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Locked Dumpsters Full of Mangoes

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Issue: 41 Section: Food Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: food security

December 4, 2006

Locked Dumpsters Full of Mangoes

Hungry people, wasted food, and the politics of dumpster diving

by Moira Peters

Food waste needs to be rethought, reduced and rerouted. photo: Fatty Tuna
Unappeasable customers, bitter bosses and deserted lunch shifts; it is no secret that restaurant work can be soul-crushing. However, the most painful moments in the food industry -- ask anyone who has worked in a café, restaurant, bar or food store -- are moments spent throwing away good food. Those who work in supermarkets, bakeries and delis know that tossing bags of fresh bread and pastries, cases of coffee, trays of uneaten lasagne, chicken and sautéed vegetables into the dumpster out back is part of the daily reality.

Less visible is the more shocking layer of food waste that occurs even before food gets to restaurants and grocery stores. On the outskirts of towns, distributors and wholesalers operate construction dumpsters, which are regularly filled with produce which is riper, fresher, and generally of better quality than what reaches the consumer. This is the fate of the truckload of Ecuadorian mangoes that ripened before making it to the supermarket and the flat of tomatoes from Ontario with a couple of bad fruit; thrown "away" for fear the decay would spread over the whole shipment.

Spencer Mann is sensitive to food waste and food security. He is a founding member of Co-op sur Genereux in Montreal: a housing co-op of 15 members. "These giant dumpsters full of beautiful food are not located near residential areas and are therefore more difficult to access for people who use dumpsters as a source of food," he explains. Part of the solution to the injustices of food waste, says Mann, is to become part of a society that is "okay with waste," but makes that "waste" accessible to those who will make use of it.

Mann's interest in the content of dumpsters is more than cerebral. Dumpsters are the main food source for Mann and the other members of Co-op sur Genereux. "The first time we started consciously dumpster diving," he explains, "was during harvest time, at the Jean Talon market. At first we were buying our produce; then we noticed the vendors throwing away perfectly good tomatoes and eggplants." There is one hour between the market's closing time and the time the truck comes to take away dumpster contents. Mann describes the sense of conviviality among the regular divers at the market -- elderly Italian women, young locals and new immigrant families -- getting "incredible hauls," and the swapping that follows.

Keeping the food industry's "waste" accessible means supporting food redistribution efforts, and also sorting out a clear sense of the politics of dumpster-diving. "It is an art to get to know the rhythm of a dumpster," explains Mann, "to learn when it is filled and when the food is taken to the dump. Part of the etiquette of dumpster-diving is to leave food for people who are regular visitors to that dumpster. There are many families who rely on that food. One strategy is to collect food only just before the truck comes, so you know you are not taking food from someone else's mouth."

Before embarking on an urban scavenging adventure, one must know the rules. Don't rip bags; open them to look through them and then close them again. Be quiet; leave the dumpster cleaner than you found it. Be respectful in conversations with employees, managers and owners. "Eighty-five per cent of these interactions will be positive. Employees of a store tend to know only too well about the food that is being wasted in their store and tend to be supportive of that food being used instead of sent to the dump." Owners and managers, who would prefer that customers pay for food, are less tolerant. That is why it is crucial to respect the rules: you don't want to be responsible for a local dumpster -- upon which 10-15 people might depend for their daily bread -- becoming locked up.

"Sometimes it is unfathomable that things get thrown out." Mann gives the examples of a 30-lb bag of organic Fair Trade sugar, unopened bags of organic figs and sun-dried tomatoes and huge bags of dried chickpeas. Co-op sur Genereux challenged its members to one month of surviving exclusively from dumpsters, and succeeded. However, Mann acknowledges the difference between benefiting from a wasteful system and the need for waste to be rethought, reduced and rerouted.

Distributors can participate in this change by ordering on demand instead of on speculation and by getting involved with local food redistribution organizations that take their 'waste' to food banks and soup kitchens. Local businesses can order responsibly to cut down on overstock. Consumers can demand local food that will not have to survive a trip across a continent and be less picky about blemishes and discoloration that does not impact the taste or nutritional value of the food.

Awareness events, such as Montreal's "Etat d'Urgence," organized by the "urban intervention" group ATSA, seek to encourage people to confront the reality of the waste-stream. Since 1995, ATSA has co-ordinated an annual five-day "urban refugee camp" in downtown Montreal, feeding, clothing and entertaining people of all social stripes. Each year, for the last meal of the event, Co-op sur Genereux has fed more than 200 people on spoils saved from Montreal dumpsters.

Why is good food thrown away?

1. Capitalism allows for a certain margin of waste. Food waste is written into many business plans and makes up a significant portion of food cost and inventory.

2. 'Best before' standards require merchants to toss food that has 'expired.' Restrictive health by-laws, which often prevent restaurants from giving food, turn such food into a liability for the restaurant.

3. Shelf-space has value, in its being a place for product. This means a merchant needs his or her product to be of the highest value possible, or it is not 'worth' the space it takes.

4. If a merchant were to sell blemished food for, let's say, half-price, his clientele would change. He would lose rich clientele who do not want to shop alongside poorer clientele.

5. Branding. A business demands everything that leaves through its doors to be of high quality for the sake of its reputation.

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