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A Pigeon in Every Cart: Wading Through Food Waste in California

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Recently, I started watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on ABC. In his enthusiasm and optimism, Oliver amazes. Sometimes, for the same reasons, he also annoys. He really started making me wince in the second episode, when he was frantically goading on a sweet, morbidly obese sixth grader's cooking efforts with the fairly far-fetched promise that stir-fry expertise would endear him to the young ladies he coveted. Still, the third episode focusing on high-schoolers was more moving than it was excruciating. Some corny moments aside, his mission to improve the quality of the meals that kids and their parents wolf down is commendable and daring; to see it stretch to the United States' most nutrient-deprived corners is satisfying. While the point of their inclusion may have been a by-product of Oliver's primary intent to reform Huntington, West Virginia's diet, the footage of elementary school students tossing all greenery and non-processed items from their trays into huge gray garbage bins especially resonated with me. I'm a part-time substitute teacher for the San Francisco Unified School District, and I have seen that scene before, in very high-definition: industrial-strength receptacles stuffed to the hilt with perfectly good apples, salads, rolls, and unopened milk containers.

Sadly, the ritualized dumping only scratches the surface of what increasingly appears to be a food waste pandemic in the state of California. Each year, California farmers, restaurants and supermarkets toss six million tons of edible food. To put the amount in perspective, Oakland's Oracle Arena, or the Staples Center in Los Angeles, sports and entertainment venues with capacities approaching 20,000, could be filled to the brim, 35 times over. According to Hunger in the Golden State, a collaborative endeavor by California Watch and USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, food products represent 15.5% of our state's waste. Last week, the project reported on its findings, alleging that major "shortcomings...at every step...along California's food distribution chain [allows] vast amounts of food to go to waste in landfills despite laws and tax incentives that encourage food donations." Sharing the evidence in detail would exhaust the confines of this meager forum, but I'll let you chew on a few stirring nuggets, presented succinctly:

Last year, only 940 of the 90,000 eating and drinking establishments operating in California worked with Food Donation Connection, overwhelmingly the largest program linking food service donors with hunger relief agencies. In 2009, such wonders of sustainability as Pizza Hut and KFC accounted for over half of the participants. Why? Mom-and-pop restaurants and single-owner franchises aren't eligible for a tax deduction for food donations, and thus often elect not to get involved.

California grows half our country's fruits, vegetables and nuts, yet experts guess that farmers plow under millions of tons of produce after each harvest. While farmers don't exactly avoid efficiency, when a crop carries a price incapable of paying for its harvest, few trying to make a living off sales see the point in doubling down on a loss. Although food bank donations and gleaning operations have helped, a shockingly high percentage of most commercial crops never leave their fields. Thousands of pounds of produce are abandoned -- enough to feed whole cities. According to Hidden Harvest, a Coachella-based outfit, one local effort managed to "save" 14,000 of approximately 140,000 pounds of carrots left above ground. A 2004 study by University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy Jones claims that up to 10% of some crops, like cauliflower for example, simply rot. The overall figure for crop waste across the country, he says, may be even higher -- closer to 20%.

Many grocery stores -- like Safeway, for example -- participate in some kind of hunger relief program. At the same time, many chains only donate bakery items, or at least balk at donating perishable produce. Even though a 1996 federal statute protects donations made in good faith against liabilities, stores reportedly worry they'd be held responsible if anyone fell ill after eating donated meat or vegetables. "Many grocery stores decline to give food because they're either unaware of the liability protection in place or they feign ignorance of the law because they don't want to bother," Jonathon Bloom, author of the blog Wasted Food, was quoted as saying. "Almost as often, stores know they'd win such a lawsuit, but are afraid of the negative publicity they'd face if such a suit happened."


Restaurants, farms, stores and schools aren't the only culprits. Perfectly edible food represents a quarter of all waste tossed away by California households.

"A certain amount of waste is inevitable in all forms of business," write the piece's authors Tina Mather, Kim Daniels and Shannon Pence. "It’s built into the economics of every production and manufacturing cycle -- whether it is clothes-making, home-building or newspaper printing. But the commodity of food takes on added significance...Health officials, researchers, economists, farmers and corporate leaders interviewed for this project say that more efficient production and distribution of our food could help feed millions of families."

On a large-scale, organized level, non-profits are trying to stem the tide of edible refuse.

