Dumpsters and Death: Toward a Better Food System 

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This illustration is from the New York Times, published in 2008 to accompany an article on food waste. It's a representation of a single family's share of the food wasted in a month, in retail establishments and in the home. It DOESN"T include any food wasted on the farm, in distribution, or by wholesalers.

In other words, it's a fraction of the total amount of food wasted to provide for an American family of four.

Almost half of the food produced in this country goes to waste, uneaten. That means half of the fruit, half of the vegetables, and most shockingly, half of the meat. Food waste has more than doubled since 1974—we're now wasting about 1,400 calories per person per day.

Food waste accounts for 25% of freshwater used, and it accounts 300 million barrels of oil every year.

Most people assume that "something is being done" about food waste—when I tell people about the food that's being wasted they tell me I should contact someone—that I should call City Harvest, or another organization that collects unwanted and uneaten food for the poor. Few understand that there is simply too much food, too thinly spread out across this city, for organizations to recuperate it all.

Here are some photos from my new project, a blog documenting my daily forays into the trash, and my finds there.

When I've described my own efforts to save food from the trash, I've been accused of stealing food from the poor, and I've been told that as a relatively privileged, college educated, partially employed person I should leave the food for homeless people.

But the sad reality is that there's more than the homeless can eat too—and even if they recuperated all of the good food we trash, without kitchens they have no way of dealing with the raw meat, uncooked vegetables and grains, and random ingredients that really need to be made into something. Without a refrigerator one can only take and save so much: recently I found a bag containing 40+ yogurts and 8 dozen organic eggs. Had I not been able to store them in my fridge I might have been able to use just one or two yogurts, and without a stove the eggs would have been completely useless.

Food waste, if it were stopped from being waste, could feed many people in need, obviously, could be used in biodigesters to generate energy, and could be composted to enrich our community gardens, parks and farms. Unfortunately we're not doing any of these things.

For the greatest impact, food waste could be prevented before it ever IS at all, by scaling back our food production.

So, where are we?

It would appear that we're caught in a food system that is failing us on all fronts. With a nationwide system built around animals as food, and heavy subsidies of corn and grain that are being fed to those animals, we do exponentially more harm to our environment with our diet than we need to and we produce far more food than we need to survive or even prosper. 30 percent of non ice-bound land on the planet is given over to livestock. Our big picture is none too pretty, nationally or globally, thanks to industrial agriculture, and the waste it generates.

Closer to home, as our food moves toward us, and then comes to live among us—in our shops, restaurants and kitchens, we fail it, letting it rot, putting it in the trash, or rejecting it for insignificant flaws and blemishes. We slap "sell-by" and "best by" dates on processed foods that are largely meaningless—last week I found two bags of vitamin water, some 150 individual bottles, that had been trashed because these concoctions of sugar and water had "expired." While vitamin water hardly counts as food, it stands as a good example of the foolishness of sell-by dates: I've eaten hundreds of expired meals over the years, and have yet to encounter a problem.

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