Friday, November 21, 2014

On "dumpster diving" and food waste

Hungry and in need of a bite? A peruse through your cupboards shows them to be as empty as Old Mother Hubbard's.  Do you:

A: Go to the supermarket?
B: Pop online and do an online shop? Or
C: Go out to the local shops in the dead of the night and rummage around in the dumpsters until you find a tasty morsel?

Turns out, if you answer "C" to that question, you are doing a fascinating new thing I heard about on the radio last week, dumpster diving. Now, my first thought when I heard about this wasn't exactly unbridled enthusiasm at the idea of a new hobby. Quite the opposite, in fact. I wanted to dry-retch when my own rubbish spilled all over the kitchen floor after a bag malfunction the other week, and at least that rubbish was mine and only from the last three days. The idea of sifting through someone else's dustbin and eating - EATING! - food found within turns my stomach, Finding a step by step guide to dumpster diving didn't have me rushing toward the nearest dumpster either, especially the warning that dumpsters are dirty and can spread diseases, and that if you get trapped in a rubbish truck you are likely to get crushed.

But, according to Dr Giles, the anthropologist who introduced me to the concept of dumpster diving, we in the West waste an awful lot of food. Apparently over 50% of food produced in the USA isn't eaten; I've no idea about the stats about that here, but imagine it's not great here either. It's not just people like me throwing out fruit and veges I bought but never got around to cooking, either. It's bakeries, supermarkets and restaurants throwing out food that isn't perfectly fresh. Or, in the case of produce, it isn't aesthetically pleasing. Supermarkets don't like selling ugly apples, regardless of how they might taste. Dumpster divers aren't chowing down on bread crusts and apple cores. After doing research and locating the right dumpster, they're eating packaged food that's come right of the shelf and only a day old. and food that's actually ok to eat. Assuming, of course, something minging didn't have to be peeled off it first. 

When Modern Mothercraft was published, most people didn't have fridges. It notes that milk can be kept cool by cutting a kerosene tin in half, then "in this place an unglazed brick with sufficient cold water to cover it." The last step is to put the tin in a cold place, and place the milk jug inside. Due to this lack of a fridge, my grandmother probably had a much better sense than me about when food was actually off as well. Besides, her generation had lived through World War Two and the Depression. I don't imagine they would have snubbed an apple because it was a weird shape. Or, not bought bread because the best before date was in two day's time: old bread could be used for bread pudding, or croutons. I found myself nodding along as Dr Giles talked about how my generation are so used to food being fresh, we don't know when food ceases to be edible, so err on the side of caution and usually chuck it out. It's a strange paradox that because we have fridges to keep food fresher, we are more likely to throw good food away. This is probably compounded by confusion about the difference between 'used by' and 'best before dates', and many people not realizing that most foods are still fine after their best before date. 

I don't have any answers for this.  I don't want to go to a restaurant and be served yesterday's chicken, or food that has been scraped from someone else's plate. And I am certainly not planning on dressing like a stealth ninja and go foraging around the dumpsters behind the local supermarket in search of sandwiches that expired yesterday and apples that look like buttocks. On the other hand, I don't like the idea of all of this waste, either. So, maybe I will just be a bit more careful when buying food in the future, and try and throw less out. That way, hopefully, I'll at least raise my children with at least a semblance of appreciation for how lucky they are to live in an age where throwing food out is an option at all. 

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