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Trash-Can Food Pickers Point Out Our Wastefulness

September 29, 1986|CHRISTOPHER NYERGES | Christopher Nyerges teaches wilderness survival and urban survival in the Los Angeles County area. He is the author of three books: "Urban Wilderness: A Handbook for Resourceful City Living," "Wild Greens and Salads" and "Guide to Wild Foods."

Perhaps on your last trip to the supermarket, you saw a man gathering food from the trash bins and wondered who, in this era of food stamps, is forced to eat garbage.

Perhaps I was the man you saw.

Although many people do find their daily bread this way, when I "shop" among supermarket discards, it is by choice rather than necessity. I do that because I have seen that this land of plenty has become a land of too much. We are a nation of wasters.

How wasteful we are struck me with awful clarity a few years ago, after I had accompanied a schoolteacher friend of mine on an outing in the local hills. He had taken his students to teach them how to recognize the edible wild plants that had helped sustain the Indians. After we returned, we happened to look into the school's large trash bin. What we saw shocked us.

The bin contained still-wrapped peanut-butter sandwiches, meat sandwiches, cheese-and-jelly sandwiches, many apples, oranges, tangerines and bananas, and even some unopened packages of potato chips. How could anyone do that, we wondered. How could all that perfectly good food just be thrown away? To us, it was an unexpected gift, one that we gratefully accepted.

Since that eye-opening day, I've become acquainted with the fleeting but ever-persistent population of trash-can food collectors--because I, too, occasionally check at the rear of supermarkets for edible food.

Many Types of People

Just who are these people whose hands reach daily for a slightly bruised tomato or for malformed potatoes that are unsalable? Are they young or old, male or female, employed or unemployed? The answer: all of the above, with an emphasis on elderly widows with fixed incomes. But I have met even well-to-do types at the trash cans.

One day a late-model bronze Cadillac pulled up behind the supermarket. I had already collected two boxes of old tomatoes, celery, radishes, cucumbers, potatoes and oranges that, for one reason or another, were unfit to sell. Out of the Cadillac he stepped--well-dressed, middle-aged, smiling. As we both inspected the trash can, we jokingly discussed what would be on our menus that night. He told me that since his wife died he had traveled all over this "land of plenty" and that he seldom had needed to purchase fruit or vegetables. "Why should I," he asked in a matter-of-fact tone, "when they throw this kind of stuff away?" He held up a large tomato and laughed.

More typical of the trash-can survivalists was Paula, 5 feet tall, soft-spoken, a widow in her late 60s or early 70s with a face of a thousand wrinkles. When she arrived at the rear of the grocery store, her timing was almost perfect; she had long ago learned the produce manager's throw-away schedule. I was there first, and had already gathered most of the better discards among the day's unusually slim offerings.

Paula said she was gathering food for her chickens, but I knew that this was not true. I told her about the delicious meal that I had made the night before. Then I asked what she had for dinner. She decided that there was no reason to be embarrassed; I was a kindred soul. Pointing into the trash bin, she said, "Some of this, and I cooked some of these," holding up carrot tops. I gave her some onions and beets that I had found, and dug around for a good head of lettuce. She carefully placed the items into her wire-framed pushcart, and was looking for more as I left.

Collecting for Mission

Then there is Mission Joe. On occasions when we meet, I collect a few produce items for myself, and then help him fill his boxes. His face is always unshaven, and his clothes are dirty. Parked close by, his old and dusty automobile loudly proclaims the brightly painted message: "Jesus Saves--Read the Bible." He tells me that he collects food for "the mission in Pasadena," then asks if I have been saved yet and if I know Jesus. I smile, and tell Mission Joe that the kingdom is within. He returns my smile and nods, and we depart.

Most store managers frown on people who freely gather food from their trash bins, arguing that many are able to purchase produce inside. One employee once told me that all the discarded vegetables in the store's bin are regularly dusted with a poisonous chemical, to discourage both flies and scavengers. After questioning several store officials, I learned that this story was partly myth, designed to keep the food-foragers at bay, and partly fact, to keep the flies at bay. This particular store only used a pesticide during the extreme heat of summer when foul odors and flies become a problem.

Since I regularly conduct wilderness food outings throughout Southern California, I've seen the abundance of food available from nature. Once I collected some wild edible plants in the hills and a large bag of misshapen potatoes behind a store. My meal that night was delicious and satisfying--and free. It made use of both the surplus of nature and the waste of man.

Families Waste Food

The waste in our cities is not caused only by fussy grocers. Dr. William L. Rathji of the University of Arizona has surveyed trash cans in the Tucson area to see how much food is thrown away by individual families. From his Tucson data, he projected estimates of family food waste nationwide. He figured that American families throw out 8% to 20% of the food that they buy at a cost of $4.5 billion annually--almost as much as the federal government spends every year for food stamps and child-nutrition programs. Rathji concluded that the average family wastes at least $150 per year in food.

"Homeowners go out of their way to save pennies at the store, but don't realize that waste of edible foods adds up to much more at home," Rathji said.

Economics aside, it is a moral question.

Shouldn't our efforts to feed the poor and starving begin by first eliminating our own personal,wasteful habits?

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