Recently I completed a challenge with another friend, where, for a summer only, I would lead a vegetarian diet. Though the duration of the challenge was short in the scheme of life, it was still substantial enough a time to get a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the vegetarian side. I completed this challenge while working at the Adventure Trips program at camp, where I was responsible for planning and cooking meals with a group of up to 12 active teenaged campers. Thus, my vegetarian diet was lived in the context of daily sharing meals with others, and faced both the benefits and difficulties of communal food.
The summer transition to being ‘officially’ vegetarian was not hard to make for me. In general, my meat consumption has been pretty low ever since my junior year in college when I shared a house with six vegetarians. Learning to cook for myself in this household, I became accustomed to making a variety of satisfying dishes using just vegetables. In the years following, I seldom bought meat for myself, and just as often I would consume meat I salvaged from a dumpster. Bacon, perhaps, was my most commonly used meat, but only as a spice and not as a meal. On the infrequent occasions I would visit a restaurant, I did freely order and partake of meat on the menu, and I also would eat meat when it was served by company. Otherwise I lived a near-vegetarian lifestyle.
So what was my motivation to undergo this challenge for the summer? Part of it was just to see if I could completely do it—that, and the curiosity of what would happen if I did abstain from meat for so long. But when talking about vegetarianism, it seems common that others will want the vegetarians to justify the rationale behind their food choices, as if only vegetarians are to be held accountable for the reasons they eat the foods they do. Though many people go vegetarian for health reasons, this was not one of my reasons; I am convinced that meat can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. Many people also go vegetarian out of a compassionate welfare for the animals themselves. Again, this was not part of my motivation for going vegetarian. Biologically speaking, animals must die and be eaten in order for the ecological world to continue on, and humans have long participated in the tradition of eating meat as sustenance. Though I do not feel that it is immoral to consume animal products, I do feel like if you do consume meat, then you should be willing to see where it comes from—if not even kill it and prepare it yourself. Though a vegetarian this summer, I did watch in vivid interest as one of the camp’s chickens was cleaned and butchered. The transition from live animal to food is an interesting one, and one that not many people get direct experience with—meat-eaters included.
If there was an underlying motivation for my low meat consumption in the past, and for me to try the completely vegetarian lifestyle this summer, it would be environmental. This was my attempt to eat lower on the food chain, and thus limit the impact my diet has on the planet. Factory farmed meat, as it is produced commercially in the developed world, is resource intensive and wasteful. More energy goes into producing animal proteins that could more efficiently be converted into plant foods. This wanton use of resources—a byproduct of our cultural desire to have meat readily and cheaply available—contributes to even greater environmental degradation. Plus, this industrial scale meat system comes with the added externalities of increased chemical and antibiotic use, greenhouse gas emissions, land-clearing, animal mistreatment, and the like. In sum total, cheap meat comes at a high price. Becoming a vegetarian for the summer was my way of exempting myself from the corporate meat system. Perhaps, idealistically, just by reducing my demand for meat, the system will begin to change to offer more sustainable alternatives
So how challenging was going vegetarian? Overall, not too bad.
As mentioned above, it was not too hard of a transition to make practically. Being used to eating mostly vegetable dishes, I was able to feed myself and survive the whole summer. I found that I actually didn’t miss meat that much, if at all. Rummaging through the fridge for leftovers as I commonly do, if I saw a container full of meat, it actually began to look unappealing to me. True, the smell of freshly fried bacon did always tempt me, and I did eat a slice of pepperoni that fell on the ground. Otherwise, my vegetarian commitment was not terribly difficult to keep.
The more challenging part of vegetarianism was psychological. It was a challenge to see my identity as a vegetarian. Nor over the course of the summer did I ever feel that I realty owned up to the label either. When I had to explain my dietary restrictions to others, I would always try and qualify my vegetarianism: “it’s only temporary,” or “it’s just a challenge I’m doing over the summer,” I would say. Never was I just Ty the vegetarian. I was Ty the vegetarian*. But although it was difficult to apply the label to myself and feel authentic about it, it was easier when others applied the label to me. Campers at summer camp somehow found out without me telling them, and they would thus call me a vegetarian on their own initiative. Knowing me for only a week at a time, vegetarian Ty was the only side of me they ever knew, so they never questioned me about my transition to it. So only once other people started calling me a vegetarian and asking me all kinds of curious questions about what it is like, did I finally come to start feeling like I too could own the label. Nevertheless, I never fully felt authentic as a vegetarian, since my endeavor was only temporary and experimental. Though there is not just one kind of vegetarian, I never felt like I could fully own the label and subscribe to the identity politics of vegetarianism.
