The food we throw away in Europe would be enough to feed all the hungry people in the world, and ‘waste divers’ have long sought to redress the balance by proving you can live (very happily) off the ‘rubbish’ other people discard.
The Austrian art movement wastecooking launched in April 2012, with a mission ‘to rescue food from the dark of the garbage container and bring it into the spotlight’. Quite literally.
‘Our approach is to use art in order to make people aware of the global issue of food waste’, says Tobias Judmaier, food blogger and chef for the wastecooking TV show.
‘Food is culture, and more than just a means to an end. We try to give the body what the mind needs to look at the bigger picture.’
‘We produce a cooking show, critical of society, that mainly uses produce that had previously been thrown away in order to prepare delicious meals’, he says. The project was designed to reach the masses: the show can be watched as web episodes on wastecooking.com and is also aired on selected TV channels. ‘We perform in public spaces and cook in venues that draw communal attention, such as town squares, concerts and fairs’, says Judmaier. ‘We rescue food from the dark of the garbage container and bring it under the spotlight of a cooking show. Our aim is to show the actual “dirty business” of the food industry.’
‘Waste diving’ is a form of politically motivated anti-consumerism. It kicked off in the United States in the ‘80s as a protest against arms exports; the ‘Food not bombs’ activists were the first to cook with waste, transforming the art into public action.
This movement isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty to make a point: according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, we ‘lose’ 300kg of food per head — half of which is thrown away by households, the other half by supermarkets, farms and the industry. Judmaier tells PQ, ‘According to the studies, most of the food that is wasted is being thrown away by households. But when you see what we find in supermarket bins, you understand that the numbers must be a bit different from that.
‘We are the fly in the ointment of the throwaway society, the incarnate protest against food waste!’
‘Overall, almost 50% of all food produced is wasted. In Africa this is mostly due to bad storage and transport; in Europe it is due to perfectionism, spoiled consumers and an industry that overproduces. We wash carrots and potatoes before we sort them by size and aesthetics, so we can spot tiny mistakes and throw out what does not look perfect.’
In many countries, including Germany, waste diving is illegal; activists have appeared before court in Munich, accused of theft and trespassing for rescuing waste fruit, vegetables and bread from the rubbish bins. In Austria rubbish is deemed ‘unclaimed property’, but trespassing onto supermarket sites to claim it is illegal.
Aware that it’s operating in a legal grey zone, wastecooking fires back the following challenge: ‘Who commits, in your opinion, the greater crime? The individual waste diver that gets the food out of the barrel that is otherwise burned, or those who are responsible for the global, systematic destruction of food on a large scale? Our conscience tells us that we are doing nothing illegal if we bring waste back to life.’
While some may find the waste diver’s approach hard to swallow, wastecooking is gathering mainstream support from those that understand the absurdity of throwing away perfectly good food. Its ‘free supermarket’ event in Vienna, September 2013, was supported by the Arts and Culture department of the City of Vienna, and closed with a gala dinner that catered for 150 seated guests. 1.5 tonnes of food, collected from farms surrounding the town, were given away for free.
Judmaier seems to thrive on the creative challenge of the process. ‘Usually I screen what we have available, then I decide on a recipe. It is crucial to be imaginative as you always have to improvise. I get to cook a large variety of dishes.
‘Basically it comes down to dealing with our natural resources. Overproduction has to be stopped… Waste cooking begins with food. A drop in the ocean? Yes, that’s right. But constant dripping wears away the stone.’
‘On the one hand we actually “dive” for food as you can see from our videos. We also gather lots of veggies at farms. The biggest challenge is that you never know what you will find or get. Also the volumes vary wildly; one night we might find enough bread for a month — the other day we might find carrots in a field that could feed thousands of people.
‘When we go waste diving we have a whole set of rules; we take no meat or meat products, we never leave a mess at the supermarket grounds and we always smell something to decide whether it has gone bad. In my experience the “best by” and “sell by” dates are a big scam, as they are regulated by the food industry.’
According to Judmaier, revising ‘sell by’ dates and forbidding ‘buy two get three’ offers are critical to the reduction of food waste. ‘We should also produce and eat local and not consume things that are shipped around the globe,’ he adds, ‘and we should use our brains when we go shopping and check the fridge before we leave the house. A yoghurt, for example, lasts for months before it goes bad. Use your nose and smell it!’
There are, of course, many more things we can do; food waste is nobody’s fault, but we are all responsible. A consumer who expects fresh bread and vegetables in the evening hours at a supermarket must be aware that, once the supermarket closes, fresh things get thrown out because they can’t be stored.
‘Check the fridge and shop according to what you still have to cook with’, advises Judmaier. ‘Have a recipe in your mind while you are shopping for groceries. Avoid supermarkets and use local grocery stores; support local produce from small farms as they don’t waste anything.
‘Also, always have a soup cooking. Everything can go into a soup – it’s a great recycling tool. We throw away mostly bread, dairy, fruit and vegetables, so why not make a bread cake out of it?’
For more information on wastecooking and Tobias Judmaier, visit www.wastecooking.com. The project will soon be moving to a whole new level: founding Austria’s first sustainable catering company. As well as cooking sorted and rescued food, it will employ people that otherwise have difficulties entering the labour market. All possible produce will be organic and wastecooking will recycle as much as it can. As always, avoiding waste will be the main focus. For more information on the project, visit www.wastecooking-deluxe.com.
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