The scene would have been familiar to most city-dwellers: a ragged, foetid man with a wild drink-scorched face sat muttering to himself at one end of the subway train. All the other passengers, myself included, stoically ignored him, absorbed in their music and their screens. The train stopped to exchange passengers, opening its doors to a young woman wearing office clothes and heavy make-up. She’d just started her lunch: a lavish-looking grilled chicken and cheese sandwich, from which plump fingers of roasted red pepper oozed as she took her first bite. I don’t know if she saw the man first, or heard him, or smelled him; but before I knew it she was striding over to offer him the second half of her sandwich. She settled into the evacuated seat opposite him so they could finish their meal together. There are few acts more humanising to a person in distress than eating with them as equals.
It was with these thoughts playing in my head that, later the same day, I rifled bags of spinach out of a supermarket’s rubbish. A short leathery Chinese lady, balancing two enormous globes of discarded bottles on each end of a broomstick, joined me at the garbage bags. We had no language in common other than the sharing of our bounties, but it was enough. Alas, she didn’t want my spinach, but her eyes grew wide when I offered her two packs of dumplings, while I gratefully accepted a tub of hummus and three bedraggled leeks.
For me, it is these kinds of improbable connexions that have made scavenging such an enriching experience. The fluid communities which congregate around a city’s discards constitute a unique and diverse ecosystem. In this piece I want to share some of my experiences in this ecosystem, both as an individual scavenger, and as a volunteer for organisations which seek to tackle the injustice of sending edible food to landfill.
There is undeniably a growing public awareness of this latter issue, and a concomitant response from governments and businesses. Yet there is still much to be done at every stage of the distribution chain. Wheat is left to rot in farmers’ fields when rock-bottom prices render it uneconomical to harvest. Spotty apples and bipedal carrots are rejected for not meeting retailers’ unreasonable standards of beauty. One egg cracked en route to the supermarket dooms the dozen. Commodified milk and meat spoil on store shelves stocked to the brim, and in the fridges of consumers for whom they are cheap and disposable. In restaurants, side salads and leavings from the buffet are scraped from the plates of overstuffed diners. In all, and despite agriculture’s colossal demands of energy, water and land, and the various pollutants it pumps so profusely into the natural world, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 40% of the food produced in the USA never gets eaten.
What does this figure even mean? Well, take a moment to visualise the food you ate or will eat today, and place it on a table in your mind. Once you have that image, scale it up to include all the food you’ll eat this week. Your table will be getting pretty full, but take just one more step, and try to think of all the food you’ll eat this year – every greasy slice of pizza and virtuous kale salad, every joyful summer ice-cream and warming winter stew. It’s tough to imagine (the mind struggles to grasp that which is destined for the belly); but hold the thought for just a little longer. Take your teetering mountain of delectables and, carefully, raise it up in your mind and, decisively, hurl it into the garbage. All of it. In the garbage. It’s sad to watch it go, no? Now all you have to do is repeat this exercise every forty seconds for your entire life, and you’ll start to get a sense of how much edible food goes to waste each year in the US alone.
Cities, hubs of bustle and consumption, bring the practical scale of this waste to a focus, and New York is no exception. It’s especially obvious during the humid summer months, when the full-bodied stench of decaying organic matter wreaths the streets, blending with dog piss and vehicle exhaust to produce the unmistakable smell-scape of Manhattan. And yet, between the hours of seven-thirty and eleven pm, the expired and soon-to-be-expired stock thrown out by shops and cafes and supermarkets undergoes a strange and marvellous transformation. Amid the huddles of black plastic sacks on the kerbside, lone scavengers like myself sprout like wary mushrooms. With preliminary prods and fondles, I’ll investigate whether a given bag warrants rummaging. If yes, I’ll set about teasing open the knot and peering inside, hoping that some scruffy huddle of goodies will be waiting within. If yes, the two unspoken rules (respected by most but not all scavengers) are to not take more than you need, and to leave the area as tidy as you found it.
The store employees, noticing the activity, might respond in a number of ways. Some are touchingly generous, emerging with extra morsels they were planning to throw out later. Others charge out with ludicrous harangues, embodying a vindictive contempt for those who are struggling or who don’t wish to conform. The vast majority, however, just ignore you. The city has trained them.
My fellow scavengers also boast a broad range of characters and attitudes. Some, like the Chinese lady, are warm and giving; others jealously guard their finds. But all have some story to tell if you can coax it out of them.