According to Hunger in the Golden State, "numerous volunteer organizations work to 're-harvest' California's vast produce landscape and divert edible food that would be wasted from grocery stores and restaurants into California's food banks and soup kitchens." On a local and personal level, individuals and fledgling groups engage in a broad spectrum of holistic efforts to ensure less food ends up in the garbage.

As outlined in Twilight Greenaway's Free Falling blog, dumpster diving less frequently evokes unpopular punk bands from meth-y Pacific Northwest enclaves scrounging half-eaten pizzas at rest stops, instead feeling more and more like a responsible practice on the part of people who are simultaneously thrifty and serious about what they eat. A Monday article in the Chronicle tipped a hat to Food Runners, a 23-year-old San Francisco organization redistributing food that "would be otherwise discarded." Websites like Neighborhood Fruit connect San Franciscans weighed down with bounty from backyard trees to fellow citizens happy to take some off their hands. On Sundays, from one to three p.m., Free Farm Stand holds court at Treat and 23rd, giving away produce grown in urban farms and gardens -- according to the website, over 6,700 pounds so far.

The free food movement is gaining momentum for a lot of reasons. For one, it's cheaper to pick up a bag of free apples than go to a farmer's market. While no one has ever liked the idea of wasting good food, taking direct steps to actually cut back on and use existing food waste have required a heightened state of consciousness and crummy economic circumstances compelling even financially secure folks to trim costs. I explored urban gardens last week, but I've been thinking about it more. Along with foraging, it's the sort of noble and attractive pursuit that easily comes off as elitist. Home and community gardens can make produce cheaper and encourage self-sufficiency independent from food-ferrying corporate systems, but most home gardeners sowing heirloom lettuce seeds aren't in it to save a buck. Time is a luxury, and gardens often necessitate commitments poor, hard-working people with families can't muster. Nonetheless, the organized mopping up of waste, the gardens and the webs of community activity materializing amongst these efforts -- they coincide with a cultural shift -- certainly in the Bay Area, and, to some extent, nation-wide, in large cities -- pushing back to a time when food production was not industrialized, when pathways from farms to tables were clearer, more straightforward and less harmful to the environment.

The push carries with it a whiff of fear. Making use of all the food we do produce is important certainly, not just because the less fortunate need to eat and we must put systems in place to feed them, ideally with food that's already being grown and raised, but because the less fortunate are growing in numbers. Unemployment woes and public service cuts impact everyone one way or another. From collapse, to war, to terrorism, to disease and earthquakes, our giant food supply system is vulnerable. The other day, I read about a new book by Brett L. Markham called Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre. I haven't read the book itself, but the promotional website casts the mission in a somewhat somber tone:

"Let's be honest. The economy is a mess and likely to remain so for some time. The GAO has reported that Peak Oil is a real and proximate phenomenon that will make things even worse. Wages, even in high tech industries, have been stagnant for several years. We have no idea what challenges the future might bring. The time to start raising your own food is not when people are already starving."

Maybe there's a grim survivalist tint to all this. Last week, Oakland Local peddled a pretty fine April Fool's joke about street pigeon becoming the signature dish at a new Oakland restaurant. Free-range domesticated squab is one thing; a mangy pigeon raised on bottle caps and cigarette butts is another. It's not so far-fetched though. A 2008 Wired article only half-jokingly suggested we start eating these "waste-scavenging, protein-generating biomachines" that so hardily populate our urban landscape. Someday, maybe la cucina povera will be a necessity, and it will be truly poor. We stay alive on bugs and vermin -- things we can't kill off, things that often scrape by -- fittingly -- feasting on our garbage. In the Twitter-free food-verse of our Mad Maxian future, perhaps we'll all push grocery carts through alleys filled with shredded feathery pigeon carcasses, stopping to harvest whatever sprouts up through cracks in the concrete.

Related Links:

Hunger in the Golden State
Twitter: @hunger_in_CA
Facebook: Hunger in the Golden State

Waste on The California Report
Part One: Hunger in the Land of Plenty
Part Two: The Food Stamp Quandary
Part Three: Waste

California Watch
Twitter: @CaliforniaWatch
Facebook: California Watch
Flickr: California Watch Photo Pool


Jonathan Bloom's Wasted Food blog
Twitter: @WastedFood
Flickr: Food Waste photos

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