Food, Waste, and Capitalism

Janae Phillips
Mar 18, 2016 · 9 min read

My quarter life crisis was a compost bucket.

I grew up fed on a middle class American mix of homemade and boxed dinners. Coming from a previously Mormon family, giant casseroles and family-guarded dessert recipes were part of my heritage. In my tiny Southwestern town a trip to Dairy Queen was a fun Saturday night, and to this day few things taste more like childhood than an Oreo-and-plastic-yogurt Blizzard. On weekday afternoons my friends and I could walk from the back of our neighborhood to the Super Walmart and get an Icee for 99 cents; we’d chew on the red plastic straws as we browsed the $10 clothes, then we’d head outside to sit on a curb in the parking lot while the sun went down. Southern Arizona is known for its sunsets; the dust in the air guarantees a pink and purple sky every evening, and it washed the tailings that surrounded our town in color. Sometimes the big white Super Walmart letters would catch the colors, too.

The Super Walmart is where we bought our groceries. Before high school my parents divorced, turning my mother and brother and me into a food stamps family. Did you know you can get an entire dinner in a box for $1 if you catch it on sale? My favorite was the lasagna (spiral noodles, a can of sauce, a packet of powdered cheese that tasted sweeter than cheese should be). We had box dinners most nights. Sometimes if we had a little extra we’d treat ourselves and go through the McDonald’s instead. Very rarely we could still afford a Dairy Queen.

By the time I hit high school I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal condition that impacts 1 in 10 women, including my mother. My doctors told me the key would be to lose weight; the great and terrible irony of PCOS is one of its primary side effects is weight gain, and its primary treatment is weight loss. They handed me a single sided paper that essentially translated to “don’t eat bread.”

So I tried all of the things I had been taught to try over a lifetime of marketing: low fat products, 100 calorie packs, Weight Watchers frozen meals, salads made with sugar free dressing; for a while I’m sure we owned half the diet books Oprah had ever recommended. Then came the diet shakes.

We’ve all gotten an invite — from an old high school friend, a cousin, a work acquaintance — to a particular kind of party. You know the one. It involves a product that has changed that person’s life and given them control of their future, and it can do the same thing for you. Incredibly, both nail wraps and diet shakes seem to have the same effect.

I’m here to tell you that nail wraps will not be your miracle, that there is no salvation in waterproof mascara. Ask me about the boxes of makeup samples from parties long passed that sat in our house for years. Ask me about the makeup consultant who told us about a brand new company to get into, a nutrition company that was changing lives. I can tell you all about the time she sat down a family that had just managed to get off food stamps and asked us to tell each other what we would do with $100,000. I can tell you about 17 year old me drinking two diet shakes a day for months trying to conquer my broken body. I can tell you that you can’t treat poison with poison. I can tell you that we spent hundreds of dollars, probably thousands, and made none. I can tell you that I did lose lots of weight; I can also tell you that the minute we couldn’t afford the product anymore I gained every pound back.

I wish I could tell it to the people giving these companies their money today, but I I know they are on a high only false hope can provide. I delete the invitations.

To be poor is to go without. They tell you if you go without enough for long enough, you’ll have enough. They take $10 one week and buy beans and rice and a head of lettuce and say “You see? It’s possible!” They don’t buy the same thing the next week. They won’t buy it the week after, either.

Going without is exhausting. They like to point to a Friday Happy Meal and say “You could have purchased 10 apples instead!” But apples don’t come with plastic toys in greasy plastic wrappers, or built-in playgrounds with taller slides than the ones outdoors.

Perhaps it was all the going without that made Extreme Couponing so appealing. Couponing feels like cheating the system that’s cheated you, like using their own tactics against them. With the right coupons you should never have to pay for things like paper towels or toothpaste as long as you buy them in bulk when the time is right. Six years later we’re still using toothpaste from a box stashed under my mom’s bed; sometimes it’s separated and runny when you first open it, but it seems to work fine. The brands with the blue dye have the least separation. For a family used to going without there’s a certain kind of revelry in filling a grocery basket, in piling in the candy bars and the travel sized mouthwashes and the stacks of frozen dinners.

There are never coupons for produce.

