We Need To Stop Pretending That Dumpster Diving To Feed The Poor Is OK

Yesterday, CBS Sunday Morning ran a segment about “Rescuing food to fight hunger,” and while this is an admirable goal, sourcing food from the garbage–food that is not good enough for you or I to eat–and giving it to the poor is not so admirable. In fact, giving the needy our “leftovers” can often be pretty disrespectful.

Sad but true, Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food every year, which breaks down to roughly 20 pounds per person every month. That includes what we toss in the garbage at home, as well as what restaurants, grocery stores and even farms dispose of. And why? Because it’s expired, it’s going bad, it’s bruised or it’s past its peak. So what are many people doing with this food? Giving it to the poor.

Now I have nothing at all against helping the disadvantaged, in fact, quite the opposite. I work with a lot of inner-city kids, and one thing I am steadfast about is this: I don’t give them anything that I would not eat or wear or use myself. Meaning, those old sneakers don’t go to urban kids. And that expired food doesn’t go to them either. Instead, I turn my old shoes into recycling centers (like Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe) and source new sneakers for these kids. Imagine your birthday and opening a present to find a smelly, dirty, used pair of sneakers. It would make you feel bad, right? Well that’s the same approach and respect I have for working with those in poverty. Something is not always better than nothing, because we all have the resources to give people things that we, ourselves, would want.

Same thing for food. Most of us probably wouldn’t pull food out of the garbage to put on the dinner table. And most of us wouldn’t buy or drink expired milk, bruised bananas or stale bread. And yet, this is the food we expect the poor to eat–and be grateful for. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in a soup kitchen what the food quality is like, and they will likely tell you that it’s pretty dismal. And pretty unhealthy. And yet, this is what we serve to the needy because our society tends to think that poor people don’t deserve the same treatment that the middle class gets. They don’t deserve high-quality, delicious food–they should just be happy with what they get because it’s free and it’s better than nothing, right?

Not always.

So on Sunday Morning yesterday when they were praising some of the organizations for doing all of this, it just felt wrong. At Loaves and Fishes in Naperville, Ill. for example, 75 percent of everything there was destined for the dumpster. Now it’s given regularly to the needy. At another grocery store in Illinois, Jewel-Osco, produce that’s bruised and past its peak is donated to the hungry. Last year they gave away more than 7 million pounds of food.

But what kind of food is that, really?

True, there is a ton of wasted food every day in our country. And true, a lot of that food is still edible. But why do poor people always get the “leftovers”, the food that’s not deemed good enough for the rest of us to eat?

Pete Schaefer, who runs the local Northern Illinois Food Bank explained how grateful they are for these donations:

We’re in the richest county in Illinois, and yet one in five kids will go hungry sometime this year.

And while many of us would throw out a bruised banana, Shaefer said:

Well, if that’s the only fruit or vegetable you’ll see that week, you’re not looking at the bruise. You’re looking at a little piece from heaven right there.

Yes, old bananas can absolutely be eaten when they are bruised. And yes, stale bread can make excellent french toast. So it’s admirable that we are reusing what might ordinarily go in the garbage. Wasted food doesn’t help anyone. Now some of you are probably thinking: Well, at least the poor are eating. And yes, they are. But in an ideal world, the farmers and the grocery stores would simply donate 10% (or whatever a workable figure is) before the food is expired or considered “bad.” They know by now that a certain percentage will always be waste, so why not donate it to the needy upfront instead of waiting for it to be bound for the dumpster?

Once in a while, our society should think about helping the needy with some fresh food, healthy and delicious meals that we would order at a restaurant and new clothing and shoes, instead of always assuming that we can simply give the things that are not suitable for the rest of us to the poor.

Photo: susan-swiderski.blogspot.com



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    • Meg

      While I agree with some of your proposal and that we should not be giving the needy food that will make them sick, I think there is something to be said for incentives. Why would anyone buy food at a grocery store if they can get the same exact quality (ex: unripened bananas, fresh from the oven bread, etc) for free?

      When I go grocery shopping, I’m expecting to pay for food that will at least last me the week and is in good shape. So, in other words, I’m not going to finish the bunch of bananas until the end of the week and need them to stay good until then. So instead of giving away a certain percentage of food and risk losing customers, grocery stores may do better tracking expiration dates and giving the items away to be used close to, but not on or after, the expiration date.

      That way, the food is not bad and the grocery stores can minimize their risk of selling old items, while also giving people who are able to pay for their food an incentive to continue shopping for their own food.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=4100631 Gwendolyn Snyder

      The biggest obstacle to the poor living with dignity is the condition of our social safety net, not bruised bananas.

      Back in college, I prepared and served with Food Not Bombs several times. The food we dumpstered was fine, clean (it was individually packaged, and we washed it again afterwards), maybe a little bruised or stale sometimes, but that was what we could contribute, and we did.

      Picking on gleaning is wrongheaded. The problem here is income inequality. Regardless of the quality of the food provided, NO ONE should have to rely on private charity to eat (or clothe or shelter themselves or their family) in a country as wealthy as the USA. The fact that an ever-increasing number of American families have to rely on donated foods indicates a failure of our social safety net.

      Reagan and Clinton-era welfare reforms are failing our country. It’s appalling that no one blinks when wasteful corn subsidies are approved annually, but the idea of increasing funding for welfare and food stamps is considered political poison.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=4100631 Gwendolyn Snyder

      And hell, while we’re at it–maybe we should be talking about raising the minimum wage so that the working poor are actually able to earn enough to pay for necessities.

    • Nat

      This just goes along with the idea that people on welfare shouldn’t have a car or a phone or clothes that fit. We as a society treat those less fortunate as second class. The poor are expected to eat less, lower quality food and dress in rags. It’s sick and disgusting and makes me ashamed of my potentially wonderful country.

    • Somnilee

      In the UK I help with a charity called FoodCycle. We don’t take food from bins but we have arrangements with shops (such as local Asian grocery stores) to give us produce once a week that otherwise would be thrown out. We then take it to a community centre and our “head chef” plans what we are going to cook while the rest of us sort through and prepare the food (it’s all vegetarian, and all eggs/butter/milk we buy fresh). We try to stick to a standard of “a bit more bruised than you would eat it, but still good”. We then cook it up as a group (normally soup, a main and a pudding) and serve it to our guests at the community centre for free/a small donation. They can have as much as they like, including hot drinks, and we sit with them and chat and eat our dinner too.
      Nothing’s lost and needy people get a good hot meal and some socialisation. I see nothing wrong with that!

    • becky

      I regularly dumpster from the compost bins at the Hannaford in my town. The produce is regularly in high quality condition, and I often find breads, cakes and muffins as well. Many time the grocery stores are just throwing out food that is near its expiration date because they have a new shipment of food arriving. Check out the dumpsters at your local grocery store- with a quick rinse most of the food you’ll find is in great shape.