Walkabout / Search for means outside Dumpster to cut food waste

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After writing about food waste in Monday's Post-Gazette, I decided to visit grocery store Dumpsters in the morning with some rubber gloves and a little trepidation.

I had been preparing mentally to somehow hoist myself up and into a Dumpster. I imagined I would gingerly step in and around icky, stinky stuff to find something that looked edible.

I was spared the joy of it all.

At Trader Joe's in East Liberty, all the Dumpsters were empty except for one, which had a bit of litter, a smashed box and two packs containing what looked like six blueberry muffins in each.

As I was getting ready to leave, two employees wheeled out from the back of the store a flat-bed dolly that held 10 large boxes of Chiquita bananas. As they approached the Dumpster that was labeled "compost," I got out of the car to see the fruit. Every banana visible was a perfect yellow.

My mind flashed to images of Latin American laborers who pick bananas and Latin American families who don't have a chance to buy them because they are destined for the United States marketplace.

I asked why these bananas were being dumped, and they told me there is no food donation pickup on New Year's Eve. In any case, they said, these bananas got "cooked" in the plastic bag they were shipped in. One of the men ripped one open to show me some serious mush.

Mike Cummings, the store manager, explained that the bananas are shipped wrapped in plastic and that, if they get too hot inside, "they get mushy."

Not to pick on Trader Joe's or on any grocery company. Even large chain grocers have an unenviable task of trying to hit the mark with wholesale orders. There's no surefire formula, and customers are unpredictable.

But I couldn't help thinking that parents of very young children wouldn't mind having their pick of some mushy bananas.

Mr. Cummings said every edible item that Trader Joe's can't sell is donated to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Giant Eagle donates millions of pounds of food to the food bank, too.

At Whole Foods, I was told that everything that's not sellable but edible is given to charity, notably the East End Cooperative Ministries' food pantry and soup kitchen at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The supermarket employee who talked to me would not divulge how much waste goes in the store's Dumpster, which is located inside, as were the ones at the Giant Eagle stores I visited on my Dumpster rounds.

The very resourceful people who were featured in the short film "Dive!" -- about the "freegan" movement of people who get the bulk of their groceries from Dumpsters -- inspire me. So does the astonishing statistic that represents the food Americans waste each year: 1.5 pounds per person per day. Per day.

Unnecessary waste, especially of food, is such a moral issue to me that when I recently put a half-full container of smoked turkey lunch meat out for the trash collectors, I got almost as sick as I might have had I eaten it. I felt the same way a few weeks ago when I put most of a bunch of cilantro in my compost pile and a few weeks before that when I found bread in the freezer that was too old to revive.

For their part, grocers bear the responsibility to present their inventory more practically -- smaller bunches of cilantro, for sure. Instead of throwing out all the good eggs in a carton that had a couple broken eggs, why not set up a display of individual eggs for sale, or cutting the cartons in half and selling a half dozen?

As for plastic bags around bananas that are shipped in protective boxes, that decision was not the grocer's.

Heading into the new year, my resolution is to keep track of the food I have on hand and to eat it before it's inedible. That means I'll have to buy more prudently, stick to my list and have specific intentions for each product. That's an ideal, so I will probably not measure up. But I'm going to do better than I do now.

food - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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