Luc needs no coaxing: a youthful sixty-eight-year-old with lank grey hair, he’s an open sluice of anecdotes, cynical commentary and ribald jokes. We quickly became friends, with him dominating our conversations and me struggling to match the pace of his wit. Our traditional meeting spot was outside an upmarket deli in Greenwich Village, which at 10.30pm would throw out the day’s uneaten fresh lunches and unsupped smoothies. Soon we began taking afternoon strolls through the streets of Manhattan. He would read me passages from his book on Kublai Khan, and we’d drink greasy cups of tea in his squalid flat before dabbling in psychedelics.
I haven’t seen “Steely Steve” for some time, which is a shame because he was one of the first people I properly met in New York. On that occasion, he’d just found a trove of discarded apples; but since his teeth are in such poor condition, he turned them over to me. After that I carried around a small flask of my home-brewed apple wine until I bumped into him again. “Eugh, you call this drinkable?” he told me as he polished off the bottle.
Then there are the self-entitled punks like Tucker who drift from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, city to city, always on the move. They don’t give a fuck: they tear the garbage bags, hooting with freedom wrested from a prescriptive social order, and eliciting disapproval and envy from bystanders and fellow scavengers alike.
And I absolutely must mention Sergei – one of the kindest souls I know. When we meet in the East Village, he bows and says “Hello, Professor!” (I’m still not sure why). We discuss the tragedy of rage, the peace of the lapping ocean, and, as with the Chinese lady, we each insist that the other accept the best finds. The list goes on, but you get the idea. This haphazard constellation of individuals comprise an emergent affinity group, rooted in varying measures in the necessities of sustenance, an abhorrence of waste, an opportunist attitude, and a general mistrust of the prevailing economic system. It is not only food we share with one another, but our values and experiences.
When I tell other people about scavenging, they rarely ask about the community. The immediate question is usually “Don’t you get sick?”, to which I’ll reply “Very rarely. You know, just inspecting and smelling the food is generally a good guide. The key thing is to pick it up promptly so it isn’t sitting in the heat for ages.”. Or, “Where do you scavenge?”: “I have my regular haunts, where I know what to look for, and when. But I’m also generally vigilant around cafes and supermarkets at closing time.”. Or they’ll ask, “What stuff do you find?”: “Well, everything that gets thrown away! Lots of fruit and vegetables, bread and sandwiches, soup and sushi: stuff which spoils daily. But it’s certainly not limited to that.”. Another common question is, “Aren’t you embarrassed to be seen digging in the garbage?”, and I’ll say, “Who cares? Isn’t it more embarrassing to endorse the perverse cultural norms that have us wasting food? We should all be scavengers, and we should all support food rescue!”. “Okay, how much do you spend on food in a week?”: “I guess less than $5 on average. When I find a good bag, I’ll sometimes try to estimate how much its contents would have cost an hour ago when it was respectably sitting on a shelf. It could be anything up to $300. To me this is shocking, both for what it says about the scale of waste, and for what it says about the meaninglessness of money.”.
But the most interesting and difficult question I get is a moral one. Until recently, I had a salaried job, and scavenging was a choice rather than a necessity. So people would ask, “Aren’t you depriving food from the most needy? Like, what about people who are sleeping rough?”. As a partial answer I’ll tell them not to underestimate how much good food the city still discards, and how little gets salvaged. I’ll tell them that every day thousands upon thousands of kilos are picked up from the sidewalk and tossed into trucks which whisk them out of sight and out of mind. Given that, simultaneously, one in six New Yorkers are at risk of going hungry, I can‘t help but feel that the city demonstrates in miniature the failings of a global market which lets people starve in an age of plenty.
Happily, there are a number of non-profits devoted to diverting food from landfill into people’s bellies. Each occupies its own niche in the ecosystem of food waste, but all are trying to address food re-distribution in a somewhat more organised and philanthropic fashion than the individual scavengers. They range in size and structure from fluid grassroots groups formed through word of mouth and social media, to institutional behemoths. During my time in the city, I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer with a few of them.
