Harvesting in the Concrete Jungle

By Nelson Harvey

This Thursday, many of us will eat more than we do on any other day of the year. I thought it was a good time for a couple of posts on food, and the incredible abundance of food that has turned out to be a mixed blessing for this country in so many ways.

City Harvest trucks prepare to make the morning rounds, and driver Jesus Ortiz collects excess bread from Daisy May’s BBQ.

“When Pizza Hut does a commercial, they call us after they finish with thousands of pounds of pizza to donate.” That’s what Jesus Ortiz told me last week as he wound through the streets of Manhattan behind the wheel of a delivery truck. Ortiz, a friendly tank of a man, is a 5-year employee of City Harvest, the New York-based organization that rescues over 20 million pounds of food annually from restaurants and businesses in the city, and delivers it to food banks and homeless shelters.

I joined Ortiz on his morning route last Monday, and within a few hours, we could have built a food pyramid out of all the victuals he’d collected. Whole Foods gave Ortiz 50 pounds of organic bananas, the Institute for Culinary Education provided carrots and cilantro, and a west side Dagostino’s supermarket unloaded more than 75 pounds of spare bagels and bread.

One of the most novel things about freeganism is the bounty of food that freegans tend to find, so it’s striking to note that what they take home is often the stuff that even the charities can’t collect. Damaged produce, items past their expiration date, or food that has already been served is off limits for City Harvest. The group collects from over 1900 business in the city, but they still only scratch the surface of the excess supply that exists.

But why so much waste? Aside from simple imbalances between supply and demand that occur in any large food system, it seems to me that one of the largest drivers of the problem is the high premium that food providers place on appearance. Much of what City Harvest recieves is just slightly blemished or damaged in some way, be it a dented can or a slightly bruised fruit. What’s clear after a day on the truck is that our society has reached a level of abundance where many of us can afford to be picky.

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