Essay by Tag Christof & Jason Donahoe
Photography by Lauren Lyon
Recipes by Tanya Cauthen & Kate Little
April 30 2015
Logistics masters from Walmart to H&M to Kroger may sell goods, but they specialise in extreme efficiency: they streamline supply chains, cut costs and merchandise meticulously in the name of high profits, abundant selection, low prices and the illusion of effortlessness. The truth is, whatever your politics, none of those things are independently bad or inherently evil—in fact, many would argue that each has contributed to improving our standard of living. But one inescapable by-product of this scenario is clear: we have created monumental conditions for waste.
Part of the problem is good old-fashioned overproduction. In the quest to create an air of abundance, there will inevitably be spots where the supply curve oversteps demand. But that illusion of overabundance has convinced society that there’s always more where that came from! We buy, we toss into the waste bin. Or, we don’t buy and the supermarket bins. Still, it is one thing when a few thousand sequinned crop tops are sent to the shredder because they wouldn’t sell even at 90% off. It is entirely another when, in the context of endemic world hunger and unprecedented water shortages, North America throws out an estimated 1 in 7 truckloads of food delivered to supermarkets, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
Systemic food waste is a double-edged sword, each side striking differently depending on where you live in the world. In developing countries, rickety trucks, unreliable roads and substandard storage are the main culprits of waste—and in this form it is generally referred to as “food loss.” Food may rot on the farm whilst waiting to be picked, or spoil in slow transit. These operative deficiencies are responsible for a large percentage of world hunger, but solving them is generally a matter of policy and investment. On the flip side, industrialized nations, with their tight infrastructures and gleaming, well-refrigerated supermarkets, have virtually eliminated problems of supply. A portion of wasted food spoils whilst waiting to be purchased, but most gets served on pretty restaurant plates and then dumped, or spoils quietly among the other loot in your overfilled fridge.
Even more than the battle over GMOs and Monsanto’s evil seed empire, waste seems to have become the go-to food issue of today. Every major organization with a stake in the food system seems to have put in place speculative agendum with lofty goals of diminishing food waste by X percent by such and such year. Though it may be tempting to presume that the problem is primarily North American, ostensibly more modest European shopping habits result in similar numbers—the EU has even gone so far as to declare 2014 the Year Against European Food Waste. There are symposia and media campaigns, apps and even clever branded initiatives—French supermarket Intermarché’s campaign from earlier this year about finding love for imperfect produce, Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables, promptly went viral.
The problem with these initiatives, noble as they are, is that they mostly amount to evangelizing to an audience too steeped in the culture of perceived abundance. Though unsightly legumes may now be in vogue, ordinary people are always reluctant to shift their habits drastically without incentive or consequence. Policy will mostly be powerless in the short term, as rationing or food tax hikes would be considered draconian. Curbing food waste at the consumer level will happen most tangibly when food becomes too expensive to afford in excess—you can bet that the number of limes wasted this summer declined sharply as prices rose exponentially.
Meanwhile, the logic of the moral plea that forms the foundation of our personal food-waste conscience—Clean your plate, because children in (insert random developing region you know nothing about here) are starving!—has run out of steam. The problems of waste are neither abstract nor foreign.
Clean your plate, little Jimmy, because people down the street are starving.
So, conspicuously absent in all the high-minded proselytizing are solutions that either account for or leverage anything outside the linear path from supermarket to fridge to waste bin. But what about that bin?
The portmanteau freegan (free+vegan) describes a subset of societal non-participants who maintain alternative lifestyle strategies and reject most modern consumerist notions. Like vegans, freegans tackle the ethical dilemmas of the production cycle at the consumption level. Where vegans refuse to participate in the consumption of animal byproduct as a means to protect animals, freegans extend this logic to the entire food industrial complex, opting for new means of waste-minimization, ecologically focused modes of transportation, housing and, perhaps most importantly, waste reclamation—more commonly known as dumpster diving.
The dumpster is the front line of freeganism, a potent, literal symbol of a system out of balance. A ubiquitous treasure chest, potentially containing every manner of consumable ephemera. Entire cases of shiraz, labels stained by a single broken bottle safely separated from adjacent ground beef by its hermetic cellophane packet. A dented container of pico de gallo not labeled to expire until next week rests like a flying saucer atop a bouquet of beets. Not-quite-firm leeks, crooked squash, twisted yams. Perfectly edible. Utterly unsellable.
All of this makes a fine meal for a freegan.
As a general rule, freegans are deeply conscientious. They have an extensive knowledge about the systems they oppose and are acutely aware of the ills and externalities inherent in the food-industrial complex, as well as its illusions of limitless abundance. Still, the irony of this binary of participation vs. non participation is not lost on many. Without the prodigious wasters, a culture of freeganism could not exist. But rather than responding to ethical dilemmas in well-meaning, but ultimately ineffective ways—i.e. armchair activists who ‘buy responsibly’—a freegan sidesteps the system, choosing not to buy at all, and taps into waste as an essential resource.
