I think I felt the stupidest when I gave out the gluten-free Wonton Wraps. Admittedly, there are a lot of times at my job where I’ve wondered, “Is anyone going to eat this?” I certainly want to believe that someone is going to be happily surprised by the wave of pomegranates we’ve been packing, and as a vegan, I can’t help but be excited when we put seitan in our boxes. Nonetheless, with studies showing that around 50% of Emergency Food Boxes wind up in the trash—owing to a mismatch between what clients want and what they get, and our reluctance to trust poor people to choose for themselves—it’s hard to be optimistic.
By contrast, the bears get a be a bit pickier. Our food bank donates its organic waste—the stuff that doesn’t make it into the boxes—to BearArizona, a for-profit Bearamusement Park. Bears aren’t particularly choosy, but the staff of BearArizona made it clear to me early on during my work that bears really did not like onions. And so no onions are put onto the BearArizona pallet. Recently, though, they—the employees, not the bears—have complained about the low quality of the food we’re giving them: apparently some of it is too rotten even for the animals.
It’s not really our fault, though. Every day, our truck comes back with the latest surplus from Flagstaff’s supermarkets. I am, of course, glad that so many of them donate, but the carelessness with which the donations are made can be frustrating. Often, we find boxes full of apple cores, rinds, and peels or long-expired, rotten milk. Both myself and the other employee who works in the refrigerator are neurotic anti-wasters, but even we can’t conceive of how much of it could ever be eaten. We weigh donations before they are sorted, however, so stores get a tax deduction even for “food” there’s no way anyone is going to eat. We almost certainly gave New Frontiers a write-off for those WonTon Wraps, for instance, even thought I’d bet my left arm they are currently spewing methane in a landfill.
And so, to summarize, for-profit corporations donate some food and some garbage to a non-profit, but they count all of it as donated food, getting a tax-write off. The government claims it doesn’t get enough money from taxes, so it is cutting food stamps, which drives people to come to said non-profit food bank. The non-profit takes charitable donations in cash from good-hearted people and then pays its employees to sort out the supermarket’s garbage, which is then given to a for-profit wildlife park, which pays nothing for the service.
There are many perversities in the emergency food system, but I’ll elaborate on just one. There is a fundamental disconnect between what gets donated and what people actually need and want. Some of the stores producing and donating the most surplus are the highest-end ones. I don’t think this is coincidence: it’s a consequence of the bewildering array of options they offer, catering to every conceivable dietary niche (that includes veganism) with a range of specialty products that are so high-margin they can afford to discard a portion of them so as never to miss a potential sale. But the people who come to the food bank by-and-large aren’t gluten free and don’t want soy mayonnaise. They are feeding big families with limited resources, and want familiar—which means, affordable—food that they know how to use.
I’ve been writing on the long-delayed “freegan book” again, and sifting through some of the recent reports and policy proposals to deal with food waste that have emerged. Almost all of them see increasing donations to groups like the food bank as a crucial part of solving the problem. But when we fill emergency food boxes with dragon fruit and tempeh burgers, are we actually reducing waste by doing this or just pushing it further downstream? And when someone throws out those Wonton Wraps, should we blame the poor for their profligacy, or the company which produced something no one wanted in the first place?