At one end of the spectrum is the food bank City Harvest. New York residents have no doubt spotted their logoed trucks zipping about the city, either on their way to collect unwanted food from farms, markets, and restaurants, or on a run to deliver the equivalent of forty-six million meals per year to shelters, soup kitchens, and individuals. I’ve participated in both ends of the operation (that is, both supply and demand); witnessing even a mere sliver of it starts to press home the sheer monstrous scale of the problem. After an entire afternoon weighing out vegetables for folks in poor neighbourhoods, it’s impossible not to be overcome by numb shock at the mountains of carrots and the queues of people who need them.
In a sense, City Harvest is responding to the industrialised systems of production upon which our society is built. As such, they mirror and internalise an industrial model, and their volunteers must work with machine-like efficiency in order to get the job done. It also means it isn’t worth their while to collect smaller caches of food. This leaves an open niche in the food-waste ecosystem for someone to round up the neglected scraps.
Enter Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, which since 2013 has recruited small handfuls of volunteers to stroll or cycle between neighbourhood bakeries, cafes and restaurants, gathering whatever can’t be sold the next day and delivering it to nearby homeless shelters. The haul might be a modest bag or two, or it could require a few pairs of hands and a cart to shift. It all adds up: in 2016, they collected well over half a million pounds of food. This figure is more than double what it was the previous year, and it will continue to grow as the organisation expands its network of contacts and its pool of volunteers. Speaking as someone who’s spent a good deal of time glaring at a computer, my food-gathering walks for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine have been extremely pleasurable. I always enjoy the friendly banter with my volunteering partners, with store staff who’ve set aside their leftovers, and with the chirpy shelter receptionists whose long night has just begun.
And even less institutional than Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is Food Not Bombs, a broad and global activist network dedicated to gathering people to cook and distribute a hot meal for whoever wants one. Their format does away with higher organisational structures, and gives participants direct control over (and responsibility for) every step of the process.
I joined these gatherings a few times during my first months in New York. Freezing winter Sundays would find me and half a dozen other would-be chefs tearfully chopping onions, discussing recipes, and finally trundling a giant tureen of lentil and vegetable soup to Tompkins Square Park. A sparse throng of people with nowhere else to go would condense around us, warming their fingers through paper bowls and gnawing on generous hunks of cold-stiffened bread. They shared their tales and their hardships, and eagerly eyed the plump bag of pastries from a local bakery. It was here that I first began to feel connected with the city, and, inevitably, to fall in love with it.
While an acolyte of the streamlined and expertly administered City Harvest might dismiss Food Not Bombs as inefficient, there is no question that the latter convincingly supports communities and encourages human interaction in an otherwise anonymising and indifferent metropolis. And while City Harvest is a structured organisation, Food Not Bombs is more a set of ideas: it envisions activism as being local, interpersonal, non-hierarchical and empowering. Consequently its principles have been able to spread, with groups around the world forming under its banner.
Regardless of which model you are naturally drawn to, as these kinds of organisations continue to recruit volunteers, form partnerships with retailers, and penetrate deeper into the food ecosystem, I see our society moving in the right direction. The visibility of food rescue has encouraged the public to hold businesses accountable for their impacts – these organisations may not fix the iniquities which undergird Western liberal capitalism, but they do draw attention to its failings.
But this is not the principal goal, and in my experience, few of the administrators, volunteers or donors are much moved by such lofty talk. They are driven by sympathetic beating hearts, and the conviction that, through food and shelter and warmth, they can touch the lives of people who struggle in a cold world, and humanising those who waver on society’s margins. For this I am deeply thankful.
And yet, their success does engender for me a selfish bitter-sweet twinge of loss, because every victory won against waste represents one less opportunity for me to meet, among the garbage bags, members of the city’s scavenging underbelly. Eliminating waste necessarily eliminates those who thrive on it. Our sites of affinity become barren. No longer will I wince at Luc’s bawdy anecdotes or feast my ears on Sergei’s soft contemplations; no longer will I be greeted by Steely Steve’s blackened grin.
At the end of the day, it’s a small price to pay. Remembering the woman who shared her boutique sandwich with a grimy stranger on the subway, I’m comforted to know that food will always be a language of connexion with other human lives. As for the scavengers, I’m glad to participate in their off-beat conversation for as long as it lasts.
[This is a draft of a piece I’m contributing to “Home Grown”, a forthcoming book which examines sustainable systems of food supply for urban centres, with a focus on New York City. It looks like it’s going to be extremely interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading it. More information about the book, including a table of contents, can be found on the Terreform website.]