Our culture is seriously sick, to have arrived here, where beautiful, fresh, edible food is discarded for no legitimate reason.

A typical box of "culls"- flawed veggies picked out of the displays
A typical box of “culls”- flawed veggies picked out of the displays.  Sometimes the flaws are hard to discern.

 

What to do?

I’ll be the first to admit that dumpster diving is not for everyone.  That’s why those who do should report from the front.  What (else) is there to do about food waste? Talk to your grocery store and ask what they do with food waste.  Ask for a percentage.  Pester the stock boy and the grocery manager.  Do they give their produce waste to pig farmers?  I was once told No never, store policy.  Why?  Because of all the pesticides on the produce (What?  But what about the people eating the food?).   Just like fair trade policies and worker benefits on the food production end, retail stores should brag about their low waste percentages, food bank donations (Maranatha does it), composting programs, and discounting past due date foods, because we should care about these things!

Here in Nova Scotia now, I’m thrilled to see the practice of reducing food at it’s due date by 50%.  This is unusual.  Pink 50% off stickers pop up all over the Atlantic Superstores, from produce to dairy to deli to bakery to natural foods.  That is all food that I’ve seen in dumpsters elsewhere in these two countries.  Good job Superstore.

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If I didn’t know better, I’d be confused. Is this food ready to shelve, or ready to throw out?

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About this article.  After writing most of it in 2012, and then editing it in 2015, inspired at the time by the discussion popping up in the media and the Just Eat It movie, I somehow continued to fail to post it despite friends begging for it and the importance of the subject.  Until now.   I’ve lost many of my “great score” pictures due to hard drive breakdown and still have not recovered them, but am posting anyway.

I’ve seen Just Eat It.  It’s fantastic.  It’s super fun to watch new dumpster divers learn the tricks, and they totally capture the delight of discovery, comingled with the stomach sinking disgust that this is what our society has come to, that can only be experienced standing on the brim of a dumpster filled with clean, packaged, edible food.  They also discuss the other tiers of food waste, and present some happily encouraging alternative types of food handling.  I beyond recommend it!

The movie:  Just Eat It.

Rob Greenfield says all that I just said here, only better and faster.

Flawed fruit and veggies for sale – what a notion!

wastedfood.com

utne reader on dumpstering

Tristram Stuart

 

Squirrel mayhem

I unlocked the shop (tiny shed-where we keep our stuff, since we live in a tiny house) and walked in.  I startled a squirrel that was on the central support post just as I walked in.  It squawked before dashing out by the eaves, and as it did something fell to the ground, catching the light as it fell.

I did whatever I’d come to the shop for, and just before I left I wondered what that squirrel had dropped, and looked for it on the floor.

It was a Hershey’s kiss!  Gold foil wrapped.

Perfectly intact, dropped from the interloping squirrel’s mouth as it gasped in surprise when I walked in.

This was like the movie moment when realization dawns on the heroine that the killer is already IN her house! (or Verbal Kint IS Keyser Soze!  or five holds have been breached, not four!).

Realization dawned.  I spun around to gaze at the Rubbermaid tubs behind me.  In slow motion, with realization music of doom playing.  It just so happened that I bought some gold-foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kisses quite recently.  They’d been on sale the day after Halloween.  I’d secured them in a blue Rubbermaid.

I went to the tub, the only known location of Hershey’s Kisses.  I pulled it out of the shelf and this is what I found:

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The hole was chewed on the far side of the lid, where it wasn’t easily seen.  Better yet, the Kisses were on the opposite side of the bin, so the squirrel had to get himself into the bin, wriggle across it for the kisses (ignoring apparently less tempting foods), and then turn around and get out.  She’d chewed in the wrong end.img_4622

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What a mess.  The little varmint had enjoyed several candies already at the scene of the crime.  I could get an accurate count by the little Hersey’s pull tabs (17).  The wrappers were a mass of shredded foil.  Sticky foil.  They were caramel kisses.  But since I’d surprised that squirrel in the act of leaving with a kiss that was totally intact, how many whole kisses did she already take away, and where is the squirrel lair packed with a golden pile of Hershey’s Kisses?  That squirrel must think he’s got the stash of the century.

