Baked goods have a somewhat legendary status among dumpster divers. In the anarchist travelogue Evasion, the author shoplifts and hitch-hikes his way across middle America subsisting almost entirely off of bagels. On freegan.info trash tours, we rarely could resist the temptation to stop at Dunkin Donuts—even though most of us were vegan and we generally tried to promote the idea that dumpster-diving provided healthy food.
But, as far as I can remember, we never checked the dumpsters of the local food bank. If we had, we might have found them awash with cake. It’s a bit like that scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows where everything the characters touch in a vault suddenly triples, threatening to engulf them in treasure, except replace the golden goblets with muffins. We’re practically at war with the stuff: we cram extra bagels and cookies in emergency food boxes and insist that food bank clients leave tottering under absurd piles of sandwich rolls. And, of course, we throw a lot away: the first instruction my supervisor gave me upon starting my new job was to discard every flour-based product along a 30-foot stretch of bread racks
Our surfeit of bread is not a distribution problem. I am convinced that the hungry people of Flagstaff could not consume all the cupcakes that pass through our hands even if we could deliver them right to their doors. We run out of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, and meat, but never baked goods. It’s a visceral reminder to those who think we can solve our food waste problem by donating to those in need that U.S. agriculture produces 3,500 kcal/day per person—way more than we, obesity notwithstanding, could ever eat.
On one level, I find this rampant wastage a little confusing. As the boxes of muffins I threw out today proudly noted, most baked-goods are produced on-site, meaning there are no long supply-chains with attendant loss and spoilage. And it’s not like the need for birthday cakes is wildly unpredictable or that people buy English muffins in wholly unpredictable spates. You’d think that someone could figure out a bit more accurately how many pastries Safeway sells on a given day and, well, make approximately that many pastries.
Of course, there is a rationality behind the baked-good bounty, and that’s what makes it scary. I remember reading in Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland that Au Bon Pain expects its stores to have $80 in inventory at the end of the day, to ensure that even a customer coming in two minutes before closing time is not confronted with empty shelves or forced to buy their second-choice flavor of bagel. I’m sure the same is true system-wide: competition demands that stores offer an excessive range of choices (god forbid you cake have the wrong color frosting!). The land and labor that go into producing food are so utterly trivial to stores’ balance sheets that they can compensate for the waste with the mark-up on the few cakes that get sold.
A modern-day Marie Antoinette might not be judged so harshly. As far as I can tell from my vantage point at the food bank, the poor can have all the cake they want.