Additionally, and somewhat expectedly, being a vegetarian also made me think about food options a whole lot more. Previously, as a food opportunist and a not too particularly picky eater, I didn’t think about what exactly I was eating with a whole lot of thought. Back then, so to speak, all options were literally on the table. If it was edible, then why not eat it? But I found that excepting myself from any carnivorous partakings made me dwell on the limits of what I could and could not eat. Instead of always being assured of having enough food, I started to worry if there would be enough vegetarian options left over for me to eat; sometimes there were not, and I had less than my desired fill even when there were plenty of meat options left over. For perhaps the first time ever, I also found that I had to be a staunch advocate for my food as well. I don’t really like to make a fuss over food things, especially since I’ll eat just about anything. But this summer, in order for me to make sure there would be food for myself as well, I had to advocate for a non-meat option at each meal. This was challenging at times, especially because I often felt like a ‘fake’ vegetarian who was just being ‘picky’ about meat. Add to that, I’d much rather not encumber or inconvenience people by adding more dietary restrictions to the chefs, especially when I was the only professed vegetarian partaking in a meal. But at the same time, if my rationale behind going vegetarian was environmentally based, then causing a fuss at meal times would be a start to greater change. Abstaining from meat at one single meal might not seem like it makes a lot of difference, but it does work to challenge the assumption that every meal must contain meat. After continual meal-time fuss, eventually less meat will be demanded and ordered per meal, and the negative environmental impacts will diminish with it.
Unfortunately, though my rationale for going vegetarian was environmental (i.e., to reduce waste associated with food), going vegetarian seemed to have unintentionally increased my personal food waste. When defining the terms of the vegetarian challenge at the start of the summer, my friend and I both agreed that ‘Trash Meat’—that is, meat that was going to be thrown away anyway—would be within the bounds of our vegetarianism. Though Trash Meat was fair game, I felt like it would be cheating to partake of it. Rummaging through the fridge for leftovers, I often came across containers full of good, edible meals that just happened to have a little bit of meat mixed in. Out of vegetarian principle, I avoided consuming those leftovers. And, as my niche at camp was to finish off all the leftovers, those containers of food continued to sit in the fridge untouched until the food inside spoiled. Whereas previously I would have eaten a meal and simultaneously reduced food waste by eating other people’s leftovers, I was instead inclined to throw the food out. I began to realize that meals are more accommodating to all when the meat is served on the side, and not mixed in with the main dish. Thus, it would be less wasteful if meat were an opt-in thing, rather than an opt-out thing.
Now that the summer has ended, my commitment to being a vegetarian has elapsed. What has happened since that time? Well, I’ve gone back to the pattern of food consumption that I previously was in, where no particular food item is off limits. I have eaten meat again—though primarily meat leftovers. I still don’t eat a lot of it, but I’m a food scavenger at heart. If I can save a food item from getting thrown in the trash, whether it has meat in it or not, isn’t that the better option anyway? I’m fine leaving the label vegetarian behind too. I never felt fully comfortable with that label anyway. But overall, I will continue my commitment to eating low on the food chain and to reducing my environmental impact in whatever form that takes, whether it be going completely vegetarian again in the future or continuing to eat trash meat out of the dumpster. Perhaps a more suitable label for me other that vegetarian would be freegan.
As a timely thought-piece during my experiment, NPR published an article about how an all-vegetarian world is not necessarily a better world—or even a practical world. In any case, mindlessly consuming any type of food without thinking broadly about its impact is the worst way to go. Perhaps all it does take to make a positive change towards a more sustainable food system is a group of people who want to challenge the status quo by saying ‘no I don’t want your industrialized meat’. Vegetarians have their place, but it is not for only vegetarians to make a difference in the food system.
In all my years of dumpster diving, I’ve never been in a market quite as reliable as Grand Rapids. As a result, I always seem to have an odd abundance of usable dumpster-rescued food items that need to be eaten. As the diver never knows what treats lie in store each night, the contents of the magical mystery pantry often require creative thinking in order to prepare novel and tasty food dishes.
