“Radically Courageous: My Manual for Being Different” is a book about self-organising lifestyle written by Hanna Poddig (Rotbuch, Berlin 2009)
Food has a long journey behind it before it lands on German consumers’ tables. Frequently the food has already traveled a few hundred or thousand miles in a train, a truck or an airplane, has been driven 5 times across Germany, then newly repackaged again and again before it ultimately arrives on the store shelf. And at each of these interim stops the amount of food decreases—not because the foods have spoiled, but because something is “wrong” with them. Vegetables, for instance, must always be refrigerated. If, however, the truck’s refrigeration on the way here from Spain shuts down per chance for all of 3 minutes, then the whole shipment ends up in the trash bin. In another case, let’s assume the food has made it to the wholesaler. Now he/she notices that an incorrect label has been glued onto a jar of preserves. It says that there are strawberries in the jar, but they turned out to be cherries. Hard luck for the cherry preserves, because no retailer wants to offer this problem to their customers. Hard luck for 5 other, correctly declared jars too, because preserves are sold only in boxes of 6 at the wholesaler’s. In other words: off to the bin with them. Let’s take another look, this time at the retailer: Although the chocolate drops still have 3 months before their “best by” date, the new delivery has already arrived and the local discounter has no storeroom space. Here too, the drops are left with only one path to take: Dumpsterville.
Enormous amounts of food are thrown away because financially it doesn’t pay to deal with them sparingly. It’s cheaper to buy new preserves than to soak off a label and glue on a new one. It’s even cheaper to buy 6 new jars of preserves than to hold on to 5 until the next day when something is going to be “wrong” again with one of the boxes of 6, and that 6th jar could be refilled from another box. Consumers and the retail trade expect flawless merchandise. Jettisoning the food at a discount is usually not worthwhile: the profit margin would end up being too low. Ultimately, more money is to be made when new goods are ordered and the “wrong stuff” disappears into the dumpster without any larger expenditure in terms of labor, time and personnel.
This is precisely the point when I become active. Nocturnally active, mostly. That’s when I head for the dumpsters and take what no one wants to sell anymore. Usually I end up carting away a lot more than I intended because it all looks so incredibly good and I can picture all the amazing things I could cook with it. When all is said and done, I’m probably going to have to throw away half of it again. Oh well, I’m pretty sure the mini-fitness program in “hoisting bell peppers” didn’t do me any harm, either.
I’m not doing this because of poverty. I do it because it makes me sick—excuse me, but damn it, people are starving on this planet—to see the amount of food being thrown away for reasons dealing with profits. According to UNICEF, 24,000 people die each day due to malnutrition or the consequences thereof; other figures speak of far more people, something like half of all children under 5 years old. For the most part no one has anything in particular against these people. They’re simply not important enough within the system called capitalism. To rephrase it: An explicit interest in letting these people starve does not always exist because they are not even worth the trouble.
Naturally I haven’t done anything active against starvation by plundering the supermarket dumpster. On the other hand, otherwise I would have had to go shopping for food (because even I can’t live on fresh air and love alone). And that process, in turn, would have set something in motion. Although the food I would have had to buy certainly wouldn’t have been given to the needy if I hadn’t bought it, I would have created a demand for new merchandise through my purchase. And right here is where the whole thing becomes exciting, because a demand for merchandise means that new food has to come here from somewhere. After all, that food doesn’t simply arise out of thin air, to land as if by magic on the supermarket shelf: it must be produced. Production, regardless of whether foodstuffs or other “products”, always has environmental impacts and social consequences. In this case my thoughts turn to the use of pesticides and fertilizers, how soil is leached due to monoculture, to the endangering of biodiversity and the loss of natural habitats. It quickly comes to my mind that certain things like coffee or soya or eco-fuel plants [calling this stuff eco is another one of those revolting label frauds!] are being cultivated for export because their prices on the world market are momentarily at a point where they tend to be more worthwhile than basic foodstuffs, even though the people cultivating them are starving. I’m thinking about the dependencies farmers have on a very few seed companies, about underpaid auxiliary laborers, about refugees. Yes, refugees. In Greece, in other words on the outer perimeters of the fortress called Europe which erects bulwarks against all people who don’t have the privilege of being born within European borders, people are working for a pittance because officially they are not allowed to work at all. Officially they are not even allowed to be where they are. And when they draw attention to themselves, they’re deported. Now, one or the other of you out there might think this is due to the landowners who pay wages that are too low. But that misses the point, too. It’s the wholesalers and the demand for cheap food that puts individual producers under pressure to conform. Once again, this is where consumers enter the picture. They can decide what they buy and, correspondingly, what they create a demand for. But hold on, that’s not the big picture, either: After all, many people factually do not have enough money to supply themselves with regional, ecological, fair-traded merchandise and with goods from small, self-managed cooperatives. That would bring us to the topic of poverty, which in this article might mean taking on more than I can chew. Although, maybe that’s exactly what’s needed, because trains of thought like this show just how complex the facts of these situations are.