I fixed him with some hardware cloth.

Experiments of the year: sweet potatoes and cucamelons

What fun is gardening without some wacky experiments?

  1. Sweet potatoes.

I got six vines from Vesey’s, which arrived in rather pathetic condition (the packaging disclaimed wretched looking vines as “normal” and claimed they would perk up.  To be fair, they did.  Five of them made it).  Since they supposedly like under-watering, I left them mostly alone after initial establishment, although the underwatering got a little extreme in this terribly dry summer.  The vines were small, but had lovely purpley-green leaves.

I dug ’em up in September.  No idea what to expect.

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Vine 1 – Uhoh.  Off to a bad start.

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Vine 2 – Oh, that’s more like it.

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Vine 3 – That’s actually a real sized potato.

Unfortunately, there were no more potatoes still in the ground from these vines.  One vine = one potato.  NOT an impressive yield.  No efficiency points for area:productivity.  That’s the gamble with experiments.

But they made one very tasty meal.

2.  Cucamelons

These took off in the greenhouse.  Three vines swarmed up their strings and headed across the cross-ties, producing loads of these weird little grape-sized melons.

cucamelons-intro2Aptly named!  It tastes like a cucumber, or a melon, or is it a cucumber?  Totally bizarre combination of tastes.  If you’re like me, you probably haven’t had cucumber and melon in the same bite before.  Crunchy skin, like a cuke.

I have no pictures of my own because the guineas in the greenhouse enjoyed many more than I did.  This pic is from James Wong, who waxes more enthusiastic about the cucamelon than I do.

I’ll grow them again next year, though; they grow so easily, and I’ll try to find more to do with them.

Chicken Dinner- Generating Grub (s)

Warning:  Disgusting factor on this post high.  Cute factor nil.  It’s about larvae.  For cute, click for chicks.

I had a hen die of natural causes.  I was digging a hole to bury her in when I thought, What am I doing?  I need to use her as a protein generator, a la Harvey Ussery.  His wonderful, destined to be classic, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock suggests creating your own, and better quality, chicken feed, in part by generating grubs from offal.

I don’t think we have the estimable black soldier fly up here in Nova Scotia, but there’s no shortage of flies to lay eggs on dead things.

I got a beat up old metal bucket that has been drilled full of holes in the bottom, rolled the stiff bird into straw and jammed her in the bucket surrounded by straw.  This is supposed to make her smell less.

Then I hung it up with a grub catching bucket beneath it, hoping for the best.

2015-07-13 08.22.39On the first day, there was nothing but a few big black scary-alien-species carrion beetles in the bucket.  Oh well.

Then it started to smell.  About like you’d expect.  Sniff sniff. Did something die around here?

Couple days later, I look, and wow!  A seething mass of beige grubs!  And more ugly black beetles.

2015-07-13 08.23.48Grubs were just dripping out of the crack in the upper bucket.

2015-07-13 08.22.15Interestingly, the appearance of the grubs coincided with a sharp drop in the smell factor, from noxious to not noticeable.

I fed those grubs to the hens.  It was anti-climactic.  In the several seconds it took me to take a couple pictures, everything was consumed, including the beetles.  I wasn’t expecting that.

More?

Oh, but then… in the evening, the bucket had a wondrous quantity of grubs in it.

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One day’s worth.

Stomach turning, really.

When I overturned this bucketful for the hens, I got a better reaction.  The usually reserved, stay in the background rooster lost the plot entirely, shrieking his food notifications, bombing his big body into the middle of the pile and doing the chicken moonwalk so that all the hens flew up squawking in surprise.  I’ve never seen him lose his composure like that.

