standing on the curb with free kale; nibbling the edge
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
Sifting through chard, some leaves make the cut, others are cast aside. A woman I’ve never seen before, but who I’ll come to recognize over the next weeks, selects her vegetables with great care. She makes discernments I cannot myself pick out, seeing unseeable qualities.
Some people stand and sort through the carrots, pulling only those straight enough to peel. Others take pleasure in the additional legs, arms, and tails that carrots sprout, an adaptation to avoid obstacles. There are ladies who scrape off apple skin with their teeth and spit it on the curb. Mothers who load up on root crops for baby food. Folks who show up covered in paint and plaster, walking home from a job site.
This season—three times a week since July began—I’ve gotten to know people through their vegetable preferences. Sometimes they hang around and talk, sharing updates about grandchildren or their health, asking after us and our plans for winter employment. People love to tell us what they make with all those tiny beets, or why it’s exciting to have a particular kind of apple.
Almost all of the time, it is a pleasure to distribute free food. At other jobs, I’ve been tasked with ‘increasing food access’ or ‘addressing food deserts’ and said phrases like ‘affordable fresh produce’ on behalf of organizations locked into the nonprofit industrial complex. In those situations, we charged money for said food, often far above what people could genuinely afford.
Access is a hand with many fingers: place, time, money, variety, reliance on other resources (usually also place, time, and money). Sure, bringing local produce to a neighborhood without a single grocery store is access—but if that food still costs more money than what people have, is it accessible?
This season, I didn’t touch money. Almost all the food we gathered was free to us—gleaned from fields that farmers were done with or didn’t need. These are farmers who texted us back at all hours of the day, welcomed us onto their land, and shared the literal fruits of their labor with us.
We worked alongside volunteers, who offered their labor in exchange for good conversation and time with plants. Some joined us once, but many came back again and again. Still, most are not people I know deeply, but I see them around town, and we wave, and we know that we have done something together that means people got to eat.
Almost all of the time, it is easy to give food away. We build trust, telling stories about where the kale was harvested or when we picked up a load of winter squash. Unlike when you post a couch for free on craigslist, people don’t tend to assume you’re trying to screw them over. No legal tender is exchanged, just sustenance for gratitude.
Food is essential. People who can benefit from free food often could use other kinds of support, too, and not having basic needs met triggers some of the deepest discomfort our brains can handle. These days, everything is expensive, so the swath of people who are excited about local, organic produce free of charge is even broader than it used to be.
When we stand at the curb and welcome people to help themselves to food, we get to embrace the mindset of abundance while staring scarcity in the face. The uncertainty that accompanies living paycheck to paycheck—a reality for 3 in 5 Americans—not to mention the unpredictability of our now-corrupted planetary systems, yields so much to be unsure of and afraid for.
Sometimes at distributions, people do stuff that seems really unhinged to me. People shove for potatoes; they take many times as much food as is their evenly divided portion, a calculation we make so everyone can have some. For many weeks, it felt like we were just hands that put food on the table, not people.
But this, all of this fussing and concern and things not going to plan—it doesn’t matter. Three times a week for eighteen weeks in a row, we had a choice to police people or just let them take what they wanted to take. Early on, we decided it was more important to decide that people know what they need infinitely better than we do.
The people who attend our distributions hold a broad range of identities, visible and invisible. It is an exercise in compassion, but also in knowing that there is so much I do not know—to say, wait. That looked like a totally ridiculous way to behave, but I have no idea what that person has lived through, what trauma they are holding, what knowledge or fear or longing is in their hands when they take food from our tables.
Nothing has pushed me to consider disability like trying to provide something essential in the most accessible way possible. The first week of distributions, I asked someone who, to my untrained eye, ‘looked fine,’ if they wouldn’t mind parking further away, to leave the accessible spots free. They gently explained that they’d recently been injured, and didn’t yet have a placard. I apologized, feeling stupid, offered help carrying things, stumbled over my words.
Last week, they showed up at a distro, and started chatting with one of our regulars, someone I’d consider a friend. They mentioned offhand that I was very kind to them months ago when they first got injured, referring to that initial awkward interaction. It is a generous space that opens when we extend our un-knowing to each other with gentleness.
Yesterday, I saw the woman who carefully selects chard leaves again. I offered her a flyer for our winter distributions, a small hedge against the hunger that often accompanies the cold months. She looked at me skeptically, then said, no English! and returned her attention to the chard.
This is one of my favorite things about doing what we do—there is no form to fill out, no proof of the obscenely low income required to access most public services, no identification or categorization requested. Programs like food stamps and WIC that provide supplementary income for food are only available if you have the wherewithal (capacity to navigate bureaucracy, ability to access information in a language you understand, literacy, financial documentation) to clear all the hurdles in your path.
Through time and across place, markets are where people have gone to meet our most basic needs. The marketplace, with its language and relationality of exchange, gives our society shape. It is with great concern that I listen to detailed instructions about how cornbread salad (jiffy mix, miracle whip, radishes) is made, or how great it is to steam all green vegetables beyond recognition, but this must exist alongside reverence for the value of the casual and formalized relationships that are possible at and because of the market.
Burlington’s free food economy is robust. There’s good stuff available all over town, all year round; much of it is documented on this map. It happens in so many ways, from volunteer cooking nights to grant-funded growing of heirloom crops. Each, and collectively, are a hedge against the emptiness, literally and figuratively, of capitalism and the transactions that make it up.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Years ago Lena let me in on a secret: a certain bagel shop in Brooklyn that puts all its leftover bagels in a single trash bag on the street. We biked up to the bag and Lena showed me how to feel each of the black trash bags for the telltale bagel-y lumps of this carbo-lode. They taught me the way folks carefully re-tie the bag after claiming their pumpernickel and cinnamon raisin, an unspoken courtesy among those who know about this precious resource to keep it clean and intact for the next person to come along.
The Brooklyn bagel shop was not my first garbage bagel. When I worked at a bagel shop in Northfield, Minnesota I would fix myself a breakfast sandwich or some oatmeal when I got to work and another sandwich for lunch when I left. On days when I closed the shop I’d fill a bag with leftovers and out-of-date cream cheese to bring home to my roommates. The rest of the leftover bagels would go in a bag by themselves, another unspoken courtesy between us workers and the folks digging through our dumpster.
The management of that shop encouraged us to take what we needed; they knew exactly how slim a part-time bagel slinger’s budget is, and did what they could to take care of us. This isn’t the case with every food service job I’ve worked, but even with stingier management no one sells out their coworker for taking an unaccounted-for shift meal or some out-of-date hummus. It was the same case at GrowNYC’s youthmarket, the job Lena and I first worked together. Unsold produce was donated to community partners, but before dropping it off, you and the staff made sure to get all the collards, cranberries, and carrots you needed.
Most do not dig through dumpsters for the joy of thrift alone, or to reduce residual food waste; you do it because that’s all you can afford. On my walks to work at the bagel shop I got into the habit of picking plantago from the sidewalk and ducking into the woods to find spring ramps and autumn morels—not to bring me closer to the landscape but to supplement my grocery budget. These are environmental acts of convenience, of coincidence, not of intention. Foraging and garbage picking are an environmentalism of the poor that is ultimately about eating in a system that thinks you should starve.
These stories of free food have a sort of romance to them, because it’s a fairly ethical means of consumption that frays the edges of capitalism. But the part of my story I don’t often tell is that during this time in my life I also stole food. I didn’t steal from shops for fear of repercussions, but in my first apartment on Classon Ave I would sometimes nick bits and pieces from the apartment cupboard that didn’t belong to me. I tried to keep to the edges, take stuff that had sat untouched for a long time, or out of date things that I could claim to have “thrown away.” I think for the most part my theft went unnoticed, but not entirely, and it built some uncomfortable tension in the house.
My small robberies weren’t a kind of kleptomania but the result of fear. Every little expense, from train fare to the laundromat, was too much for my budget. When I was afraid to go grocery shopping and use up all my budget before my next paycheck it was easier to nick a box of mac and cheese from the cupboard and tell myself I would replace it when my paycheck came in. I needed help but didn’t know my roommates well enough to ask them, so I nibbled at the edges, the way I had learned to survive in most every situation. It isn’t something I’m proud of, but I try not to hold much contempt for myself in those moments either.
I got into a similarly desperate financial situation last year when my PhD stipend was delayed for three months. Friends and family helped pitch in for rent and expenses, but grocery shopping scared me again. Unlike last time, I didn’t have a food-service job to supply my lunch or a farm connection to provide me with leftover produce. But I did have roommates that cared enough to help.
Our house has been in the habit of making dinner together, and it was easy to help cook for everyone if someone else got the groceries, adding receipts to our expense-sharing app. My roommates and I were friendly and they knew I was broke, but it quickly became an unspoken courtesy: I'll get the groceries tonight, you’ll be back on your feet eventually. I’ve leaned on my roommates here in Dublin considerably more than those little accumulated thefts on Classon Ave, but this inter-reliance has made us closer, not put up walls. It's that same inter-reliance of the early days when Lena and I were getting to know one another, the unspoken courtesy of leading someone to a hidden resource, one governed by networks of need and inter-reliance.