Dumpsters and Death: Toward a Better Food System

05/06/2010 4:00 AM |

The following is the transcript of a speech given Amanda Park Taylor to the NYU Green Society.

Hi, Happy Earth Day!

My name is Amanda Taylor, and I write about the environment for the L Magazine. My beat is pretty homegrown and local: small things you can do to lessen your impact on the environment, green happenings in the city, and the like. I write about food-related issues, from permaculture to greenmarkets, a lot: besides being one of the chief pleasures of human existence, food is a great, and crucial, way of addressing, and lessening, our environmental impact. My love of food has played a huge role in my becoming more environmentally aware, and the state of the environment has played an equally big role in my thinking more about food, what to eat, and where it should come from.

So when I was asked what I wanted to talk about today, the easy answer was food; and the two food issues that most concern me, vegetarianism and food waste.

But to be honest, I really didn’t know how to tie the two together: I became a vegetarian when I was a teenager. While I later came to appreciate the environmental impact of vegetarianism, it began as an ethical issue for me. When I was a teenager, amazingly, no one talked about global warming at all.
Food waste is something I got into at an early age too, first as an occasionally dumpster-diving punk—it seemed terribly badass, as an adolescent from the Upper East Side, to pull stuff, especially food, out of the trash. Then as I got a little older, I saw it as a path to a kind of food justice, through groups like Food Not Bombs, which, if you’re not familiar with their work, feeds the hungry with food recuperated from the trash of markets, bakeries, and stores. Dumpstering, which has also come to be known as Freeganing, was a way to subvert various systems I found myself in opposition to: factory farming, industrial agriculture, and multinational food companies. Beyond the politics, dumpster diving was free, fun, and happened late at night: I was a poor night owl with anti-capitalist tendencies and a strong stomach, it was a perfect match.

Still, I’ve never really found the link between vegetarianism and freeganism—it’s a connection I feel, viscerally, because I care about these two approaches to our food supply, but planning this speech, I found it hard to articulate that connection in any real way, except to say that both were food issues that had to do with the environment.

Then last week I had a dream about giving this speech: in my dream I was brilliant, and the talk was full of great ideas—I had an enormously complex diagram of food systems that I explained to you all, and at the end I got a standing ovation. Marion Nestle, who teaches here at NYU, and Michael Pollan, two of my food heroes, were down here in the front row, and in my dream they stood up cheering. It was great, but when I woke up I couldn’t remember any of my presentation, except the first line ‘Where are we?’

It didn’t seem like much of a question. Or not the RIGHT question. I wasn’t going to get any help with this speech by tapping my subconscious, it seemed. But then I thought some more.

Where ARE we?

Well, for starters, we’re here in the United States, the meat-eatingest country on the planet. In the USA, in the year 2000 (the last year I could find detailed numbers for), we killed 8.9 billion animals for food—another 857 million died in food production, before slaughter. And that was 10 years ago—our meat consumption has been growing steadily. Wikipedia tells me that ‘around 10 billion animals are slaughtered every year in 5,700 slaughterhouses’ in the US.