Freegans generally operate beyond organization and on an individual level, save for loosely confederated collectives such as Food Not Bombs, which works with local grocery stores, bakeries and markets to reclaim and re-distribute food that would otherwise go to waste. Borrowing a page from the neoliberal lexicon, these independent groups are a part of a broader movement of ‘franchise activism,’ in which smaller local elements can cater their operations to the needs of immediate communities.
Furthermore, in rejecting conventional tendencies toward conspicuous consumption, freegans in turn reject the outward signifiers of status, power and identity which drive that consumption. Freeganism, as a lifestyle of extreme pragmatism, is emphatically not driven by image and thus cannot be reduced to icons—adherents make do with whatever is at hand. Abandoned turnip or branded t-shirt, all is fair game.
In any case, hoovering up waste food for later consumption is no walk in the park. Beyond the niceties inherent in dumpster diving—sludge, stigma and that sweet, sweet smell—scavengers run the risk of winding up in serious trouble. Likely concerned about potential lawsuits and loitering, supermarkets actively discourage the practice by dousing old food in bleach or locking up refuse in dumpster Fort Knox. In the vast majority of urban jurisdictions across the developed world, the practice is formally frowned upon to the point of outright illegality—freegans are regularly fined, cited and arrested.
Regularly fined, cited and arrested for scavenging food bound otherwise to rot beyond use?
Herein lies the rub, socially-conscious friends.
In the end, the world clearly won’t be saved by scrappy anarcho-thrifters picking through dumpsters, noble as they are. But while the rhetoric about eliminating food waste ramps up, any intellectually honest approach really must take into account all angles. Alongside trying to break suburbanites of the habit of cruising down to local warehouse stores to buy beef, butter and bread in bulk, we must also embrace the good people willing to shave a slice of the problem right off the top.
With a touch of clever economy, the scraps of one meal become the start of the next.
Henry’s Whole Roasted Chicken
1 whole local pasture-raised Chicken (about 4 lbs)
1 whole lemon
½ an onion, cut into 3 pcs
1 carrot, peeled, cut into 3 pcs
Salt, Pepper & fresh Thyme
Pre-heat oven or grill to 400 degrees.
Cut lemon in half and squeeze the juice, save both the juice and the lemon halves.
Dry off chicken and remove neck and ‘parts’ from the inside. Liberally season the inside of the chicken with salt and pepper. Loosely fill the cavity with lemon halves, onion and carrot.
For the outside of the Chicken: Pour lemon juice over chicken and rub into skin. Liberally salt and pepper the skin, drizzle with a little olive oil sprinkle with a bit of thyme and rub in as well.
If grilling: Start breast side down over in-direct heat. Rotate to breast side up after 30 minutes, continue to cook until a thermometer inserted into the meaty part of the thigh registers 155 about an hour to 1 ¼ hours. Allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.
If roasting: Roast breast side up in a heavy roasting pan for about an hour to 1 ¼ hours. Again, until the meaty part of the thigh registers about 155 degrees. Allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.
Roast or grill vegetables as a side—again, simply just salt, pepper and a little olive oil. Finish vegetables with a little bit of fresh chopped herbs.
1 med. Onion, peeled and in chunks
2 stalks Celery, in chunks
3 med. Carrots, peeled & in 3rds
2 bay leaves
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
Remove all the meat from the bones and reserve for other uses.
Put the bones in a stock pot (choose a pot that will only be about half full with the bones in it). Add the onion, celery, carrots, bay leaves and peppercorns.
Fill with cold water until the bones are submerged by at least 1 inch of water.
Bring to a boil, and reduce to a low simmer and skim any scum that formed on the surface of the stock. Throw the scrum away.
Simmer about 2 hours. Do not boil (boiling will make your stock cloudy). Taste. It should be flavourful but tastes like it needs salt (because we haven’t added any yet). If it does, then you are ready to strain (aka get rid of all the bones) and season to taste with salt.
If it just tastes watery, then continue to simmer until reduced in volume by about
¼—maybe another hour. Taste again and see if it’s ready to strain.
When salting, remember you can always add more.
Stock is great in anything and can be frozen in recycled deli containers until you need it.
om’s Chicken Pot Pie
Meat from ½ chicken
1 cup stock or broth
½ can cream of chicken soup
½ cup milk
½ cup flour, self-rising
½ stick butter, melted
1 can carrots
1 can peas
Put leftover chicken and vegetables into a small baking dish.
Mix stock and soup; pour over chicken.
Mix flour, milk, and butter; pour over mixture.
Bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes.