Waste, Glorious Waste 

Tales of urban grubbing in the land of conspicuous consumption.

Francine is picking through heirloom tomatoes at Berkeley Bowl on a recent day. She has twenty varieties to choose from: Black Crimson, Lemon Boy, Cherokee Purple. The names are as evocative as the shapes and colors, streaks of algae green on bronze, brick-red, gold. A trim woman in her fifties with neatly applied makeup and a wool check jacket, Francine has her bag open, sorting through to find the specimens that speak to her. "I just moved here from San Francisco to be near all this beautiful food," she says. "I mean, just look at that." She holds an egg-shaped tomato in the palm of her hand — it's a delicious-looking paprika color, with a yellow cherry-tomato-size outgrowth near the stem. "This one I'd put on a stand and just look at it."

This is the gleaming first market of food, built on an ideal of perfection and the illusion of almost limitless choice. Even in Berkeley, where conversations about food politics are as commonplace as talk of Survivor elsewhere, the rules of retail branding apply. We see our food choices as just as much of a status issue as clothing or cars. Nordstrom or Urban Outfitters. Hummer or Prius. The heirloom tomatoes that enthrall Francine help tell us who we are.

One of the things they say is that we have little compunction about waste. Truth is, our gorgeous food supply — even here at Berkeley Bowl — rides on rails of excess. These vast tomato bins look great only because produce clerks are continually culling those we won't buy. Tim Kilkenny, produce buyer for the Berkeley and El Cerrito Natural Grocery Co. stores, lays out the blueprint for imperfection: "Anything that has the smallest rot dot, any little brown rot dot," he says. "If you can see it, it's out. It's culled."

Kilkenny has been a produce buyer for various stores since 1987, and he's seen plenty of those dots. "All retailers have to cater to the more vocal customer," he says. "So we cull out some stuff on some pretty light provocation."

It's all about us, then. But can you really blame us? "Look," Francine says, holding up a Green Zebra covered with a network of brown scars. "I don't want to pay $2.39 a pound for that one. Not when I can get beautiful ones for the same price."

Nor does anyone. So at Berkeley Bowl, the most presentable rejects get twisted up into bargain bags. On the afternoon Francine was picking out her tomatoes, the discount table held a dozen bags filled with headless pineapples, densely pitted lemons, and bruised, sweaty pears. And the cull that doesn't even make the discount table? Francine says she hopes it goes to someone hungry.

But Ray Saldana, Berkeley Bowl produce manager, says it gets composted — three or four huge bins every day. And while some other retailers let hunger charities pick up some of their cull — Natural Grocery Co., Trader Joe's, and Berkeley's Whole Foods store, among others — not everything gets eaten. Given the sheer volume of produce at a store like Berkeley Bowl, it just isn't practical to find a home for everything shoppers won't buy. With all that variety comes the acknowledgment that waste is inevitable.

Food waste makes up by far the largest fraction of the stuff we throw away, according to Meghan Starkey, senior programs manager at the Alameda County Waste Management Association, who cites the conclusions of a 2000 study. That's true of retail businesses and homes alike. In Alameda County alone, businesses such as restaurants and retail food stores trashed more than 57,000 tons of food and food scraps in 2000. According to a 2004 study, food waste was the largest of the 45 material categories that clog the state's landfills.

Some of our excess food and drink, however, has been given a new lease on life. There are individuals and businesses in the East Bay who have attempted to turn it into something else. They rebrand and sell it back to Volvo-driving shoppers, or use it to define a neighborhood, or simply strive to keep poor families alive through an intensely personal dedication to urban foraging. These three tales offer a glimpse into their worlds.


PART I: THE SCAVENGER

The reek of soured food surrounds Cleveland Thomas Jr. like an aura. Dressed in khakis and a faded blue shirt, the 77-year-old director of Good Samaritan House works his unlit meerschaum pipe as if it's a thought. He's on the curb outside Good Sam, a battered bungalow on Oakland's 10th Street, at just after 8:00 in the morning — time for his daily foraging raid into the plush feeding grounds of the hills.

Tomorrow is Friday, one of three organized food giveaway days at Good Sam, and some of the goods are already piled up in anticipation: cases of Egg Beaters, fifty-pound sacks of sprouting potatoes, plastic milk crates bristling with stale baguettes. But Thomas is heading out for more.

At a time when food pantries are trending bigger, better funded, and as tightly organized as government bureaucracies, Good Sam plays it old-school: This is urban pantrying at its rawest and most personal. Larger, more organized pantries tend to restrict the number of times in a month that people can apply for food. But anyone who's hungry can shout through Good Sam's screen door and expect something to eat — every day if need be.

The San Francisco-raised former engineer slides into his 1987 caramel-colored Ranger pickup, a Mad Max-looking gent with gray hair, '80s-style aviator eyeglasses, and the ruminative, laconic air of a senior citizen. Thomas' pantry lost its affiliation with the Methodist Church more than twenty years ago. It gets no grants, and no funding except for the rumpled fives, tens, and twenties the occasional supporter presses into Thomas' hand. He drains his Social Security checks to keep the Ranger going. He also dips into the pension he earns from Bechtel Corporation; at one time, Thomas helped build nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania. But six months after his retirement in 1984, he threw himself into Good Sam, where his wife Mary was volunteering — she passed away in 1986.

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