Confessions of a waste picker

Confessions of a waste picker sets out the good, the bad and the ugly of dumpster diving. Does the fennel go to make a soup, or will it be planted in the garden? Or should it go simply to the worm farms?

Confessions of a waste picker.

I am sure those of you who read Chris Ellis’ graphic blog in the Witness on the stark poverty facing South Africa in these Covid-19 times were moved as I was; every silver lining is marred by very dark clouds. The only point to add is that obesity kills twice as many people in the world as starvation.

His article has prompted me to ‘come out’. I have some empathy now with gay folk, knowing that tongues will be clicking, and disapproval the order of the day.

Our first experience with waste picking was as poor students in Chicago with two small children. Walking to the supermarket we took a short cut through the back; boxes of single grapes in the dumpster that had fallen from the full, ripe bunches, and could not be sold, met our hungry eyes.

Many years of relative affluence passed when any thought of waste picking would have been abhorrent; until I made the decision to go worm farming. Each little creature eats its own weight in food every day and I probably now have several million. The vermicompost and wee go into our green garden and the chickens feast on the worms. But feeding them soon became a nightmare as they ate us out of house and home; enter waste-picking, after the discovery that the greengrocer tosses out piles of rotten food that the wrigglies find very appetising.

The wonder of worm farms.

It is an unpleasant business to say the least but the sheer delight of the hens and the profound growth of our plants makes it all worthwhile. It has taught me the importance of scrubbing the nails, and washing thoroughly, perhaps the reason I have escaped C-19 so far, though I’m convinced we will all be exposed eventually.

Gourmet worm farm meal.

The garbage that I bring home can be roughly divided into five groups; initially all went to the worms, until I realised that some of the greens weren’t too bad, and would be enjoyed by the chickens; microgreens and sprouted seeds, baby tomatoes and spanspek keep them in fine fettle. Just watching them attack the pile, and their happy clucking makes my day.

Time passed and I started to notice that here and there a rotten onion was starting to sprout, or that you could take a whole lettuce and plant it in the garden. Once, there was a whole bag of very old broad beans, and I was able to harvest at least 300 seeds; we still enjoy their progeny every day. All over our garden now you will see rows of spring onions, herbs like fennel and lemongrass, potatoes and so on, all thanks to the Dumpster Diver’s activities on Saturday mornings.

This summer we are harvesting new potatoes from three large patches grown from old spuds gleaned from the dumpster. It is in fact the only way we should eat them. Those from cold storage have a very high glycemic index; they raise our blood glucose and make us fat.

Potato flowers.

The dogs too get a few chicken bones, and every now and then a choice bit of steak that has passed its sell by date.

Confessions of a waste picker

Confessions of a waste picker points out that some humans are the vultures of today that clean up the garbage at our dump sites.

And then the fifth group. For five years we strictly would not consume any of the food ourselves, but of course I did notice that along with the rotten stuff, every week there would be morsels that I would happily eat if I was starving. They had passed their sell by date, but in reality it was still good food; perhaps a sealed bag of tomatoes with only one that that was definitely inedible, or a sack of apples where a toppie had taken a peck from one, or they were badly packed and slightly bruised.

Slowly now we are trying to find ways to get some of the better stuff to the poor. It is difficult; what if they were to get sick? And I ask myself, why do we now fairly regularly eat food ourselves from the dumpster? Certainly not because of rank poverty. Adding grist to the mill was the sickening Green Peace report that about a quarter of the food grown for humans is never actually consumed; it’s refused because the broccoli head is too large or small, or there is some defect so the fruit does not pass muster.

It’s a sin in light of the very real starvation faced by so many right here on our doorsteps. Every supermarket sends food to the dump that would literally enable hundreds of people to survive in these times.

We now see waste pickers in a different light; they are gleaning and foraging just as the poor always have done. They will eat what we throw away and we too on occasion find free food for ourselves.

I doubt if you too have ever heard of Agnes Varda, unless you are French; she made an inspirational film about waste pickers. This TED talks is a gem.  That's cinema.

The central question we are facing is: are we as a society willing to risk giving food that has passed its sell by date to the poor, knowing that some may get sick, or do we just let them starve? And how does one go about it?

The second take-home is to try really hard to discard no food at all. And finally, have some empathy for waste pickers; like vultures they, actually I should write we, provide a very important service. Simply separating the plastic from the compostable material is a worthy activity. First it is washed and then sent for recycling.

Fennel and kale.

The flowering fennel in the background came from bulbs discarded by the grocer, and were planted at our green home. It makes for a very interesting and different salad.

  1. Bernard Preston
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