Clad in a black t-shirt with the logo of a fist clutching a carrot stick, third-year equity studies student Tasha Stansbury scissor-kicks her way into an unlocked dumpster.
“So many people take food for granted, and so much food goes to waste,” she says. “A lot of rejected food can be repurposed, and usually a really good scrub and rinse is more than good enough for sanitizing.”
Digging through the trash, she finds scores of unused organic mushrooms, sweet potatoes, green onions, zucchinis, baby carrots, and other treasures in black plastic bags.
Stansbury’s raids into the trash are not as a result of an insufficient personal budget. Like the rest of her fleet of so-called dumpster divers, she’s on a mission to preserve the Earth.
Food as commodity
Stansbury says that the Food Not Bombs movement (FNB), or the practice of retrieving and sharing food that has been discarded, seeks to “start a conversation with the privileged population so that they can begin to consider where their waste goes.”
While dumpster diving may seem like an unusual practice to some, the philosophy behind it sheds light on the increasingly problematic perspective of seeing food as a commodity rather than as a necessity of life.
Toronto’s FNB divers forage for food each Sunday morning in grocery store dumpsters and then immediately transform the found food into edible vegan dishes, which they offer it to pedestrians. On this particular Sunday, the volunteers served the food on the northeast corner of Bloor Street West and Bathurst Street between 2:30 and 3:30 pm.
“A lot of people don’t believe that the food is free,” says Stansbury. “A lot of people don’t trust it. We don’t lie to people though; we tell them that it’s food recovered from grocery stores that have thrown away their food.”
“‘Recovered’ is an ambiguous word,” she continues, “but we try to leave it open-ended so that we can engage in conversation. ‘Recovered’ is our pitch; it’s anti-waste, and ‘dumpster diving’ is the elaboration. If you approach people from a more moderate point of view, it’s easier to get them on board, see your point of view, and not reject it outright.”
The work of FNB is part of a new way of thinking about food that focuses on sustainability and ethical eating. Moral food consumption is grounded in the recognition of food as a necessity of human existence, rather than as a commodity.
Hunger and poverty
As the push for sustainable food consumption grows in North America, co-operatives like FNB and The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto are leading the green movement. One of the main goals of these organizations is education — for example, the Stop Community Food Centre works to engage the public in growing, cooking, and eating nutritious food.
“Not having enough money to buy food is the number one cause of hunger,” says Rekha Cherian, The Stop’s food bank coordinator. “Poverty is a complex chronic condition that many Canadians fall into due to injuries, family dysfunction, loss of job, living on fixed incomes that have not been adjusted for inflation, low minimum wages, unaffordable housing… We need to advocate for livable wages, full-time jobs with benefits, more affordable housing, and special benefits for lower income folks to buy food.”
Food-use practices play a critical role in issues of world hunger and poverty. This issue plays itself out in the arena of political contention through protests, ranging from demands for food entitlements and distributional clashes between producers and consumers, to conflicts surrounding food waste at the individual level.
“Everyone has [a] responsibility for preventing waste across the food system,” says Lauren Baker, coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council. “People in Toronto and across the province have uneven access to healthy food.”
The issue is not just throwing useful food in the trash but also extends to donation practices, and specifically a tendency to donate rejected or discarded items to food banks.
“We do not want our food bank to be a dumping ground for food that no one else wants,” says Cherian, “Some folks and companies want to give us products that are expired, rotten, or has little to no nutritional value. We want to give out food that is fresh, nutritious, and of good quality. It is hard to come to a food bank in the first place, and we want people to leave feeling that they were respected.”
Ethical eating is often an inaccessible choice. Baker points out that economic limitations prevent many people from making healthy and responsible food decisions.
“Making an ethical and healthy food choice right now is very difficult,” says Baker. “Often this food costs more and is not readily available. We need to redesign our neighbourhoods, food retail stores, and public spaces with ethical and healthy food in mind. Food is a public good and should be treated that way.”
From production to your plate
The problem is, in part, the degrees of separation between food production and food consumption. It is difficult to pick up an apple in a grocery store and understand the resources involved in its growth, harvest, and transportation. As a result, our understanding of food — and the resources involved in its production — is often fragmented.
“People need to connect the dots between food, health, and the environment,” Baker emphasizes. “These are all intricately linked, yet we treat them as separate issues. Until we take a more integrated view, we will be unable to tackle our biggest challenges: skyrocketing healthcare costs, urban sprawl, and climate change.”
As Baker points out, part of the challenge is overcoming the tendency to approach these issues as separate, and to instead recognize that human and animal welfare and environmental concerns are connected components of a larger problem.
While these issues are broad and complex, individual practices can make a difference. such as buying local products. Consumers, through their purchasing choices, have the power to articulate what they expect from farmers and shipping companies.
“When we buy food that is grown close to where we live and in season, not only are we supporting local food economies, but we also have an opportunity to be engaged in how our food is produced,” says Cherian. “By supporting farmers who use less chemicals, maintain our soil, care about keeping our water basins clean, and use less fossil fuels to deliver our food, we are supporting not just our own health but public health and environmental health too.”
Ethical eating is also about regarding food as a luxury and not something to be taken for granted, which, for many, involves a change in perspective.
“Start investigating where your food comes from,” adds Cherian. “Know that food banks are a stop-gap emergency measure that do not help to alleviate hunger in the long-term. Eat local and seasonal food — it’s good for our health, the environment, the local economy, and it tastes better!”