Food: How I cycled 4700 miles eating food from the Earth
Food (2 of 12)
4,700 miles of riding over 104 days eating food from the earth (plus a whole bunch from the dumpster).
The goal: To cross the USA by bicycle while keeping my carbon footprint from food consumption to an extreme minimum.
I did that in two manners. The first was to eat locally produced, organic, and unpackaged food. Locally produced meant that it was grown and processed within the state I was in or within 250 miles. Organic meant that it was naturally grown and without added chemicals. I don’t care the slightest bit about certification. I care what the farmer or the grower tells me they did. Unpackaged meant just that, food that was not in packages. I made an exception for jarred items such as honey and jam because I either gave the jar back to them or to someone else to use as a valuable resource. Sometimes I purchased the food and sometimes I found it growing wild in the woods. This meant I couldn’t buy standard cycling staples such as peanut butter or bananas and, of course, no fitness bars or drinks.
The second manner was to eat food that would have otherwise gone to waste. This came in multiple ways but the primary manner was by taking it right out of grocery store dumpsters. I ate 280 pounds of food that would have ended up in a landfill. That’s close to three pounds per day! Other means of food waste included restaurant and gas station dumpsters, garbage cans on the streets, stuff I found on the side of roads, and residential garbage cans. Occasionally, I managed to get the wasted food before it actually ended up in the trash. This included friends that worked at restaurants where the food was going to be thrown away, hosts that were chucking food from their fridge, asking stores if they had anything they were tossing, and grabbing food off of abandoned plates at restaurants.
By eating in this manner it meant substantially reducing my choices and being opportunistic. I called myself an opportunetarian. This also made my day much simpler as I ate what was available to me when it was available to me. However, I did have a strict set of rules as to the opportunities that I could actually jump on. Then, there was the very tiny bit of food that I ate that did not fit into either of these categories, packaged, not local, conventionally-grown food.
Why does it make sense to eat local, organic, unpackaged food?
Locally grown organic and unpackaged food is good for the environment in many ways.
Local means it does not have to be transported which burns fossil fuels. It also means that my money is going back into the community that I am in and supports the local economy. Sure, sometimes it was more expensive, but my money was going into hands that I wanted to see it in. Other times, it was much less expensive than going to the grocery store to get it. The key to spending less is eating what is available and in season. Tomatoes are less expensive when they are in abundance so that is when it is best to eat them both for your pocket, the farmer, and the environment. I didn’t go to the grocery store saying I wanted corn or apples, or whatever I was in the mood for. I went to the store or farm stand saying I want some good nutritious fruits and veggies and I’ll take whatever is in season and a good price.
Organic means it is safer for you and the environment. It means it wasn’t sprayed with chemicals that can be absorbed into the food and into your body. If those chemicals aren’t absorbed into the food, which most of it is not, then they end up in the natural environment. The chemicals accumulate in the soil, water, and air. Then we, and all the other creatures that live on this earth, are exposed to them. It’s very obvious that pesticides and herbicides are wreaking havoc on plants and animals all over the world. One of the most ironic things I find is that often these pesticides result in the problem becoming worse rather than better while creating many other negative side affects. Growing organically creates better soil and reduces problems such as topsoil erosion. Organic also means non-GMO. As Patagonia once put it in an Anti-GMO ad, “What does an outdoor clothing company know about genetically engineered food? Not enough and neither do you. Even scientists working on genetic engineering admit they don’t know the full story…. We don’t know enough about the dangers of genetic engineering. Let’s find out all the risk before we turn genetically modified organisms loose on the world, or continue to eat them in our food.” Makes sense to me. Why take the risk when doing things naturally has been working for 1000’s of years and still works today? Organic to me means growing in a way that’s good for the earth and good for the creatures on it, including us.
Unpackaged means that when you finish eating your food there is not garbage to send off to a landfill or recyclables that require a ton of energy to convert into something else. Food is simple, why complicate it so much? Food from the earth gives us life, why hurt the earth in the process of eating what it gives us? According to earth911.com, “nearly 70 percent of litter in the San Francisco Bay Area comes from food and beverage packaging.” Food packaging fills our streets with litter and fills our landfills with trash. Packaged food is often much more processed than unpackaged food and much more likely to have unhealthy ingredients. It’s a lot easier to mask bad ingredients in applesauce than it is in an apple. The simple answer to this is to start buying unpackaged and minimally packaged food. A whole-food, primarily plant-based diet will give you a huge head start to accomplishing this task.
