On a January morning, Ms. Berger, an administrator in a large food bank in Stuttgart, Germany, asked workers to come to the facility’s backyard. When about 15 workers had assembled, Ms. Berger pointed to two large industrial carts full of yoghurt cups packaged in cartons. She explained that we should separate cups from cartons, deposit the cartons in recycling carts, and throw the full cups into dumpsters. Workers formed smoothly functioning groups where one person took cartons from the cart, the next separated cups from cartons and threw yoghurts into dumpsters, and others flattened and stacked cartons in recycling carts. In less than 20 minutes, this efficient crew threw about 5,000 portions of yoghurt into the garbage. When I asked Ms. Berger why we could not sell the yoghurt, she said they had been transported without refrigeration, hence we were not allowed to sell them and into the dumpster they went. Stacked against a wall in this backyard are large plastic tubs containing discarded produce destined for organic waste processing. At the end of the workday, they often hold hundreds of kilograms of organic waste. Why is there so much mismanaged and wasted food that is given to the food bank, much of which is sold to those in need? And why does some of it land in the garbage can or composting bin?
The Tafel Stuttgart is one of 950 similar food bank projects in Germany, independent charitable associations that are loosely organized under the umbrella of the Tafel Deutschland. The Stuttgart food bank started in 1995 to act against mass consumption and overconsumption, address food waste, and provide better access to good food to those in need. It picks up leftover, excess, or slightly damaged produce, dairy products, bread, and other products that can no longer be sold (approaching their sell-by dates, seasonal items) from partner supermarkets, bakers, producers, and manufacturers. The Tafel owns vans that collect food from stores and cooperates with producers who unload excess products or sometimes donate products. Located downtown in premises once occupied by a supermarket, the facility is supported by its revenue, contributions from government labor programs, voluntary work, and donations. The store is open Monday to Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the store had longer weekday and Saturday opening hours and a small coffee corner in which customers could linger.
People who receive social welfare and low-income individuals and families approved by the city’s additional social programs (Bonuskarte) can shop at the Tafel. Customers include elderly people; large low-income families; refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and most recently Ukraine; and other low-income groups. Since the start of the pandemic, university students have also become eligible. The Tafel sells produce, baked goods, dairy products, and random items like cereals, jams, bottled drinks, frozen items (pizzas, fries), prepackaged bread, and occasional nonfood items (shampoo, pet food) at vastly discounted rates. Three cups of yoghurt cost 10 cents; a banana 5 cents; an apple, orange, or pepper 10 cents; a large loaf of bread or box of cereal 50 cents; three packages of sliced bread 10 cents. A stand filled with free bread often occupies a spot outside the front door. To divide the food among as many people as possible, sales of many items—strawberries, grapes, mandarins, eggplants―are limited, and by 1:00 p.m. such items are often sold out. The Tafel serves several hundred customers daily.
Tafel workers are a multicultural group of full-time employees, long-term unemployed individuals supported by government job programs, individuals doing community hours, and volunteers (including me), with roots in Europe, Asia, and Africa. A rotating crew of about 20 to 30 people daily ride vans to collect food, sort food in the workspace, and, after 10:00 a.m., work in the store (bakery and fruits stands, cash registers).
Arriving food is sorted at top speed. Produce carts are wheeled to sorting tables where we empty boxes of assorted discarded fruits and vegetables or producers’ crates of lettuce or packaged mushrooms. In winter there are endless bags of oranges or mandarins discarded because one fruit is moldy. Peppers, carrots, cucumbers, zucchinis, potatoes, and radishes are routinely sorted, cleaned, and repackaged. There are always bananas (rejected because of brown spots but perfect inside), some apples, grapes, or even strawberries and raspberries (in winter). Workers toss damaged or moldy items into composting tubs and clean and repackage the rest to be arranged in green store crates for sale. Once every hour the busy store closes for about 10 minutes for workers to restock the produce shelves.
