“The Amazon is burning … And you’re talking about straws?”: The effects of food waste and pollution on poverty in Delaware

food not bombs
Bianca Thiruchittampalam/THE REVIEW
Food Not Bombs’ mission is to provide a safe place for needy residents of Wilmington to get a hot meal.

Managing Mosaic Editor

When the restaurant Sarah Wittenaitch was employed at shut down under “super short notice,” Wittenaitch did the unexpected: She went back.

According to Wittenaitch, there were thousands of dollars of equipment and hundreds of dollars of produce lying around in the restaurant. She quickly assembled a team of friends, instructing them to get down to Newark as fast as possible. If Wittenaitch hadn’t gone back for the produce and equipment, they would have faced the fate of so many other valuable food products in America: they would have been tossed away.

“We looted that restaurant like Supermarket Sweep,” Wittenaitch says. “It was a good deal.”

All the pans and pots and trays and produce that Wittenaitch and her friends collected were not going back to her. Rather, Wittenaitch was collecting them with a purpose in mind: She wanted to give them back to the Wilmington chapter of Food Not Bombs, an organization that salvages food and supplies from the local community to prepare meals and offer resources for those in need.

According to Adam Rahn, another member of the Wilmington chapter of Food Not Bombs, the organization began approximately two years ago. Influenced by other chapters in the area, the original group of members established a chapter in Wilmington. While Rahn says that the original members of the chapter are not around anymore, he, Wittenaitch and others keep the spirit alive with their dedication to providing a safe and inclusive space for the needy of Wilmington.

“We’re very rag-tag, very horizontal,” Wittenaitch says. “We basically get food however we can, we salvage donations and we buy if we gotta. We serve up a big meal, vegetarian specifically, for anybody who is hungry, no questions asked.”

The focus of the group is to salvage as much produce, and with good reason. Throwing out perfectly good product is a large problem across the United States, and Food Not Bombs works to relieve the amount of waste that is put out. According to Eri Rugis, another member of Food Not Bombs, the creation of waste is a big issue in the current food crisis amongst America’s homeless citizens. At the school that they work at, “bags and bags” of apples get thrown out at the end of the day, even though they are still ripe. Rugis usually stores and transports them to Food Not Bombs.

“Produce is something that is perfectly good that gets thrown out,” Rugis says. “We do have enough food to feed everyone, we just need to know where the waste is going.”

Wittenaitch agrees with Rugis, and believes that the amount of waste created by Americans isn’t just a matter of carelessness.

“In America, nearly half of all produce gets thrown out because it doesn’t look good enough,” Wittenaitch says. “Our entire production system is based upon making a profit on it, not actually feeding people. The point of capitalism is production and to make profit, not to feed people.”

A large portion of the work that Food Not Bombs does actively combats the negative effects of capitalism on the poor: starvation, a lack of resources and climate change. Rahn believes that climate change, capitalism and poverty are deeply intertwined.

“Making food networks to feed people before climate change happens is environmental justice,” Rahn says. “We’re in a space where in the next 50 years we’re going to leave this whole stratified class of people, completely underserved. So we need networks to already be in place for when this sort of happens.”

While Food Not Bombs salvages food and attempts to operate in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible, they also acknowledge that the environmentalist movement can be both classist and ableist. Often, individuals with disabilities or who do not have access to unlimited resources are not able to use multiple use products.

Kayla McCord, who recently joined the organization, recalls her experience handing out menstrual products to individuals. They say that many only took one or two.Hhowever, McCord encouraged them to take as many as they needed, as they wanted the women to consistently have clean menstrual products to use.

“As far as pads and tampons go, the eco effect of those disposable products is something to be considered,” McCord says. “[But] some people can’t go to a laundromat everyday. Some people can’t wash them [reusable menstrual products] out in a bathroom.”

Similarly, Rugis acknowledges that reusable products, such as reusable straws, are not always feasible in the disability community.

“This is a huge deal in the disabilities community,” Rugis says of the reusable straw movement. “People with mobility issues use plastic straws and people who have issues swallowing.”

That being said, Rugis, Rahn, McCord and Wittenaitch all agree on one thing: Most of the blame of climate change is placed on lower classes, when it is upper middle class citizens, upper class citizens and companies that are causing most of the pollution. In Delaware specifically, many residents from smaller and suburban towns such as Middletown and Bear are employed in Wilmington. From her personal experience as a resident of Middletown, McCord can attest that many members of community travel up and down the highways on the way to work, thus creating a massive pollution problem for Wilmington.

“You come to these cities, you use their resources and you ignore the people starving on the streets,” McCord says. “And then you retreat back to your safe haven: beautiful, white Middletown.”

During her time volunteering at Food Not Bombs, McCord says that the homeless who have stopped by have shared stories of walking as much as 60 minutes out of their way to reach a job, safe space or another space where they need to be. The homeless are not the ones that pollute their own environment, yet, they are the ones that feel the repercussions and, unfortunately, often end up being blamed for these issues.

Additionally, these issues are disportionately felt non-white residents of cities, especially in Wilmington.

“I would say probably about 70 % of the people that come to our stand for a meal are African American,” McCord says. “You go into these mostly African American areas and they are just awful. There’s litter everywhere, there’s construction, these people are breathing in this dust and this asbestos.”

Overall, much of the pollution in today’s world can be traced to large, wealthy operations. However, with recent “environmental fads” such as reusable straws and to-go mugs, there has been a movement to place the blame on the consumer. Rahn claims that this movement helps to “absolve” companies of any guilt they may have. News cycles of recent fads create increased attention to problems that really represent the least of humanity’s ecological footprint.

“The victims of capitalism and pollution get blamed,” Rugis says. “Maybe you’re gonna find a horrible picture of a cute turtle with a straw in its nose but you’re not gonna show people pictures of garbage patch island and the factories where this all floated out from. You’re not gonna show people a factory that just skirted a regulation to save some money and then ended up polluting a community.”

Environmentalism reaches beyond a metal straw and a Starbucks cup that can be reused. As the mission and work of Food Not Bombs illustrates, climate change impacts real people, real people who play little to no role in their own environmental situation.

Perhaps, it’s best summarized by a blunt statement Wittenaitch makes mid-interview:

“The Amazon is burning, motherf–ker,” Wittenaitch says. “And you’re talking about straws?”

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