For all of these reasons it is better for the earth, your community, and you to eat local, organic, and unpackaged foods. It means a healthier you. It means a healthier farmer and worker. It means less junk in landfills. It means less fossil fuels being burned. It means less resources being used. It means less trees being chopped down and less plastic being created. It means cleaner air and more pristine water. It means less chemicals being sprayed that end up all over the world. It means healthier soils. It means healthier animals. To sum it up, it means a healthier world for all of us to enjoy.
Why does it make sense to eat food that would have otherwise gone to waste?
By eating food that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill you are placing no burden on the natural environment. Actually, you are having a positive effect on the environment in many ways. First you are a decomposer. You are breaking down the food into a simpler form that the earth can uptake and reuse more easily. This is a big part of eating and it is a part of every single natural food cycle on the planet. Food gets broken down into a simpler form by consumption and it is then pooped out and absorbed by smaller organisms. Those nutrients that are taken by the earth are then used to create more food. In the landfill, it would sit and rot. Instead, you have broken it down. Secondly, you are reducing waste that needs to be picked up by the waste management trucks. The less they have to pick up, the less fuel they burn as they are driving around. Thirdly, you are reducing food that ends up in landfills where it often does not degrade due to layers and layers of garbage on top of it creating an anaerobic environment. You’re also saving money for whomever would have paid to have that garbage processed whether it is the grocery store or taxpayers.
The trip started out in California where there is no shortage of local, organic, and unpackaged food. Life was easy there. Plenty of fresh fruits and veggies were available to me, as well as nuts, grains, beans, and olive oil. The food was available and for the first week I mostly ate raw. The only issue at that time was that I wasn’t eating quite enough starchy carbohydrates. The reason being I was not using electricity for the entire trip so I had to cook over a wood fire when I wanted cooked food. I did a lot of that in the first month of the adventure but I was often very tired at the end of a 50-70 mile day of riding and did not have a desire to cook. When I did, I cooked up a large portion of California grown rice so that I’d have enough to last a full day or more, and I often used The Power Pot to help generate some electricity while cooking as well. I ate a lot of raw eggs, green vegetables, spinach, almonds, sweet potatoes, avocados, and fruits like raisins, apples, and citrus over the first few weeks. It was a challenge at first to see healthy, properly-raised food that I couldn’t eat. Take quinoa for example, it is grown thousands of miles away in South America. Great for the body but it grows so far away and I wasn’t about to eat something that had to be flown over to my country on a plane. That would mean that fossil fuels had to be burned for me to eat and that really does not need to be the case. Grow the food nearby and eat it is what I say. I also wanted oats but could not find any locally grown.
It took a few weeks for me to embrace dumpster diving and to get past my ego but once I did I had no shortage of carbohydrates. Subway was my go-to and about 90% of their dumpsters that I visited were loaded with untouched loaves of bread just a few hours or a day outside of the kitchen. They bake their loaves daily and throw away whatever is not used that same day or the next morning. Most of them over produce to make sure they have what the customer demands and this results in large amounts of waste. Often, I found big bags full of nothing but fresh loaves of bread, sometimes as many as 200 loaves but it was typical to find a pile of 30-50 loaves. I could usually pick what I was in the mood for which was usually wheat bread but sometimes I did pick white, which I never would do if I was actually paying for it. So I grabbed a half dozen of Subway dumpster loaves and when I was running out I just searched for another dumpster. Since they are the 2nd largest restaurant franchise in the country it was not hard to find them at all. Cruising through the deserts of Nevada in the springtime produced very little food and I got by on the big bag of rice that I had bought back in San Francisco.
I also lived on honey. Local honey is something I found in every single state and it often gave me the energy I needed for a long day of riding. A tablespoon of honey has 27 grams of carbohydrates in it. I could pretty much live off it if I needed to. It is one of the most marvelous foods to me and I plan to have it in my life until the day I die. It is one of the few foods that can never go bad. It takes over 1,000 bees to create a 16 ounce jar of honey. With all that life being poured into the honey I can only believe that a large amount of life is left in it when you eat it. Honey sure is special. I ate 15 pounds of honey on this adventure.
