Students Revolt Against Food Waste

Prague activists use produce discarded by supermarkets to feed the homeless

When Tereza and Barbora, two young women from Prague, go grocery shopping, they go to one of the huge supermarkets, as most of us usually do. But instead of going through the regular entrance, they head for the back of the building where all the garbage containers are. It's 10am on a Saturday and the two members of the Food Not Bombs group head for their first dumpster.


The first two are full of rotten food. After half an hour of searching Tereza and Barbora come across four containers that have what they're looking for: discarded food that's still usable.


"Here we have plenty of pastry, mainly rolls," says Barbora having dug out a full plastic bag. After a brief inspection she puts some stale pastry back in the garbage can. "Here we have radishes, radishes, plenty of radishes. People just wouldn't buy them today," comments Tereza on her "catch". "We'll make it a radish day today," she adds laughing.


A minute later she spots something on the bottom of the container. "Look, what is it over there?" Soon only her legs are sticking out of the container as she dives in to reach for the food. "Mango sprouts, oyster mushrooms and radishes again for a change. It looks like we'll do some preserving, too," she says. The vegetables look far from fresh but they haven't gone bad yet and that's the point.


"Can't you read the sign?" shouts a woman who just came out of the rear entrance to have a smoke. She is pointing at a sign that says it is forbidden to use discarded food to "feed people and animals." "We'll just take a couple of things and leave," Barbora says abruptly to calm the woman. She soon gives up, finishes her cigarette and goes back into the supermarket.


With three plastic bags full of radishes, bread, peppers and other types of veggies, Barbora and Tereza leave. These will make dinner for at least 50 people.


No protest
Barbora and Tereza study law and anthropology and they go "waste food shopping" one Saturday per month. They take turns with roughly 50 people who are also involved in the Food Not Bombs initiative. There's no need to organize things, just to act quickly and, at the end of the day, they have pots full of food for Prague homeless.


In Prague 3-Žižkov, the Ježek & Čížek organization helps homeless people survive, find jobs and get involved in theatrical productions. Today's "catch" will make a vegetable goulash. Oil, spices, garlic and all they need to make the tasty meal are bought with the money Food Not Bombs makes cooking at summer festivals.


After Barbora, Tereza and Lenka finish cooking, they take the big pot on a tram to the main train station. They are a bit late and people have already formed a line. "An average turn-out," says Barbora. "Sometimes there are 10 people, sometimes 80. It can depend on the temperature."


The people in line behave in a very orderly manner. Some have brought their own pots, others have plastic beer glasses or half a PET bottle. Three Food Not Bombs activists serve the goulash. "If you don't have your own spoon, take one of our plastic ones but please return it to us," one says apologetically. "We'll wash it and use it again." No one seems to protest. And no one seems concerned about the origins of the goulash, the delicious smell of which is spreading across the vestibule. "You say from a dumpster? So what?! Is it rotten? No. Is it good? Yes," says one of the homeless people to his friend. "What do you think? I normally eat in restaurants, or what?"


Fear of an empty fridge
Barbora and Tereza have been involved in this project for five years. It is part of their leftist activist approach to life: they want to help the homeless while demonstrating that multinational supermarkets pointlessly import tonnes of food only to throw it away, out of the public eye.


They have a point. There are no precise statistics but Miroslava Egerová of Pražské služby (Prague Services) says that the capital's hotels and restaurants alone throw out 3,000 tonnes of food every year -- eight tonnes per day. Supermarkets throw away tonnes more.


If we add in households, much more food ends up in garbage cans. British households throw away 5.5 tonnes of food per year, according to the available figures. Experts say Czechs aren't much different.


During a day spent monitoring a dumpster in Prague's Lhotka neighborhood, the experts' point is proven. A young woman throwing away half a loaf of bread, some onions and three green peppers, offers her explanation: "When I go shopping, I always buy a bit more, so our fridge is never empty."

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