Tuesday, November 1, 2011

15 Minutes of Fame

I just found out a couple of days ago that I'll be featured on national Swiss television in several weeks. Jürg Brandenberger, a reporter from the Schweizer Fernsehen Rundschau wants to interview me for a special on food waste that will be broadcast around Christmas time. I'd love to think this is for my work I've done on food politics, especially food waste, but that would be a bit naïve. The fact is he wants to film me dumpster diving. How often is it that we see a middle-class Swiss housewife lean into a dumpster to pull out discarded food from big retailers and serve it to her three children?

I started dumpster diving for food last March and brought it to a peak around June – about 80% of what we were eating came from the dumpsters. As I grew more and more interested in food waste I needed to see for myself how Switzerland compared to other countries: how much was being thrown away and what was the quality of the food compared to what one sees on the internet from the United States, from England and from Germany, for example. Are we throwing things out a week before the expiration date? Or the day of the expiration date? What fruits and vegetables are especially likely to wind up in the dumpster? And, most importantly, what's not making the cut for donation to organizations who deliver retailer discards to the needy?

Within the first couple of weeks I had determined to write a book about this. I devoured the English language books on the subject and was miffed to find nothing highly relevant in German. Luckily this August the first German language book on the subject came out: Die Essensvernichter (in English, “The Food Annihilators”), which I just picked up today. It was published in Germany, but the Swiss will do well having a journalistic work on the subject, even if it's from over the boarder. My book, I had decided, would be something quite different: a semi-autobiographical tale of the path I'm walking from being a mainstream consumeristic housewife to a dumpster-diving political food activist. We'll find out in December how much airtime I get on the Rundschau. I'm guessing Schweizer Fernsehen will also find that semi-autobiographical element interesting.

I doubt if I'll be getting 15 minutes of fame but I thought I'd try to crystalize what I'd like to say on the subject if I get one or two or five minutes. So here are some of my most essential thoughts on food.

We currently have enough food to feed the world and are throwing half of it away. With the famine on the Horn of Africa intensifying how is it that we don't begin to draw parallels? Why is it that global economics is an area of expertise reserved for businesses? Why don't politicians know enough about global economics? And why doesn't the general public, for that matter? Our consumption has a direct influence on global food prices. If we consume more by throwing away more we are driving up the global price of food for billions of people who use the majority of their income – often 80 or 90% – to buy food. These people are threatened by malnourishment. Statistically all of the roughly 1 billion undernourished and malnourished people in the world are only missing an average of 250 calories per person per day. This is referred to as the “depth of hunger.” And while the internet provides many links for Westerners searching for weight-loss advice with 250 kcal meals and snacks combined from abundant and often strange foods, for most people in the developing world that depth of hunger could be stilled with the equivalent of one cup of rice. Famine would be so easy to solve. There are 11 million people and counting who need emergency help in the Horn of Africa now. But we could ensure that future hunger disasters are often minimized by keeping the global prices of grains stable. This would require international trade legislation, a ban on food commodity speculation, and a reduction in Western over-consumption, most easily achieved through stopping food waste.

Closer to home, in Switzerland, nearly 10 percent of the population lives under the poverty level. One doesn't see them in the streets begging (since begging is illegal) in this rich country and most Swiss believe those less fortunate to be well looked after by our social public welfare system. The fact is, however, that many people have a lack of money that threatens their survival. Organizations like Tischlein Deck Dich and the Schweizer Tafel realize this. They receive a certain amount of food items that have been donated by the largest retailers and distribute that food to poor people. But there still isn't enough to go around. The sad part of the story is that most Swiss, if they even give a thought to food waste, will name one of those two organizations and with a clear conscience declare that Switzerland doesn't have a food waste problem since all food that isn't sold at the grocery stores is distributed through these organizations to the poor. Well, I beg to differ. I've seen what's thrown away. It's food. Perfectly edible food. Tons of it. Actually 250,000 tons of it per year. Although many would claim that only a portion of that wasted food was still edible, I again would beg to differ. I've been in the dumpsters. I've eaten what they consider trash. Just because Switzerland might do a good job with combating food waste doesn't mean we Swiss have a right to self-satisfaction. We're not doing a good enough job yet.

I guess I won't get a chance to say any of that which I've written so far because that's just part of good journalistic research and I imagine the narrator will rattle off these statistics. What I guess they won't say is this: I wish every viewer might realize he's not only part of the problem, but also part of the solution. My highest priority is to communicate to people their own strength. I want to enable people to see themselves not only as consumers but also as citizens. This is the most intrinsic element, crucial to any change. We've come to accept our label as consumers by a capitalist system that wants us to do nothing more than consume. And we're taught that the only way to make change is to consume differently or, more rarely, to consume less. In terms of food waste this means blaming the consumer for retail food-waste woes, since it's the consumer that demands fresh bread at six o'clock in the evening, when stores all close at six-thirty. It's a retail cop-out. I don't deny that we have many obligations as consumers and I'm thrilled to motivate people to reflect upon and change their patterns of consumption. But I'm even more excited to motivate people to realize their citizenship. Vote! But don't stop there. Organize the community you want to live in. The world is made up of nothing more than a whole bunch of communities.