Eventually I found that my day was much easier if I ate food from the dumpster because it meant less time spent cooking and less time searching out local, organic, unpackaged food, which was not that easy to find. In the middle of the trip there were weeks that I ate almost 100% food from the dumpster. I learned that there is so much food waste in the United States that I cannot only survive without purchasing any but I can actually thrive. It got to the point where I could wake up and decide what I was in the mood for and then go out and get it from dumpsters!
The problem with so much dumpster food being available for me was that too much junk food was available to me. I value my body and thus pay close attention to what I put in it, but one of the main means I have of self control is shopping at the grocery store. I never buy any junk food at the grocery store and I have no problem doing that because of money and because of environmental issues. Processed junk food is not cheap and I can buy a lot more quality whole foods with my dollar than I can junk food. Junk food might seam cheaper to the untrained eye but that is nothing but sales tactic. Pay attention to what nutrients you are actually getting out of the food and the weight of the food itself and you will realize that that bag of chips is a complete rip-off compared to a bag of rice that will last for many meals. That makes it easy for me to make the right choice at the grocery store. The other thing is, when I make purchases at the store, I pay attention to food packaging and the energy it took to create the food. I typically will not buy something if it is over-packaged because that is not fair for the environment. Even if it is recyclable packaging, it still takes a ton of resources and energy to make and to break down that packaging. Because of these two factors, I have no problem buying nearly 100% healthy food that is good for me and for the environment at the grocery store. This results in a house free of junk food, which means there is not junk around for me to eat. If I get a hankering for junk food I have to make an effort to go out and get it. If someone brings a plate of brownies into my house I just may devour it. You are your surrounds and when I’m surrounded by brownies that’s what’ll be coursing through my veins.
Back to the dumpsters… When I found scores of donuts or pizza in the dumpster I had a hard time not eating it. The environmental aspect was out of the picture and so was the issue of money. This meant it came down to a choice that really affected me, and only me. I can resist temptation when money, the health of the earth, and the health of others is on the line, but when the only price to pay for a bunch of donuts was my own physical health, the temptation was much harder to resist. Thus, I found myself eating a lot of junk food when I expected this to be some of the purist eating of my life. I even found myself eating beef, while at home I eat a primarily plant-based diet and if I do eat meat, it is fish. I was eating low quality beef, chicken and pork. The stuff that is mass-produced in big farm factories, which I wouldn’t even have fathomed eating back home. But, since it was in the garbage, I felt I was not contributing to the other problems that the American meat production facilities create.
I am so thankful to have experienced this addiction first hand as I am now able to relate and empathize with others who are in this situation. The good news for me is that my addiction only lasted a few weeks before I trampled all over it. I imagine that if someone has been eating junk food for years it will take longer for them to get over it and develop a healthy, natural craving. I do think it is possible for anyone and everyone though to overcome this dilemma. Even today as I write this story I find myself falling for more junk food than I have in the past. I haven’t gotten over it completely but once I get home where I have better control of my surroundings I am sure that I will.
A few dumpster diving stories…
Day 44 (06/02/2013) In the late afternoon I stopped behind a grocery store to check out the goods and found what I would estimate to be about 1,000 pounds of good food thrown out. I took bananas, grapes, apples, pears, grapefruits, cherries, whole-wheat bagels, and loaves of whole-wheat bread. The bread had an expiration of June 4th, meaning it wasn’t even expired yet, and the fruit was in near perfect condition. In a bag of 100’s of cherries a few were mushy and smashed. As I sat in the parking lot with Brent filming for the documentary, company came. I greeted the police and told them what I was doing and they were very calm and cool about it. The store manager had called in and said he wanted his garbage back. He was, however, ok with us documenting the food waste, which surprised me. The officers were ok with me stuffing some of the food into my trailer as long as I made it look like I was putting the food back in the dumpster so I only lost half of my bounty. I chatted with the two young police officers and as my run-ins with the police usually go we spent much more time talking about the joys of life than what I had just “done wrong.” I knew the run-in went well when I checked my cell phone and one of the officers had added me to Facebook just a few hours later. A few weeks later when they started to post about me on the police department’s facebook page I knew I had really hit off with them.
