Let Them Eat Cake

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.

3 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Cake

  1. Do I sense an improvement in your mood, Alex?

    I like bagels. Particularly Panera’s jalapeno and cheddar, and their sesame bagels. Tuesdays my local Panera has a half-price sale on a baker’s dozen, but Panera must be a bit more enlightened than Au Bon Pain, because no matter how early I got there, they’d be sold out of my favorites. So I asked what time they opened and was told 6:00 a.m. I then asked, “What time to I have to get here before all the good bagels are sold out?” The professionally (manditorily) cheerful young team member behind the counter simply repeated, “6:00 a.m.”

    Okay, my usual routine is to stay up most of the night online and sleep in the daytime. But I wanted those bagels. So Monday night I went to sleep earlier than usual, about 2:30 a.m., and I drank a full glass of milk before going to bed to ensure that I’d wake up in time. I was the first one at Panera when they opened, got my choice of bagels, went home, put most of them in the freezer, a couple in the fridge, left one out for later, and went back to bed.

    I had noticed that the places that give away food are always heavy on cakes and breads, but light on everything else. I’d thought it was because there has to be some way to use up all the high-fructose corn syrup that seems to be in everything that isn’t organic. I guess they also have to find a use for all the GMO wheat.

    These days I’m lucky enough to be able to buy mostly organic foods, but I still have a heavy carb habit and I make exceptions for Panera bagels and a few other things. But I have a neighbor with diabetes and she often eats wherever there are free or subsidized meals for seniors, and of course what they serve her is usually the worst kinds of things she could eat. She knows they’re bad for her, but since they’re free or almost free, she can’t resist.

    With the recent cuts in foodstamps, a lot more people will be eating cake. And the US healthcare industry isn’t going to be much help to them when they develop obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or any of the other consequences of eating too much cake.

    Most likely all the excess cake and bread will be dumped into the ocean and poison our radioactive fishes.

    Shit’s fucked up and bullshit, but glad you’re hanging in there, Alex. One day you might just wake up with the way to change things.

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