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Re-Imagining the Possibilities of Waste

by Dan L.

From the moment I began my term of service with AmeriCorps in October, it became apparent to me that all over the country, people were going to be looking for new ways to deal with hunger, and my community of Binghamton, NY was no different.

My charge for the year, working at the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW), was to help bring nutrition into the conversation about hunger. Yet from the moment I began my work, there was a steady increase -- leveling off at around 25% -- in the number of people accessing emergency food resources, coupled with a precipitous drop in donations of both money and non-perishable food. Meeting this new demand amidst leaner times became my new, unofficial charge. It wasn’t as though Diabetes and Heart Disease had ceased to be an issue in Binghamton, but the rise in demand for emergency food became a steady drum-beat which filled the air during my term of service.

CHOW was the largest hunger outreach agency in the county. It was also home to the largest state-funded food recovery program—Broome Bounty—in New York. Through Broome Bounty, approximately one million pounds of food was prevented from being thrown into the dumpster last year. I knew from my research, and from the time I spent homeless and hungry, that far more edible food was being thrown away every day than would be necessary to end hunger in my community. After frequenting the Wasted Food Blog, it became apparent to me that the produce department is a bountiful source of high quality, nutrient dense food.

After creating a packet explaining the legal, storage and safety concerns, as well as the tax benefits of recovering edible food, I began my “Produce Project.” While many local supermarkets turned me away for essentially asking them to donate their “trash” to us, Wegman’s Markets was particularly receptive to my pitch. They began donating culled produce as well as dairy products and prepared meals to us three times weekly. I then teamed up with a group of students studying in a service-learning program at the State University of New York at Binghamton and we began to brainstorm new ways to recover food in our community. Our attention focused on Maines Paper and Food Service’s warehouse in Conklin, NY, the largest food distributor in a 100-mile radius. In spite of its incredible infrastructure, the warehouse represented the greatest source of edible food waste in the Greater Binghamton Area. After a meeting with key players in inventory control and waste stream management at the warehouse, we secured the mother load of culled produce: 10,000-15,000 pounds monthly.

Without a reliable source of nutritious food, the task of discussing nutrition had been much like discussing proper hydration with people dying of thirst in the desert. Prior to the influx of fresh produce, the primary source of fruits and vegetables were large number ten cans. But, as the produce came pouring in, the discussion on nutrition could finally begin.

At the same time we were securing fresh produce, I was developing a new project with the Summer Lunch Program through Catholic Charities, and a mobile kitchen built by Waste Management: The Dumpster Kitchen. The Dumpster Kitchen was a recycled trash compactor unit that had been stripped clean on the inside, and retrofitted with a ceiling, walls and floor like in a restaurant kitchen, and then filled with recycled kitchen equipment. The unit could be transported anywhere to create a community meal anywhere in the county.

My goal with the kitchen was to demonstrate how healthy food could be prepared from fresh ingredients and be delicious for children and adults alike. With the help of various soup kitchen cooks, and hundreds of volunteers and hungry people, we produced healthy meals out of ingredients that were thought to be trash, in a kitchen made from a unit formerly employed in the task of hauling that food to the landfill. The idea of a dumpster kitchen both excited the folks who shared a meal with us each week, and inflamed the sensibilities of community members used to maintaining a particular distance from issues of hunger. The conversations in the latter case allowed us to engage previously disengaged sections of the community in a discussion about food waste and hunger, while allowing us to engage the former group in conversations about how to prepare healthy and delicious food on a budget.

Each week I ensured that close to a dozen agencies were represented at The Dumpster Kitchen to witness the effect it was having on an inner-city community and to start a dialogue about how they could use the unit to enhance the work they were doing. To date, the commitment to continue using this kitchen has been made by groups including the Nutritionist Office of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Broome County, the Binghamton University Food Co-op and the Broome County Council of Churches. Whichever agency uses The Dumpster Kitchen beyond my term of service, they will have access to the recovered food at Broome Bounty, and the charity and logistical support of Waste Management.

As I think back on my year of service, I think that there was nothing particularly extraordinary about what happened, but that the coalescence of events allowed new and exciting partnerships to form. I offer this to you, the reader: there is no phenomenal effort on the part of one person that need be expended in order to create meaningful and lasting change in your community. If each of us can simply identify an issue, and ask around, “How can I help?” then we can start, through the significance of our daily actions, to create meaningful change for those most in need.

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