On a hot day in the middle of the United States I had my head inside a dumpster searching for cold ice cream in a Dairy Queen dumpster. (You’d be amazed at how many times I found still cold ice cream in the garbage). I heard a voice come from behind me, “Can I help you?” I turned around to find a young employee looming over my shoulder and responded, “Yeah! I’m looking for some ice cream!” I ushered him towards the dumpster with my smile and he responded, “Ummmmmmmmm I guess I could go inside and get you some.” That’s when I had to explain to him that I could not accept it from him as I was only eating local, organic food or food from dumpsters. I’m not sure if he believed me and he definitely was not interested in getting to close to this garbage boy.
There is so much food waste in the United States that I could wake up on any given day and know that I could stuff myself to my ears with food (healthy or not) without spending a dime. All I had to do was let go of my ego and be a little resourceful. Practice makes perfect and with just a little practice I now had complete confidence in my ability to feed myself without the use of money. One morning I woke up hungry in Lincoln, Nebraska and decided to go for a breakfast walk in a residential neighborhood. I had bagels and yogurt from one garbage can and fruit from another as I went for my morning stroll. Then I washed it all down with bottles of water that I found in another garbage. It was empowering to know that I could not only survive but thrive in my country if I woke up tomorrow and had lost every penny I own. In the United States we throw away 165 BILLION dollars worth of food each year. 30% of the food purchased in the United States ends up in the garbage. There is no shortage of food in the United States. There is a distribution problem. I have seen it first hand. Waste is everywhere. Grocery stores, restaurants, homes, cafeterias, and that doesn’t even touch the waste in production and distribution.
For those of you who claim you don’t have money to eat healthy, I urge you to assess your spending habits and see where your money is going. If you are a college student and you spend $50 out at the bar on drinks you have just made the choice to spend the equivalency of a weeks worth of grocery on a night of booze and fun. If you are eating out at restaurants a couple times per week you are increasing your cost per meal substantially. Many healthy delicious I, and many people I know, make at home cost less than $10 for 4 people. That’s $2.50 each. If you go out to eat and spend $20 you’ve just paid 8 fold for your food. If you are throwing food in your garbage you are throwing away money. If you are buying processed foods like chips, soda, and crackers you are not spending your money wisely. A bag of chips that provides a mere snack with little nutrition costs the same amount as a few pounds of rice that would make up the majority of a meal for a whole family. It comes down to making proper choices, educating yourself, having self control, being honest with yourself, and overcoming barriers.
Food is one of the simplest parts of life. It is life and it gives life, so it doesn’t make much sense to need to get it from far away. If it gives me life, I want it to come from nearby. We have complicated the heck out of food. What happens if we run out of gasoline and we can’t ship bananas from Ecuador, coffee from Hawaii, or apples from New Zealand?
How do I eat healthy at home? Simply by eating natural, whole foods. There are thousands of diets and plans out there for health and, sure, plenty of them are great, but all this information and all these options complicate things. People are confused and people are scared, but there is no reason to be. If you simply eat a whole-food diet you don’t have much to be confused about. If it grows and it’s basically still in the shape that it grows in, then eat it. It might not be the absolutely perfect diet for you but it will be darn good. You really can’t screw up too much by eating natural, whole foods. At home, I eat a diet that mostly consists of grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans), oils, nuts, seeds, eggs, and dairy. A more specific list of some of my main foods include rice, oats, quinoa, wheat, bread, granola, olive oil, coconut oil, almonds, peanuts, flax seeds, honey, black beans, hummus, tofu, yogurt, almond milk, and whatever fruits and veggies are on special including broccoli, spinach, kale, zucchini, potatoes, apples, oranges, grapefruit, pears, peaches, melons, and bananas. This is what I call a primarily plant-based diet. It’s good for the earth, the community, and myself.
How do I shop in an earth-friendly and healthy manner? Most of this is explained by reading the previous paragraph of what I eat but there is a bit more to it. I ride my bike to the grocery store to get my food. I cook my food at home rather than eat out. I buy a majority of my foods unpackaged. I buy as much as I can in the bulk section. I bring my own re-usable bags. There is no excuse for us to still be using disposable plastic bags. If you are doing that, you are being very uncool. I buy whatever is in season, which is also often less expensive. I support my local co-op that helps me eat healthier. They still offer a lot of processed stuff in the aisles but the worst stuff is better for the earth and me than most of the worst stuff at the large-chain grocery stores. I shop primarily at the perimeter of the store and rarely walk down any of the aisles where it is mostly processed food. I think beyond myself when I make a decision and pay attention to the process it took to create something and where it came from. If something is built in with all sorts of convenient functions I avoid it. Food is food. It does not need easy twist tops, microwaveable bags, and one-time use containers. If it is a one-time use item, such as individual serve yogurts, I absolutely do not buy it. I shop at my local farmers markets. I subscribe to a local CSA (community supported agriculture) and pick up my veggies from them at my Wednesday night farmers market.