The bakery section receives yesterday’s leftovers from bakeries and cafés around town. Baked goods are sorted by types (rolls, pretzels, croissants, sweet rolls of many types, chocolate croissants, cakes, loaves of bread by types, Turkish flat breads and rolls, and specialty goods). Most are high quality fresh products (some organic) that are dumped by bakeries in the evening because customers will not buy them the next day. Tafel workers package rolls into bags by types and put them on display in the bakery section. Rolls and pretzels (five for 50 cents), elaborate sweet rolls (five for 50 cents), and cakes (four pieces for one Euro; one piece of fruit cake in a bakery is about three Euros) always sell out. Loaves of bread do not, and some are composted at closing. Some bread arrives too hard to be sold, but most bread, rolls, and cakes arrive in near-perfect condition.
Supplies are unpredictable and seasonal. Tomatoes of various varieties mostly arrive with other produce in boxes filled with blemished, bruised, or moldy items from supermarkets. Some arrive in packages that have opened, others come in packages containing one or two moldy items, yet others are thrown into the boxes individually along with apples, oranges, zucchinis, or radishes. Tafel workers empty boxes and containers and check every tomato to determine if it is good for sale. Items with mold, cuts, or other damage are composted. Good tomatoes are repackaged in containers or bags (about one kilogram, sold for 50 cents) and sent to the special fruit table. In April and May, the Tafel received several large shipments of tomatoes that had never entered a store but came directly from a distribution center. They arrived in cartons that held a dozen plastic containers, many of which contained one or two moldy fruits. We spent hours unloading boxes, emptying plastic containers onto sorting tables, dumping moldy fruit, and cleaning and repackaging good tomatoes. Tomatoes are usually sold at one bag per customer, like other limited produce, but several times in the afternoons the administration allowed customers to take two or three bags to make sure that all tomatoes would be sold. At the same time, the Tafel received vast quantities of peppers that had failed to meet the exacting standards of the stores because they were too small or crooked (nobody at the Tafel understood their flaw). By noon on some days customers were able to take 10 peppers (regular limit: 3).
The Tafel crew runs a well-oiled operation. Some bring carts and put unsorted boxes next to workers who sort and deposit clean produce in crates for others to take to the store shelves. Somebody flattens empty cartons for recycling, somebody empties spoiled packaged produce (lettuce, herbs, cut fruits) into compost tubs. One person collects full compost tubs from under sorting tables. On the days when little produce arrives after noon, workers wash produce display crates or plastic containers (for strawberries, grapes, tomatoes) for reuse. Throughout the day, we settle into different tasks and positions. There is talking, occasional singing (always the same people), and joking in multiple languages at the sorting tables. The busier the place gets the better it seems to function.
Processed food arrives at the Tafel because it does not sell, is faulty, or is out of season. Shortly after the yoghurt dumping episode, I spent an hour on two mornings opening and dumping one-liter bottles of tonic water down the backyard drain. Ms. Berger noted that the supermarket could not sell the numbers of bottles they had expected. At the Tafel they did not sell well either. In both places, quantities of bulky six-packs took up too much space. Thus, we dumped the tonic water from hundreds of bottles. We saved the plastic bottles to retrieve 25 cents of deposit on each and have them recycled. Other products arrive at the Tafel faulty (lids of nut butter jars that do not close properly) or represent overproduction (odd candy).
The Tafel looks like a win-win situation: food is saved, long-term unemployed individuals are in job programs, and low-income groups have access to affordable nutritious food. Saving food diverts it from the waste stream; recovers the labor, water, and other elements that went into its production; and makes its transportation (somewhat) more justifiable. Thus, the Tafel considerably contributes to social and ecological sustainability. But food waste is a much larger and systemic problem, and the Tafel only minimally alleviates the worst local excesses or failures of a global food system that produces alarming environmental degradation, appalling social inequalities, and dramatic waste.