I'm choosing the community of Switzerland to organize a Swiss-wide grass-roots movement against food waste. Grass roots means anybody can get involved. We're planning to use this media wave to get people interested and active on food waste. Both as consumers and as citizens. How as citizens? We want to put pressure on manufacturers and retailers. And more importantly we want to influence legislation. That means we need a lot of people working together to become one very loud voice.

But what is there to say? – you might think. Everybody knows we shouldn't throw so much food away. So we should just throw less away. It's not that easy. And that's why change isn't being made because it's not easy to change. Some companies, for example, make improvements in their food-waste practices and find it difficult to get motivated to make more improvements. Biogas is a great example here. For about one decade Swiss retailers have started diverting organic food-waste from the incinerator to the biogas facility. A great improvement, but not good enough. If you want to know what they're burning to make biogas go to your local supermarket and ask them if you could have produce scraps for your rabbits. I don't have rabbits but I did this experiment for a few months and brought home bags of edible salad and vegetables every week. With the exception of some outer wilted leaves everything was still fresh. It's not old, moldy, bug-ridden food. It's merely food that is deemed too old to sell. But it is far from too old to eat. And this is what is producing our biogas.

I'll sing a retail praise now to balance the picture. In the last five years retailers have begun marking down prices for produce as the produce starts to look a bit wilted. Even the big retailers are doing this. This is a great step. Of course a consumer would choose a fresh salad over a wilted salad (only the outer leaves are wilted, by the way, the inside is still fresh) any day. But as the food-waste scandal becomes common knowledge, people will realize that two half-price salads have more good edible salad in them than one full-priced salad. Marking down wilted produce or older food items is a great example of the retail industry working together with consumers to combat food waste. At the end of the day, however, what doesn't sell goes to biogas.

There are logistical problems involved in getting already wilted produce to the non-governmental organizations that distribute food to the hungry. These organizations are already doing a magnificent job in terms of timely redistribution. But it would be great if – in addition to these NGO's – there were other alternatives. I'm inspired by New Zealand. There they opened two so-called “free stores” within the last year. It's wonderfully non-bureaucratic. Everything the store “sells” is for free and those who shop there have what's called “self-determined” need. So every time somebody's in a pinch financially he can go and pick up the food he might need to get him over the hump. It's not a rare occurrence in life that we get in a financial pinch, right? But those tight spots, for most of us, don't mean that we go to the welfare system to get by them. But for some people it means that they don't get enough to eat. Even in Switzerland. My very non-bureaucratic suggestion for Switzerland would be that retailers could offer their unsellable food on a rain-protected shelf outside the store for people with self-determined need to take as they see fit.

But now we come to legislation. In Switzerland retailers are not allowed to even give food away for free if it is over the expiration date. They are obliged to discard it. There are important safety issues involved with meat and fish, of course, and for these highly perishable foods we have a separate labeling system than for foods with a long shelf-life. That's common in many countries: the “use by” date. It's the other date that I find so highly problematic. Although in English speaking countries we often see a “best before” date, in German speaking Switzerland it's called “Mindestens haltbar bis” which translates directly to “at least nonperishable until” for foods like pasta, dried beans, and canned goods. Statistics show that both in English and German a very large percentage of people don't know how to interpret these dates. This is shown in the wide-spread choice of using the word “expired” to define food that is... indeed, well, over the “expiration” date. But nothing expires in pasta or dried beans. And canned goods are good as long as the can still has a tight vacuum. (Don't even open a bulging can, as botulism can make us sick by even breathing in airborne bacteria.) So why do we even call these foods “expired”? The sad fact is it's not just the consumers at home who often throw away food that is over the “expiration” date. Even the retailers do. And they have to. They are not even allowed to give it away. If a food inspector makes a random check in a grocery store and finds even one yoghurt on the shelf on the day of “expiration,” he writes in his report that the store was selling expired yoghurt. Not one yoghurt, but a general statement, as if the store would only be selling... well, trash. Then the retailer is required to undergo further checks and hassles, costing time and money, in order to maintain their certification. This is why retailers are often generous with pulling things from the shelves sometimes days before their due date is up.

So we really have to ask what food is even going to these NGO's that distribute unsellable food to the needy? Carton du Coeur, another of these NGO's, doesn't accept food donations if the food has less than one month before the “best before” date. I'm specifically referring to a collection box they have in a big retail store not far from the village where I live. And produce, like my rabbit food, is going straight to the biogas facility, if not straight to the trash. These NGO's are mostly getting bulk items. When a retailer sees, for example, that a product isn't selling well and wants to swap it for something else. There are exceptions, of course. But the majority of food that is already too old for the stores to sell is not going to the poor. And the reason why is legislation. In America, Clinton passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996, enabling retailers to donate food without needing to fear legal consequences. In Switzerland there's no such protection for retailers. In fact, a friend who works in a local grocery store gave me some dried beans for free the other day and told me, “if you get sick you have to tell the authorities that you insisted upon taking this food.” The beans were a day over the “expiration” date and will hold on my shelves for years, if not decades.