At home I compost all of my food waste. No food goes into my garbage because that would be a waste of valuable resources. Instead I have a compost pile and the compost is used to grow vegetables. I also have bins full of worms that eat my scraps and turn it into black gold (worm poop), which helps my plants stay healthy and happy. I don’t waste food because I buy dried goods that don’t go bad and I don’t buy food that can spoil in large quantities. Instead, I buy food a few times per week. Food gives us life so it makes sense to spend a lot of time with it. Many people think that shopping for food and cooking is a waste of time or they just don’t have time. Life is not about work, it’s about health and happiness, and quality food can deliver that. Work, money, popularity, status, these things don’t keep you alive, but food does. So which is more important? Spend more time with your food and you may find yourself a happier human. I give thanks for my food. Some people pray to a god but I give thanks to the earth, the soil, and the water for producing the food that will nourish my body.
Here are the results of my attempt to purchase and support only local, organic, and unpackaged food. I purchased (or ate with others) 38 packaged food items. I’m not talking about highly processed packaged food I’m talking about a jug of milk, a loaf of bread, or a bag of nuts for example: stuff that was minimally packaged that I could not otherwise find unpackaged. Recycled packaging was also favored over packaging that would have to be thrown away. I ate 19 food items that were not organic. I ate 36 food items that were not locally produced. Well over 50% of that was in the last 2 weeks though when I decided to eat meals with my hosts and at gatherings. When I reached New York after 4100 miles of riding the numbers were 22 (packaged), 8 (not organic), and 13 (not local). 38, 19, and 36. Of course, I ate tons of packaged, non-local, non-organic food from the dumpsters too and that made my life much easier on a daily basis. Also, keep in mind that if I purchased something that fit multiple categories it was included in whichever applied. For example a a package of granola that was not local and not organic would have counted as a tally for all three categories.
I ate 109 eggs, 750 pieces of fruit, 15 pounds of honey, and 280 pounds of food from the trash. For wild food, I came upon berries, fruit, fish, venison, and insects, but ate a minimal amount of wild food only because I put my time elsewhere. Wild food was everywhere. I estimate that 60% of my food came from the trash, 30% was local organic, unpackaged food, and 10% was food that was either packaged, conventionally grown, not local, or a combination of any of those three.
It was not always easy to find local organic food on this journey, but I haven’t lost any hope. In fact, I have more hope than ever before. I’d like to point out some of the challenges that I came across in finding local organic food. First off, I started in the spring when very little food was growing. It takes extra creativity to find local food in the off-season. It means finding people who preserve foods by canning or freezing or drying. Not a lot of individuals do this today, but we can and are reviving this simple means of creating food security. As the spring led into summer, finding local food became easier and easier. I was also riding through unfamiliar areas on a time crunch. In many cities, there were sources of food that I just was not aware of and did not take the time to find. Also, as a matter of timing often there are farmers markets just once per week and I usually wasn’t there on that day of the week. I was obviously not able to grow my own food, which is something that is quite easy to do for many people at home. I didn’t prefer to store large amounts of food either, as I would have had to tow it across the United States with me and I had no refrigerator in my trailer. At home you can buy fifty pounds of local grain and have it at your disposal for the next year. I had to constantly search out new sources of local food. When you are at home with a little work you can become familiar with the local food scene and learn where to find what you need. You could look at my findings from biking 4,700 miles through 19 states and say that it is not possible to eat local food, but you’d be totally overlooking the fact that I was on a bicycle riding through towns in a matter of hours or days. The bottom line is that eating sustainably is a much easier task on your home front. It takes effort but the effort pays back in many ways.
I realized on this adventure that if I have food, water, and simple shelter, I have everything I really need to be happy and healthy. Not just happy but bursting-at-the-seams happy. A smile so freaking big that it is contagious to people around me. A smile so big my face aches.
Know where your food comes from. Shop local. Eat naturally. Eat whole foods. Eat a primarily plant-based diet. Be thankful for your food. Give your body what it needs to thrive.