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School of Self-Reliance

Good Enough to Eat?

©1990 Christopher Nyerges

When I was young, my mother would tell us "Eat all the food on your plate. People in Asia are starving." Although I supposed that cleaning my plate would in no way affect Asians' starving stomachs, I finished all the morsels of my meal. I knew that what my mother meant was that we should be grateful to have food when others in the world are starving.

Since then, I have seen with crystal clarity that we are not only a nation of plenty, bt a nation of wasters. A most upsetting experience occurred a few years ago after attending an outing up in our local San Gabriel Mounains. A fellow teacher, Drew Devereux, had shown his students how to recognize edible wild plants that had sustained generations of Native Americans. After we dropped off the students, we were standing near the school's large trash bin talking. We looked in the bin and what we saw shocked us. The trash can contained still-wrapped sandwiches of various types, lots of fruit, and even some unopened potato chips. Oh, sure, we had heard of Charlie Manson and his clan scavenging trash cans to survive, but this was different. Here we were being freely offered an unexpected gift which we joyously accepted. But we wondered -- how can this be done? How can all this perfectly good food just be thrown away?

Since that eye-opening day in my naive past, I've become acquainted with the fleeting but ever-persistent population of trash-can food collectors, since I too had begun to occasionally check in the rear of supermarkets for good food that is routinely discarded.

To the younger generation, these folk who survive by the discards from supermarket trash bins are admired as near-heroes who hae beaten the system artfully. But to most of society, they are either pitied or scorned as bums, alcoholics, and scavengers.

Just who are these people whose hands reach daily for a slightly bruised tomato or for the potatoes that are too large to sell? Are they young, old, rich or poor, male or female, employed or unemployed? The answer is yes to all of the above, with an emphasis on the elderly, widowed, fixed-income women. But I have met all types at the trashcans.

For example, a late model bronze Cadillac pulls up behind the supermarket. I have already collected two boxes of old tomatoes, celery, radishes, cucumbers, potatoes, and oranges that for one reason or another are deemed unfit to sell. Out of the Cadillac steps Saul, well-dressed, middle-aged, smiling. We have never met before. As we both inspect the trash can, we jokingly discuss what's on tonight's menu. He tells me that after his wife died, he traveled over most of this Land of Plenty. He comments matter-of-factly that he only occasionally has needed purchase produce.

"Why should I" he asks with a tinge of guilt in his voice, "when they throw away this kind of stuff?" He holds up a huge tomato and laughs.

Probably more typical of the trash can survivalists is Paula, five feet tall, soft-spoken, in her late 60s or early 70s, a widow on Social Security, and with a face of a thousand wrinkles. She waddles around to the rear of the grocery store. Her timing is perfect, for she's learned when the produce department throws things into the dumpster. I was there first and have already gathered much of the better discards on this rather scanty day. She tells me she's gathering food for her chickens, but I can tell by the tone of her voice that this is not true. I tell her about the delicious meal I had the night before, and ask her what she had for dinner the previous night. Realising there's no need to be embarrassed in my presence, she points into the trash bin, saying "Some of this, and I cooked some of these," holding up some carrot tops. I give her some onions and beets I've collected, and I dig around for a good head of lettuce. She carefully puts her produce into her wire-framed pushcart and is looking for more produce as I turn to leave.

Since I regularly conduct wild food outings throughout southern California, I've seen the abundance of food available from nature. I have had many meals made from this abundance, and also from the abundance created by the waste of man.

But the wasted food in our cities is not caused by fussy grocers alone.

Dr. William L. Rathji of the University of Arizona 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 figures that American families throw out 8% to 20% of the food 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 concludes 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 food at home cancels out that thrifty effort," says Rathji.

Collecting trash-food is a way of life for many in the City of The Angels. Maybe mothers should tell their children today, "Eat all the food on your plate, Johnny. People in Los Angeles are starving."

"Don't forget to take
a map and compass!"

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The CCC Road
The Switzers Area
The Falls
Millard Canyon
Mt. Lowe
Garbage: Good Enough to Eat?
Scoutleader Landry