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Groceries in the Garbage

Jay Bachhuber Aug 10, 2005

New York is a city where thousands of people go hungry every day, while trash bags bulge with uneaten and unspoiled food.

According to a 2000 waste composition analysis, New Yorkers produce more than 400,000 tons of food waste a year, even while 480,000 people need food assistance every day. The city spends up to $71.38 per ton to ship its solid waste to landfills in Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, placing a huge burden on taxpayers.

University of Arizona anthropologist Timothy Jones, who has studied U.S. food loss over the past ten years, estimates that the average household wastes 14 percent of its food purchases. Fifteen percent of that waste consists of products still within their expiration dates. According to Jones’s calculations, the average American family discards $590 in foodstuffs per year, often when it could have been frozen and saved.

School cafeterias are also significant sources of waste. A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation study concluded that students produce between 45 and 90 pounds of garbage a year from school lunches, much of which is uneaten food. In an article on youthcomm.org, student Kenneth Douglas wrote of classmates drinking the milk from lunch trays and throwing away the rest because they believed “that ‘People who would eat this stuff must not have any food at home,’ and,’You must be poor if you’re eating that stuff.’”

Regulations for the National School Lunch Program require students to receive a set number of items, whether they want them or not. A March 2005 survey showed that 74 percent of urban schools do nothing to limit waste from unfinished meals. About $600 million worth of food from school lunches is thrown away every year nationwide, according to a federal Department of Agriculture study.

There are people working against this flood of squandered nourishment. Organizations such as Wastefreelunches.org teach ways to reduce lunch waste. While focusing on reducing school-lunch packaging, they also encourage parents to pack lunch boxes more efficiently and stress the need for composting programs at schools. In California, school composting and recycling projects have saved thousands of dollars and thousands of pounds of garbage.

Locally, the Lower East Side Ecology Center converts 60 tons of organic waste into roughly 15 tons of compost every year. NYCWasteLe$$, an initiative by the city Department of Sanitation, maintains a Web site designed to help New Yorkers decrease the amount of garbage they produce and dispose of it more effectively. NYCWasteLe$$ explains how consumers and businesses can save money and reduce waste through more efficient food purchasing, preparation and storage, by composting, and by redistributing their potential food waste to soup kitchens and food pantries.

Since 1981, City Harvest has been a link between those who have and those who have not. With its fleet of 18 trucks, City Harvest works with more than 2,600 local businesses to save more than 19 million pounds of food a year by delivering food to pantries and soup kitchens. The group recently established a free produce market in the South Bronx for residents of the Melrose Houses.

Other New Yorkers deal with food waste by dumpster diving. Some “freegans” are driven to consume food that has been thrown out by restaurants, grocers and delis because they cannot afford to buy food; others choose it as a statement against consumerism and for environmentalism. By eating perfectly edible and nutritious food that has left the commercial production-consumption cycle, freegans claim to be withdrawing from the environmental destruction wrought by the food industry. By consuming what would otherwise be wasted, they reduce the amount of trash going to landfills. Dumpster diving may be abhorrent to most people, but freegans argue that rampant consumer overindulgence is worse.