There is no governmental regulation for the making of “best before” dates in Switzerland. It is something to be decided by manufacturers and is left fully in their hands. Do I believe manufacturers shorten the “best before” dates in order to sell more products? You bet! And yet Swiss legislation is based upon these branch-specific dating policies. Our government is telling retailers they have to discard food that has been dated by the food industry, when the government wasn't involved in that dating process to begin with. So in effect we're not only trusting corporations to make decisions about our food, we're having our own government blindly follow and enforce the corporate will of consumerism on the public. If we're going to have laws that bind sellers to certain practices with food dating, then we need to have the government involved in the food dating itself. It becomes a futile effort to sensitize the public about food waste and pressure retailers to adopt better practices if our very laws are hindering advancements.

Before I go into the nitty-gritty of dumpster-diving, which I'm sure the Schweizer Fernsehen Rundschau viewers will be so happy to hear, I'd like to communicate a concept that needs wider recognition. It might be well known in food-waste circles but the general public would do well to hear and understand it. It's called the food-waste pyramid, which is a spin-off of standard waste hierarchies, and follows this order: source reduction, feed hungry people, feed animals, industrial uses (anaerobic digestion or biogas), composting, and landfill / incineration. We can't be reactive with food waste. It's not enough to do composting or even produce biogas. We need to be proactive. Here's where that citizenship awareness should come into play. Industries have the logistical technology these days to achieve the first point and highest priority in fighting food waste: source reduction. But they're often not doing it because they want to sell more. They need to learn (and this education needs to be supported with proper legislation) that it is more economically advantageous to stop wasting. This incorporates a warehouse of restrictions and incentives that can only come into play with a strong and active community that strives to make change.

Okay, you've waited so long: here's the dish on dumpster diving. Is it gross? Sure, but not too bad. Is it illegal? Not in Switzerland, as long as you don't break a lock or jump a fence. Is it dangerous? For your reputation, maybe, but for your health, no. I always call to mind the studies on allergies and immunology. One study found children who grow up on farms – surrounded by animals and hay and dirt and dust – to have the lowest rates of allergies among Swiss children. And a European study found Albanians to have the best immunity on the continent. Albania's a pretty poor country, not widely reputed for high sanitary standards. So I figure getting packaged food out of a dumpster is not a problem at all. And the unpackaged food, like produce? I take that, too. Just to boost my immunity.

I remember the E. coli scandal in Germany from last May. My husband warned me that I shouldn't take any cucumbers from the dumpsters since they might have the E. coli bacteria on them. I went on the internet and found out that thousands of tons of produce were being destroyed. Especially cucumbers were hit hard since the German authorities put the finger on Spanish cucumber, although that later turned out to be a faulty connection. People on chat groups weren't feeding their children any fresh produce any more. Even Swiss farmers were destroying their crops, although there was no federal mandate to do so. I certainly regret the number of people who have died from this outbreak. But they weren't dumpster divers. My point is, life is full of dangers and we cannot protect ourselves from everything. Not even if we destroy thousands of tons of produce. Many dumpster divers claim that one is far more likely to get food poisoning by eating in a restaurant than by eating food from a dumpster. I believe I have become far more aware of food safety issues than in my earlier blind-consumption days. I use my senses combined with common sense to determine the safety and quality of food. Are we safer if we use these innate skills or if we blindly follow date-labeling developed by the food industry?

Not everyone who wants to get involved in the food-waste movement is going to rife through food in retail dumpsters. In Germany and the USA it's illegal, which would make it rather a deterrent for me, too. But there's far more that we can do as consumers than just eat our leftovers (although I would agree that that's a good start). Besides supporting local farmers by signing up for a produce subscription that guarantees you a box of the freshest, most seasonal, ecologically sound food you can eat there's another rarely mentioned variation. Shop at your local, community store if you still have one. Local grocers have very little food waste. Just like the retail giants, they are reducing food prices on food that nears it's expiration date. And what doesn't get sold usually gets taken home by the employees. Big stores fire employees that take home even so much as a slice of bread without paying. But a small store is thankful to avoid waste. The store in the village where I live is a cooperative. I and many other active residents have paid good money to buy shares in our store in order to keep it from going under as more and more people turn to shop at the big retailers in the suburbs. I had a talk the other day with the manager about food waste and found out that she not only takes unsellable food home, she also still pays full price for it in order to keep the store alive and running well. Shopping at local grocers is good for the community, good for the environment, and one of the best first steps I can think of to combat food waste.

And when you're shopping at that community store you might bump into somebody you know and strike up a conversation about food waste. The more people that talk about it, the more this media movement will turn into a movement of the people. At your local grocer you can make the transition from being a consumer to a citizen. This is the forum where we can learn debate again. This is the place, in our little communities, where we can look for answers to big problems.

It's said that we crossed the 7 billion mark yesterday, and we're expected to have a world population of ten billion by around the middle of the century. With one billion people already hungry now I think we all need to start thinking about how we can solve the even bigger problems of food sustainability that we'll be facing in the future.

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