 

Jailbird

We have a bird in a box! A little sparrow in a shoebox, for three days. On Saturday I was shocked awake by a bird smashing into a window with the force of a snowball.  It was sickening. It doesn’t feel good building in the woods and then installing a bunch of windows that birds don’t understand and will slam themselves against.  I’ve hung strings on most of the windows to help them see it, and it helps greatly.  We have only had one bird casualty, and one chickadee that got its bell rung but recovered. This bird hit the only window without strings:(  I ran outside and found the bird gasping and quivering on its back, scooped it up, and took it in, holding it for several minutes, with my whole hand wrapped in a towel for dark, soothing. When the bird started to perk up, aka try to escape, I took it outside and held it up to a branch.  It seemed just fine, standing up on my hand, and it stepped confidently onto the branch, spread its wings after a moment, and jumped off to plummet straight to the ground. Then I had to recapture it, as it scampered away in the underbrush. Gravely inform HW we now have a pet sparrow.  Quickly google what sparrows eat, rescue sparrows, etc.  Create a habitat shoebox. 2015-07-04 08.34.39This is a young adult sparrow.  It has vestiges of the clown lips that baby birds have (called gape flanges), and on the first day it would sometimes do the “feed me!” squat and gape when I was feeding it. It’s fully feathered, though, and had full capability of flying, before hitting the window.*  Now its right wing droops; the tips no longer meet over the tail where the wing should rest. In fact, it drags under his tail and sometimes he poops on the wing tip. *This is important because lots of fledglings get “rescued” because they can’t fly.  They can’t fly because they’re learning how. Right away, we found instructions to immobilize the wing in position of rest.  So together we held the bird and wrapped its tiny body, with the kind of medical tape that only sticks to itself, trying to leave its other wing free and legs free so it can stand up. Well, the bird lay there panting like it was gasping its last, flopping pathetically and apparently unable to stand.  After an hour or so, I was convinced that it was dying of internal injuries.  Although it was wrapped barely tight enough to hold the wing, I thought if the bird’s gonna die anyway, then at least I can take the wrap off him. I took the tape off and the bird immediately affected a miraculous recovery.  Hopping around, exploring the box, breathing normally.  Later, Hope would say sometimes you can wrap a bird, but “Birds hate to be wrapped.”  No kidding. So cute!  I fed and watered him with a popsicle stick.  The first day, I gave him flax seeds and sunflower seeds.  Nothing.  I offered a worm (alive).   The worm inquisitively poked her in the face, and got  no response.  Ants?  No way.  A mosquito? Why yes!  Hmm, I could spend all day mosquito hunting.  I gave her quinoa, because we had some cooked, and she gobbled it up.  Also quickly proved that beak wiping is a universal bird thing.  Then I ground up the flax and sun seeds with mortar and pestle and mixed it with the quinoa.  We have a winner. 2015-07-05 12.51.11 Every hour or two I would come back to the house and feed the bird.  Very time consuming, holding the popsicle stick while the bird picked and chewed one grain at a time.  I can see how baby bird care is a full time job, running the parents ragged. The first day, the bird seemed fine, not in pain at all or bothered by the wing, shaking it once in awhile.  Also content.  I covered the box in the early evening, and it fell asleep with its head tucked under the injured wing.  Adorable! 2015-07-04 19.21.02 The next day, there was no more crouching and begging, and I saw him help himself to water out of his tiny cup!  Also, she would pick up food that she dropped.  I started leaving food on the floor of the box, and also dabbing chunks on the side of the box for him to peck off, while I got something done. I added a strawberry to the mash and got rave reviews. I gave him a whole strawberry, and he demolished it. Soon she mostly fed herself, but I still offered tidbits on the stick. The second evening, she developed a tragic obsession with escape.  He’d bump his head on the grate, peck at the wires of the grate.  Very sad.   I covered her early to calm him down. Hopefully, the energy to make jailbreak attempts is a positive sign.2015-07-05 12.47.08The third day he was even more obsessed with escape – give me liberty or give me death! (unfortunately, each means the other in this case).  She’d never say no to a mosquito, but otherwise, when offered food, she’d kind of attack it momentarily,  like hunger itself was an irritating distraction, and then resume craning her neck at the grill ceiling. In the evening  we packed her off to Hope for Wildlife.  We passed her over to a volunteer animal delivery driver (!), to go to the animal hospital, and get a bird Xray (!), and hopefully rehabilitation. I had no idea something so awesome as Hope for Wildlife was here, in Nova Scotia, and on tv.  I’m more impressed with this province all the time.  The same day as calling Hope, my bird issue was “dispatched” and someone living near me called to arrange a pick-up and transportation (!) FOOD: The suggestion to feed a wild bird cat food is almost universal (high protein meat based).  I thought about it, but most cat foods I wouldn’t feed to a cat I liked, so I decided I’d dig up worms if I had to.  Luckily, I didn’t have to, because worms went over like a lead balloon.  The live offering was a complete fail, so I minced one. Let me tell you, mincing an earthworm is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever done.  First I dug, and picked out an inch of worm that was severed by the shovel’s slice.  Perfect, I thought, already dead.  Only the pieces of worm that have the smooth ring that holds their DNA can survive being cut.  Right?  Not necessarily so.  Every piece I cut, no matter how small, writhed and contracted and to all appearances, experienced pain and tried to escape it.  Not to mention excreted mud.  Uggghhh-willies!  They only stopped moving when they dried out a bit.  Death, finally, by dehydration.  Thinking about the circle of life and how everything I thought I knew about earthworms may be wrong, I managed to complete the mincing of that one segment of worm that may or may not have been doomed anyway. The bird ate it, but preferred quinoa, so I stuck with that.  Earthworms are manna for baby birds, but not such a big diet item for adult birds (thankfully for me, gagging over the mincing). Here’s what I fed the bird, that it liked:** Cooked quinoa (couldn’t get enough) Boiled egg, finely minced. Ground flax seed Ground sunflower seed (hulled) Hemp hearts Strawberries (big hit!) Mosquitoes A few  cereal and bread crumbs Some soaked, top-quality high protein dog food (for high performance dogs), that we had (because we have a high-performance dog)  It snacked on the dog food, but did not love it. **As Hope told me on the phone, birds need a big variety- they need protein, fruit, vegetables, grains, and seeds.  If I had the bird longer, I would have tried adding garden greens, meat, beef suet, cereal, and nuts.  And they need it all minced very small, at least the young adult bird I had did.  It would reject any chunks too big to chew, including a whole flax seed. Spoggy the sparrow is a wonderful time lapse of a house sparrow hand raised from blind, pink, transparent infancy.