In this episode of Dumpster Kitchen, I tried to solve the problem of 120 corn tortillas and a bunch of (slightly bruised) organic bananas. A sweet breakfast treat seemed on hand…
Ty’s Creamy Banana Breakfast Tacos
- Corn Tortillas*
*Denotes dumpster-dived ingredients
In a small skillet, pour enough oil to coat the bottom and turn to medium heat. Slice up the bananas into 1/4″ to 1/2″ slices and place in heated oil (I used vegetable oil). One small banana will fill one 6″ tortilla.
Continue to cook the banana slices for a few minutes until they start to emit a sweet buttery smell. Flip the slices over and continue cooking the other side for a few additional minutes. Less-ripe sections of the banana will remain firm, while the bruised sections become squashy–don’t be alarmed, this just adds to the texture of the dish as a whole.
Add milk, honey, and cinnamon to the frying pan. With the skillet still on medium heat, add enough milk to form a shallow layer across the bottom of the pan. Drizzle in one spoonful of honey (as a sweetener–though the bananas naturally become sweeter as they are fried). Sprinkle in some cinnamon for spice. Heat the milk and continuing stirring until the milky mixture is reduced to the consistency of pancake batter.
*Note: substituting yogurt for milk eliminates the reduction process, but I used milk here because it is a frequent dumpster find.
Add in the coarsely chopped almonds (for both taste and texture). The resulting mixture now looks and tastes like banana muffin batter
Spoon a generous amount of the banana mixture onto a 6″ corn tortilla. The resulting breakfast tacos are a sweet morning treat. Serve with a slice of dumpster-dived orange.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption is wasted (about 1.3 billion tonnes). Additionally, approximately 45% of fruit and vegetable crops grown annually get wasted. Such food waste occurs on all levels of the food system, from the farmer, to the harvester, to the processer, to the retailer, and finally to the consumer. Different reasons for food wastage occur at each different level in the food system (and I encourage you to explore some of these reasons in the UN FAO report’s key findings). Among the many reasons for food wastage is the large scale economics of modern agriculture—in other words, in developed nations such as the United States and Australia, large quantities of crops need to be efficiently processed in order to fit the mechanized and standardized rigor of the industrial food system. With a food system as large and agglomerated as it is, business decisions tend to happen on a large scale for economic reasons. A great quantity of food, thus, is liable to fall through the cracks and add to the overall waste in the food system. Though my knowledge is still rudimentary, my recent experiences as a harvester on cherry and lychee farms have given me a bit of insight into how much food gets wasted on the agricultural side of the food system. This has also led me to speculate on ways to reduce food waste and divert some instead to better uses.
As I mentioned before in an earlier blog post, “Life is (not) Always a Bowl of Cherries”, the fruit at one cherry farm I was picking at suffered extensive damage from steady rain during the harvest season. The primary rain damage entailed split tops where the cherries swelled to the point where the skin burst, and a blue mold was growing on some dense clusters of damaged cherries as well. Cherries with this type of damage are unfit for commercial markets. The delicate skin of the cherry is the fruit’s protective barrier to the agents of the outside world. Once compromised, the cherries will only remain edible for a few more days. However, from my estimate after continuing to pick at the farm, less than one quarter of cherries had been affected by any sort of damage at all—the rest of the cherries survived intact and were suitable for market. Yet, the fruit packer which was buying the cherries from the farm as a bulk commodity decided that there was not a high enough percentage of good fruit to continue to buy the farm’s fruit at the agreed upon rate. Resultingly, although most of the fruit on the trees was still marketable, all of the fruit remaining on the trees was sentenced to rot in the orchard. One large-scale economic move by a large-scale fruit packer resulted in a waste of tonnes of cherries—all because it wasn’t economically efficient to sort the good fruit from the bad.
As word at the farm got spread amoung the orchard rows that that picking operations were to cease immediately because the farm had suddenly lost the buyer for its fruit, I started picking cherries directly into my backpack to take home with me. If the fruit was not destined to be sold at market, I at least wanted to put it to good use (i.e., eating it myself). So I took the good fruit along with the bad. I for one am not fussy if a cherry has a split top, and I’m not too proud to cut a bad spot out of a cherry before eating it (but I also have a long history of salvaging food out of dumpsters too). After all, blemished fruit is still perfectly edible if the blemish is small and easily excisable. My backpack full of cherries allowed me to at least reduce some food wastage by vastly reducing the scale of the economic decisions being made–to the scale ranging my bag of cherries to my mouth. The economy was whether I thought it worthwhile to eat each individual cherry or not. At this scale, I was able to examine every cherry I consumed for its merit, rather than dismissing the crop wholesale—the good fruit with the bad.
