Something Rotten This Way Comes

‘Soup kitchens’ serve more than just soup.  But there IS soup, as well as a meat entree, a couple of vegetable sides, a variety of desserts, and a salad bar.

The first time I volunteered at the soup kitchen was just a few weeks ago, when I (and my daughters) prepped fruit and vegetables.  We spent 3 hours chopping and, though I may never eat another stalk of celery again, one sore thumb was worth good comraderie and useful fun.  And I learned that, unless one is in the kitchen’s cooking area, there probably won’t be any heat.  Lesson learned:  wear layers.

The 2nd time we volunteered, just this past weekend, we had signed up for the Chipotle-like serving line; but apparently, everbody else did too, so we weren’t needed until the last half-hour shift, near the end of lunch.

In the interim, we were unpreparedly assigned to work in the cooler.  Lesson learned:  bring a coat every time.  Our job was to remove produce from individual containers and loosely group the food into plastic-lined milk-crates stacked in pre-determined order in the cooler.  We unboxed mushrooms, squash, cabbage, grapes, amidst all manner of donated food from Trader Joe’s and other places, into milk crates. 

At the same time, we collapsed the containers, or opened and stacked them in columns to save space, and made trips outside to recycle the containers, the boxes, and the crates.  It was a working system.  But I was sooo cold.

To stay out of the fridge as much as possible, I kept the recycling job and, being an inquisitive person, I talked to some veteran volunteers, to be friendly, and to find out first-hand how the system works.  I learned lots of trivia, like wax-lined fruit boxes break recycling equipment, and that you shouldn’t pick food up once it has dropped, because it will contaminate the latex gloves we all wear.  (I also learned that some hungry people will try to trick you for more than their share of to-go food; and that just because some people are hungry, their taste buds are always on the job.)  

Outside, by the dumpsters, I asked how often the trash collectors come by to pick up the 4 or 5 extra large trash cans.  Every day. WOW.  The other side of the alley was stocked with recycling bins, picked up every 2-3 days. 

When I reluctantly rejoined the kids in the cooler, I had to overcome my food squeamishness and pull out some rotten grapes from some of the donated containers that the kids had unknowingly poured into the big crate.  Nasty!  We started paying more attention to the state of the food, and at one point, we probably threw away more grapes than we kept. 

And then I got suspicious. And I started to feel like a reporter doing undercover work for a hard-hitting expose.

Stores sell fresh produce.  When goods expire or don’t look quite so fresh anymore, consumers rummage further back on the shelves for fresher-looking choices.  Assuming stores donate those ‘older but still usable’ goods to food banks, soup kitchens, and the like, a brief window of opportunity exists where shelters seemingly fit into the lifecycle of food, somewhere between the expired-by date and the time the food has actually expired.

So, if I’m unpacking donated food that is past its time,  did the store unload their half-rotten food onto the shelter? Is it a tax writeoff for a store to donate goods in a ‘you scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours’ (and you dispose of it) situation?  Or is the shelter simply stuck doing someone else’s dirty work? 

OR does this shelter have an abundance of food?  How could a shelter afford to waste?  How could a shelter be so cavalier about wasting?  How would one generate 4-5 bins of refuse per day, if it’s not filled with food?  At least one bin was chock full of black bananas.  If this shelter has ample food, do all the shelters in the region have ample food?  If this shelter has ample food, and the rest don’t, shouldn’t somebody be working to divert some donations?

Either way, something rotten this way comes.

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