This is the story of a self-started food recovery program. It came into existence when I was working at a fancy bakery. The bakery was my first food service job and I was naively appalled by the amount of food, a lot of pastries and pizza, they threw out. Everyone else in the profession seemed unfazed. It’s the way things worked. Tired of seeing the food get thrown out, I started bringing the food to shelters and community organizations at the end of every night the bakery was open.
On the surface this project seems like yet another landfill diversion initiative, an offspring of Food Not Bombs. Except what I really want to argue for in doing this writing is for art as an incentive for common good. A lot of people dismiss art as a luxury for the rich. However, my background is in art and in my art practice I have been trying to find some meaning in art-making that dispels this. My motivation for doing this project was to at first make it a performance art piece: the ritual of taking away the unsold food every night to somewhere it could get eaten. Without the motive of art I don’t think I would have bothered at all.
Food waste is still such a hot button topic that there is a Wikipedia page for it. It totes well-advocated numbers like: one-third of all food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted (about 1.3 billion tons per year). I never had the nerve to ask my temperamental boss why so much extra food was consciously made. My one colleague, also a food service rookie, deduced it was because making 20 sandwiches probably cost the near same as making 10. So if they sold them all it would be double the profit.
But back to doing art and doing-it-yourself. After a few weeks of working at the bakery and nightly drop-offs I tried getting the nearby shelter and Food Not Bombs group to pick-up the food, maybe one night a week. It didn’t work. There was too much bureaucracy at the shelter and the local Food Not Bombs chapter at the time was chaired by passionate vegans so the dairy-filled bakery food was denied for serving. I tried contacting the biggest food recovery organization in the city to get some support – not a peep back. Too busy chasing bigger fish. Once in (one of many moments of) desperation I even asked a parking officer on the street near the bakery if he could pick-up food during his route. He awkwardly declined. Turns out they don’t do the same route every night. There was a lot of rejection from places that supposedly existed to help, to the point where I finally decided to put up posters to find volunteers myself to pick-up food. Miraculously, people responded.
Doing all this involved meeting a lot of people and I got really interested in the people I was meeting. There were my bakery colleagues and the volunteer couriers. There were the folks at the bike co-op where the food went to every Friday for a free meal served Saturday. There were the front-line workers at the women’s shelter. One night when I offered food to someone working at the shelter she declined and explained to me she didn’t eat throughout her entire 12-hour overnight shelter shift. She only drank water. I was enraptured. Wanting to talk to people and learn more about them can be difficult when you have social anxiety. Here, art comes again to make up for what I lack. If I was interviewing them for my art project they would have to talk to me! I started a book documenting the folks who I thought were terribly fascinating (and would talk to me back). Among the interviews include the topics of: dumpster diving in Sweden, living up in the Northwest Territories, owning a bicycle delivery company, tomato tattoos, and of course, art making.
The exchange of knowledge made the whole thing seem less like my energy was being put into shuttling food nightly and more like this exciting vehicle to connect with other human beings. Fighting capitalism can be desolate. It’s valuable to frame it in a way that’s less so and to be with others doing the same. Ultimately, I think the point of writing this is to share that if you are not satisfied or supported by existing nonprofit groups and have the time, energy and desire to do something small to resist oppression, you should do it yourself. I promise it’s worth whatever little time and energy you can compound into it. As individuals we are not powerless and, this is the most important thing I’ve learned, there will always be people wanting and ready to do the same. You just haven’t found each other yet.