The Tafel highlights aspects of the global food system’s failures such as overproduction, mismanagement, ecologically destructive practices, exploitation of workers in low-income food-producing countries, risky production and transportation chains, the cultivation of produce for export to the detriment of local markets, the use of marginalized and immigrant labor to combat waste, and food insecurity in wealthy cities. The example of produce grown in the Global South exemplifies such failures. In March, I sorted about two dozen avocados from Peru and could not save any because they were too soft or had opened. The Water Footprint Network estimates one avocado needs about 227 liters (60 gallons) of water to grow. In one minute, I dumped 5,548 liters (1,440 gallons) of Peruvian water into the compost in Germany. I dumped the sweat and labor of Peruvian workers, and I dumped the energy it took to transport the avocados from Peru to Germany (Lima to Stuttgart: 10,732 kilometers/6,675 miles covered by truck, railroad, boat, or plane). Not calculated is the loss of agricultural fields for produce for the Peruvian market. Avocados are one of many fruits that arrive from the other side of the globe only to be wasted in Germany. At the Tafel, I routinely dump mangoes (water footprint 475 gallons or 1,800 liters/kg), papayas, and kiwis. In January, I dumped apricots (water footprint 360 gallons or 1,300 liters/kg) from South Africa that looked like they never matured but went from almost ripe to rotten. In February, I dumped grapes from India.
Globalized food waste is alarming. Even if food is not wasted, urgent questions remain about monocultures, exploitative labor conditions, and the massive use and resulting damage of fertilizers and pesticides. Waste adds insult to injury. Moreover, fossil fuels are used―or wasted―in transporting produce that is later thrown away. Researchers Caroline Saunders and Peter Hayes calculate that the transport of grapes from Chile to Austria (plane and truck; similar distance as Peru to Germany) produces 7,410 grams of CO2 for every kilogram shipped, while Austrian grapes only produce 8.8 grams/kg when transported domestically by truck. The shipping of produce across the globe is generally problematic but becomes untenable when fruit lands in the compost, incinerator, or landfill. Obviously, much imported produce is consumed, but do dwellers in wealthy European countries need passion fruit, starfruit, or cherries in January from across the globe at the expense of plantation workers, water levels, and the climate?
It is not surprising that Tafel stores started in Germany in the 1990s. Patterns of food production and consumption started to change in the 1980s with the implementation of global neoliberal economic policies which increasingly allowed for the cheapest possible production sites regardless of the distance to places of consumption. Cheaply produced fruits from monocultural plantations are profitable, and food trends create new cravings and markets. The race for profit obscures concerns for people, animals, and the planet. Marketed as exotic but affordable products to consumers, the availability of coconuts, pomegranates, or kiwis year-round became the new normal. Cultures of frugality gave way to abundance and waste, as customers got used to and demanded products that are always available, perfect, and fresh. As privileged consumers got a taste of avocados and mangoes, production quickly grew. That some fruits rot in transit or exhibit imperfections is calculated and paid for by consumers who buy good fruits. Perishable processed products pose a similar challenge: How can endless varieties of yoghurt or cheese be offered without discarding some as they near their sell-by date? Food waste is planned and integral to our food system. A system that makes all foods always available normalizes gigantic food waste.
Food banks are in an odd position: they fight food waste but need food waste to fulfill their mission to create jobs and provide nutritious food for the disenfranchised. For now (in our unfair world), food banks are localized solutions that are unable to challenge the devastating nature of the global food system. In an ideal world, plantation workers would not be exploited, food would not go to waste, long-term unemployed people would not need labor programs, and the urban poor would have access to affordable good food. Every conceivable political effort must be made to get there. Until then, we need to address the worst local excesses of this unsustainable and destructive system. Under current circumstances, the Tafel makes momentous contributions to urban sustainability and equity. With rapid inflation, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the resulting growing global food crisis, Tafel stores face additional challenges. Supermarkets and companies send less food, but demand increases with the arrival of almost one million Ukrainian refugees in Germany. By May, the Tafel served almost double the number of customers served in January, with shrinking supplies. The ever-efficient Tafel crew works hard to make this possible. Next week, I will be back sorting tomatoes next to Mahmoud, who fled the war in Syria, and Manfred, whose career in the first labor market was cut short by injury. At the entrance, Mykhailo will help his fellow Ukrainians register for the Tafel and introduce them to the store.
Author’s note: All personal names are pseudonyms. The Tafel is real, and the leadership agreed for me to use the real name. I have sorted or observed all the fruits, vegetables, and products I mention in this piece at the Tafel Stuttgart.
Illustrator bio: Carla Keaton is a professional artist with a degree in painting and physical anthropology. Her artwork has featured in art galleries across the United States. She is also a high school art teacher and portrait artist and has illustrated two children’s books. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her daughter Anansa and dogs Zoey and Snickers. keatonfinearts.biz