Leftovers are rich with meaning. Old Ben Franklin would approve the exercise of thrift, establishment economists would recognize the maximization of utility, and people like me see a brand new something for nothing.
Work frequently sets out little spreads like this for large meetings: breakfast, lunch and dinner are not hard to come by. My office is next to a set of high-school-auditorium-sized conference rooms which yield a frequent and luxurious bounty: chicken cordon bleu, pan-seared salmon, even choice steak. One December Friday last year there were whole cheesecakes left untouched. The food is tantalizing even when it is just sandwiches, as it was today. But it was the man’s sandwiches, and today I brought nothing but a box of store-brand Pop-Tarts. Slices of roast beef big as your hand call out through the walls.
Yes, it is purely selfish and cheap to pick at what’s left after the main event has moved on. I can afford a sandwich or steak and it can be argued I’m indulging my poor college self for whom a substantial free sandwich was manna from heaven, or felt like it. I won’t deny the part of myself that thrills at the score.
But when the meeting or conference is done, twenty-somethings from culinary school, their smocks and aprons all uniform corporate black, wheel out carts to take everything away. Most prominent is a large plastic tub with white rope handles, lined with a plastic compost bag. All the food is dumped in here: the caper-roasted salmon, the honey-glazed ham, bushels of salad, bakeries of bread. Aside from the standard canned drinks, nothing is saved.
I am hungry but do not have hunger, or the softer, professional charity term: food insecurity. I can go as nuts at Safeway as I want while a greater proportion of people are on food stamps than at any time in history. They have a true need for the free sandwich or salmon plate I make an effort to appear I am entitled to hours after lunch has been served. Those Occupy kids in their tents and cardboard lean-tos could use a sandwich. The skater kids who walk before me on the way home, peeling off from the sidewalk to scramble down to their camp by the railroad tracks, would enjoy some salmon. I am certain there are houses in my new neighborhood who would view a free meal as a relief.
I eat my snookered food and think about them. I really do, in a way bought and paid Pop-Tarts do not.
Food is energy. Any waste is profound. Depending on what I read, there are between 40 and 100 fossil fuel energy calories for each edible calorie of food. Those kids with culinary dreams might as well be throwing gasoline away. People do not realize that energy is something that will never be seen again. It is run through once, then lost to entropy.
Salad makes me feel the worst. That almost-full bowl, soon to be thrown out, is the very end of a very long pipeline that depends on poor people with dark skin to pick it, wash it, package it in plastic vacuum bags. It is all vitamins and minerals and green from the sun, and it is always hardly eaten. I always get a big bowl if I can.
I eat the free food not only because it is free, but because it is so expensive. I question the world I live in that so much precious stuff is thrown away.