The Journey of a Tuna Fish Tin- A Look at Food Waste in Champaign-Urbana

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“Food in this country – we waste it a lot and we eat it a lot. We eat too much
of it. It is a kind of weird dichotomy,” says Benita Vonne Ortiz, recycling coordinator of the housing division of the University of Illinois. Her small office is illuminated by a few sun-beams and the glow of a computer screen.
Mrs. Ortiz isn’t speaking about food waste in the United States for the first time. She has long been a passionate anti-waste fighter, working for “the time that has not yet come.”
America is a wealthy country, where ‘wealth’ means having a full stomach as well as something left over. But wealth brings surplus. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 96 billion pounds of edible food are wasted and dumped in landfills each year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only five percent of wasted food is diverted or recovered.
“Most Americans don’t consider themselves as wasting food. As far as food goes, they don’t think their actions really have a consequence. They don’t even see it as an issue”, says Ortiz. ” In this country people really feel they are entitled to things. Everything belongs to them because they paid for it. It takes a lot for me to make decisions not to buy certain things, not to do things in certain way, because the message is out there all the time: you’re entitled to take this and that because it is cheaper and it is quicker”.
In seeming contrast to her peaceful blue eyes and fragile wrists, Ortiz has fought patiently against the beast of waste. At the end of each semester since1986, she has set up drop-off areas in the hall lobbies of the housing facilities of UIUC as part of her “Don’t Toss It, Salvage It!” food and clothes waste program. “In our halls we provide a board contract of meals. If you go down to eat, you can drink and eat as much as you want. If you’d go to their rooms of these students and open the closet, you’d find hot chocolate, tea, tuna fish, peanut butter and jelly, whatever. Their parents are sending them the food, because they think they’re starving to death. So, at the end of the school year, they say, ‘I don’t want to take all this stuff’ and they put it into my salvage drive”, Ortiz says.
Since 1986, the amount of collected food and clothing has risen from 6,500 pounds to 12,820 pounds in the spring of 2001. Collected items are distributed to local charities like Salvation Army and Eastern Illinois Food Bank. Twice a year, the anxious parents of the privileged kids feed the Champaign area’s poor.
According to the Unites States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census 1990, there have been 84,636 persons below the poverty level (average minimum income for a family according to number of members, as defined by the Census Bureau) in Champaign-Urbana. The Bureau reports that the poverty rate has been higher for Champaign County (15.6%) than the Illinois poverty level (11.9%) and the national level (13.1%).
“It is a way of thinking, poor thinking”, says Lillian Van Vleet, a pale woman in a big red apron who works for the Social services Center of Salvation Army in Champaign. Her clients are Champaign-area citizens in need. “That’s the way they’ve chosen to live”. She exempts from her judgment two special groups: seniors and single mothers.
“To be an unmarried mother is a stigma of being poor”, she says. Lillian serves 400 to 550 people a month from her table at 125 E. University Ave in Champaign. “Most of them are picky. Food must be perfect; otherwise they don’t take it. They’ve called and complained to the mayor that I’ve given them bad foodî.
Salvation Army corps officer Violet Windham doesn’t think that people are really starving here. She believes that there is fair network of agencies all over the country which are prepared to provide food. “Usually when people really are starving, it is because the adult household member doesn’t have what it takes up here (she points to her head) to call these agencies. They cannot even use the telephone, they cannot read, they don’t have a clue that there’s all that stuff available.”
Kathy Smith, the director of the Center of Woman in Transition in Champaign, sees the problem in blaming those who are poor. “It’s too simplistic to say, it’s your fault. That’s a fairy tale that is told in this country”.
Eastern Illinois Food Bank in Urbana and Salvation Army in Champaign are two area organizations that redistribute surplus food to those in need. The tin of tuna from the closet of the wealthy student salvaged by Mrs. Ortiz’s drive probably goes to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank warehouse where it is sorted and redistributed to smaller agencies. “We serve the great purpose, because these small agencies cannot do it on their own. They cannot get the food that is unmarketable, because they cannot store it”, says Cindi Parr, director of development of the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.
Salvation Army Social Services Center in Champaign is one of the places where an abandoned tin of tuna from a student’s closet can finally meet its consumer. Here is where Champaignís poor go. A big glass wall with the view of the street is the focus of most Salvation Army visitors, while the pictures of saints on the shabby blue walls don’t seem to receive much attention. Sitting somberly on the chairs, the visitors wait for their once-per-month brown package of donated food. A skinny man utters that he lost his bus ticket and leaves angrily without the money he sought. A young woman with a child in her arms acts like a queen, as though she might be giving rather than receiving alms. Two friends chat loosely while waiting for the bags of food.
A young man with a long beard and startled expression sits in the corner and observes the scene. His name is Shuech. Having come from the upper-middle class family of a physician, Shuech was once a student of sociology and political science. His disgust toward the state of society grew until the day he met a man in a dumpster and spoke to him about spirituality. The next day, Shuech destroyed his TV, gave up all his possessions and joined a group of traveling Christians. A vast part of his daily menu comes from the food that people and grocery stores throw away. “I think that people that are garbage-eaters are those who watch TV. They fill their minds with garbage. I just look in the bins and I see the fatness of food. It is the same food people buy. It’s still packaged and clean. I don’t have to eat anything bad. Itís usually good after the expiration date”, he says.
Strict adherence to the expiration dates printed on food products is one of the main reasons why food is taken off grocery store shelves and thrown away in households. According to the Public Health District in Champaign, the expiration date, which is estimated by the manufacturer, indicates the time at which the food remains at its highest quality, rather than the day by which the food may spoil. Packaged and canned food generally remains safe to eat well beyond the date of highest quality.
Grocery stores are not legally bound to sell their food products within the date of expire (except in the case of baby food). However, they apparently always do. Dr. Chapman-Novakofski, professor of food science and human nutrition at UIUC explains: “Companies don’t want the reputation of selling poor quality items, so you often have the date stamp (i.e. expiration date) before quality declines.”
Benita Vonne Ortiz, the university housing recycling coordinator, thinks that food is not an important issue at all for wealthy people in this country. “We don’t know what it is to have unsafe food and I don’t even think that we’ve even begun to speak these issues. And we probably won’t, unless we have a crisis…”

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