Where the Food *Doesn't Go: Part 1
Updated: Nov 24, 2022
When I was twelve years old, my parents signed me up to volunteer at a local food pantry. Upon hearing this, I was fairly convinced that I would be spending the morning packaging boxes of food and delivering them to the folks waiting outside. My fantastical preconceptions of what happens at a food bank only multiplied as I gazed out of my mom’s car’s window on the way there. I envisioned gleaming fruits and vegetables, crisp and geometric cereal boxes, and plump cartons of mixed berry yogurt neatly stacked in lines of trucks, all ready to distribute their contents to those who most needed them. I envisioned greeting the visitors outside with a warm smile while handing them boxes brimming with nutritious ingredients that were practically fit for a king. I envisioned feeling empowered yet secure in being able to ensure that all of that delicious, wholesome food found a home.
I envisioned wrong.
The second I stepped foot at the food bank, the other volunteers and I were shepherded into a dimly lit common room with peeling brown walls and cracking linoleum floors. My eyes lingered on the crumbling popcorn ceilings as a generator hummed quietly in the background. As I peered at the other volunteers, I noticed that most were students like me, giddy to finally live up to the constant chatter about “making a difference.” Little did I know that the work I would do would wipe the excitement clean off my face.
An elderly woman with a clipboard stood at the front of the room and smiled weakly. She was one of the leaders of our local chapter of the food bank, she said. The woman, her eyes already drooping with exhaustion, scanned the room for familiar faces and nodded at them to get started on their usual jobs. For the rest of us, she presented a safety video (in case you’re wondering, never use a forklift without being asked) and directed us to the main room, where we were to sort food into “good” and “bad” piles. All “bad” food was to be thrown into a large red bin, while “good” food was to be packed in boxes by the more experienced volunteers.
And what defined “good” and “bad”? Well, that was up to us.
With that, my fellow comrades and I began the tedious task of sorting through thousands of pounds of food. I plugged in my headphones and slowly sifted through box upon box of blueberries and entire crates of peas and carrots, careful not to lose myself to the beat of my playlist. Coming from a family that not only eats or composts every part of every fruit and vegetable but also throws fits when food is wasted, I treated my job with a mix of love and prudence. I examined every square inch of every apple for even the slightest sign of harmful mold, squinted at blackberries to flick off any specks of dirt, and read and reread the expiration dates on boxes of Frosted Flakes to make sure I wasn’t throwing away anything that could be saved. I was determined to salvage as much food as possible, leaving only the rotten or expired foods for disposal.
When the loud crackling of the intercom finally caused me to press pause on Taylor Swift and glance up at the others, I realized that my careful scrutiny of each piece of food was not at all shared. In fact, even though only thirty minutes had passed, the big red bin (pictured here) was already overflowing with food of every kind. I stared in horror as volunteers tossed entire bunches of plump grapes, crates of juicy oranges, and bags filled with bright green spinach into the bin. I flinched as a worker arrived with a forklift and heaved the food to a dumpster the size of my entire house. I winced as every ten minutes, the forklift squeaked back to that very dumpster, throwing away food that could have very well kept a starving family alive for an extra day.
In that one four-hour period that I was at this food pantry, hundreds of pounds of fresh, organic food got wasted. I saw whole crates of strawberries get tossed like dirt just because one berry had mold on it. I saw bunches of kale with even the tiniest speck of soil say their goodbyes simply because they were too “dirty.” I saw hundreds of boxes of macaroni that had expired one day earlier get dumped into garbage bags before their contents could even reach people’s tables.
But what really broke my heart was what I saw when I finally trudged out of the food pantry...
Starving children searching through the scraps in the dumpsters, trying to salvage what so many people had thrown away.
Exhausted parents and grandparents who looked as if they hadn’t eaten in an eternity, frantically grabbing every conceivable bit of the “bad” food before it was driven to the landfill.
It didn’t matter to them that the food was in a dumpster, or that it had been deemed “unfit” by the volunteers. What mattered was that it was edible and largely unspoiled, meaning that there was still hope for these people in this often hopeless world.
My time at that food pantry only served to highlight the shocking extent to which food is wasted both in my local community and on a larger scale. Seeing residents of my own city veer on the brink of starvation while an entire castle’s worth of food got shipped to the closest landfill did little to keep my stomach from tossing. I was infuriated by people’s ignorance in throwing away food that could have sustained a hungry family (or a hundred) alive another week. My anger only rose as I began to connect the dots between all the ways in which millions of people waste food and the inevitable harm that doing so imposes on countless others. And my blood boiled at the undeniably evident flaws that existed (and still exist) in the food banks that aim to nourish the hungry.
But that is a spiel for another day.