Rain damage is not the only thing that will make a cherry unacceptable for market. If a cherry is picked without its stem, that cherry most likely cannot be sold. Again, the skin is the cherry’s protective layer to the outside world, and if the stem is removed an entryway for decay is created. Though the fruit itself is every bit the same, stemless cherries differ in that they do not stay fresh as long as cherries with stems. For this reason, cherry pickers are chastised above all else about picking cherries off of their stems (but as some level of food waste is inevitable, knocking a few cherries off of their stems is essentially unavoidable). At one export farm I picked at, I was greatly perturbed when I saw a supervisor sifting through my lugs of cherries and throwing the stemless ones on the ground. Those were big, beautiful cherries thrown dispassionately into the mud. After seeing this, I felt personally convicted to eat every cherry that popped off its stem, just so those cherries wouldn’t face a similar wasteful fate. My mission in this manner proved utterly impossible, as one person himself cannot eliminate food waste. But I just couldn’t help but wonder: so many of the local cherries sold in the supermarket were without stems. Could it be that stemless cherries will stay fresh long enough to make it into the local markets but are only unfit for export?
In comparison to cherries, the lychee farm I picked at operated on a smaller scale. The farm itself was a few hundred acres and differed most notably in terms of packing operations: all lychees harvested were packed on-site rather than shipping the ungraded fruit to a large packhouse. By operating this way, the lychee farm significantly reduced the scope of the harvesting and processing stages of the food system. Amoung my responsibilities as a harvest labourer on the lychee farm, I assisted with the packing of the fruit. This allowed me to see how the freshly harvested crop gets graded and prepared for export. Unlike cherries which are graded and sorted completely by a machine, lychees on my farm were graded entirely by hand. Each piece of fruit has to make its way past six sets of eyes and hands on its journey to a 5-kilogram box for export. Not every lychee picked in the orchard makes it into a box, however, and the graders are quick to toss out any piece of fruit that is not up to export standards. Some fruits are rejected because they have been damaged, such as broken skin or insect holes. Yet, other fruits are rejected because of cosmetic reasons—some spotting, just a bit off-color, ‘doubled’ fruit, etc. The greater part of these lychee rejects are still perfectly edible, and at the end of the day the lychee workers can take home as many of the reject lychees as desired. Not all of the reject fruit will be taken home though, and the rest gets thrown into the compost pile. Still the amount of fruit thrown out is smaller than a garbage bin full, and that’s not a bad quantity for a farm that processes more than 4 tonnes of lychees per day. Having each fruit examined by hand can reduce the amount of fruit wasted, and packing the fruit in the location where it is picked also reduces the amount of fruit damaged in the process of transportation.
When I lived in Moscow, Idaho, I volunteered for a local food bank non-profit called Backyard Harvest. This charity, with its local scope and volunteer power, worked on a much smaller economic scale than commercial food producers. Backyard Harvest collected excess food grown by area residents and redistributed that produce to local citizens in need of food security. I spent many hours in small backyard orchards gleaning fruit off of trees and sorting out the bad produce from that which was perfectly edible. Large food conglomerates wouldn’t even bother going through such lengths to deal with such small quantities of food. But with the power of volunteers, we were able to reduce food waste and provide healthy produce to people as well.
Non-profit organizations such as Backyard Harvest rely on the goodwill of volunteers to stem food waste and combat food insecurity. But lots of opportunity for commercial enterprise exists within the cracks of the current food system as well. Thinking again to the cherry farm I was at when the call to cease picking operations was heralded, my labour contractor Damien hatched up a plan to profit off of the massive waste. If the big fruit packer didn’t want to buy the fruit, then the small operation of Damien and his harvest crew would become economically appealing. Damien would offer the farm a modest price to take a few hundred kilograms off their hands (after all, getting some money for the fruit would be better than getting no money at all) and have his harvest crew hand-sort the good and bad cherries in the field. We would have driven the cherries from the Australian countryside into the bustling market of Sydney, and sold cherries at Bondi Beach over New Years. This hypothetical enterprise would have been a self-contained business operation, where we would have picked, packed, transported, and sold the cherries ourselves. All operations would have been handled locally and on a small scale by a few workers with the will and willpower to make something viable off of something wasteful. (As an aside, this business idea of Damien’s was never attempted).
If agricultural business ventures aren’t too large, then they can afford to sort through things at smaller scales. As a result, less food is bound to get wasted. This sounds like a good idea to me.
Learn more about the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s findings on food waste here.