MAPLE SAP KOMBUCHA!

The colour in the jar is so lovely
The colour in the jar is so lovely

Since tapping our half dozen trees, we have learned exactly how much sap maples can produce: a GREAT deal.  6 trees=2 gallons on a warm sunny day.

We are completely overwhelmed by it, especially since the weather stopped being cold cold warm, cold cold warm… We could keep up with that.  The weather has finally started to turn warm warm warm, so we are drowning in sap.  We are not yet up to drinking 5 gallons at once, like the crazy Koreans I linked earlier (that would keep us on top of it).

What to do with it all?   *Trumpets*  Hail kombucha!

It first occurred to me when I was reading about syrup reduction and encountered a comment explaining that when the sap is improperly or incompletely reduced, sometimes a ‘mother’ can form on top in the bottle of syrup, and this is a distasteful, undesirable thing….. wait, what?

Did somebody say ‘mother’?

I was already making maple sap-ginger tea all the time with chopped ginger in sap, so I started a jar of kombucha with that, 3/4 gal of straight sap, a mom and a splash of the previous tea kombucha. Will it work? Shockingly, the sap jar developed faster and matured faster than the tea jar next to it, which was a few days ahead of it.

I bottled the first batch and it is aMAZing.  I’m saying so myself.  It carbonates hard (under a week in bottle) and is nothing like any other kombucha I’ve tasted.  Light, very gingery, sweet.  Not distinctly mapley but bubbly like pop.

Did I mention we’re overwhelmed by sap?  I’ve got six gallons of maple kombucha underway right now.

And SO pretty in the bottles.
And SO pretty in the bottles. This is the second batch.

Then there has to be a Dog with Kombucha picture