By my early twenties I had mostly given up on ever figuring out a diet that would work for me. No matter what health foods or fad diets I tried, progress seemed an unattainable thing. I did my best to put it out of my mind and threw myself into schoolwork instead, complete with a routine of caramel macchiatos at late night club meetings and tubes of coupon-purchased Pringles over study guides. I did what I had been told to do for as long as I could remember: I worked hard, I built a resume, I graduated with honors, and by 24 I had managed to land a job that allowed me to climb a single rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Technically, I had achieved the American dream of the meritocracy.

I don’t remember exactly where I first saw the term “real food” — Tumblr, probably. To the average American it would probably sound something like the plot of an X-Files episode: an idea that the additives and preservatives in our processed foods are harmful, and if we would return to a diet of whole ingredients — things you could identify in a picture — and stay away from added sugar, we could solve a lot of our woes. After a decade of trying everything else, I was willing to give the X-Files a chance.

It was like a brand of magic; I ate whole milk and whole fat cheese and maple syrup-sweetened cookies and finally, finally, the weight came off. I had never considered myself a crunchy sort of person, never really put much stock into the idea that our processed lives could do much harm, but here I was with 65 pounds of evidence that didn’t seem to have another explanation.

I kept reading. I read about the additives in food, and then the additives in cosmetics, and then the toxins in the plastics that hold our food and cosmetics — toxins that seem to impact endocrine systems more than anything else, the same systems that cause PCOS. I read about where all of that plastic ends up, about the overwhelming trash we can’t get rid of. I thought about red plastic straws and too-sweet cheese and couponed candy bars, and I got angry.

Zero Waste is part movement, part lifestyle, part goal. My favorite definition is that of Be Zero’s Andrea Sanders: “a zero waste lifestyle is about massively disrupting the amount of trash we make.” You’ve probably seen an article or two about a jar full of trash, a person holding said jar triumphantly, someone explaining that they make their own toothpaste now. A Zero Waster’s goal is to send as little material to a landfill as possible, and very little to recycling, either.

Zero Waste has plenty of critics, and not without reason; none of us create truly zero waste, especially not all of the Zero Waste Instagrammers with iPhones. More importantly, there’s the problem of privilege.

I remember seeing a particular comment that said “How privileged do you have to be to worry about the toxins in your plastic ice cube tray?” The answer is very, and capitalism is depending on it.

It depends on us being exhausted; too tired to worry about whether that ingredient is “real,” just that it will keep children feeling full; too tired to shop at three different grocery stores to find things in bulk bins; too tired to cook from scratch at all. It depends on us being too poor to worry about what’s in our shampoo or our cheap makeup, too worried about looking presentable enough for work instead. It depends on cheap toys and slides and ice cream being just satisfactory enough to make a family feel like they’re getting something a little special for a change. And if we get a little sick? It’s ready to step in with a host of “healthy” products and books and multi-level-marketing diet shakes.

When we’re able to get out of poverty, it depends on a lifetime of finding solace in those processed treats, on family traditions becoming inextricable from cheap products. It depends on the corporatized American Dream to keep us invested in consumption at every rung of the socioeconomic ladder. As a kid I didn’t dream of wealth as money in the bank, but as having a nice car and a big house; the freedom to purchase piles of clothes; to go to the movies every weekend; to purchase pretty scented lotions from shops in the mall; to never have to worry about whether I could buy something I wanted. To never have to go without again.

The thing is, I still want it. Despite knowing all of the toxic ingredients, the trash, the lifetime of marketing that programmed my brain, there are moments when all I want is a shopping spree in one of those pretty scented stores. It’s not easy to give up the things you were told you’d be owed.

If I eat a Dairy Queen with a bamboo spork, will I create some kind of rift in the fabric of the universe? These and other questions litter the contradictions of my evolving life.

Traveling real-food-zero-waste is the biggest challenge. I travel a lot for work, now. I use airline apps for my boarding passes and think about the paper one I carefully saved from my first flight, fearing I would never receive another. I always bring bulk bin snacks in my carry on, but sometimes I want nothing more than those little pretzels in the foil wrapper. On Southwest the wrapper says “We thought you deserved a treat.” I know it’s an ad designed by a company that wants me to give them more money, but it makes me smile anyway. Sometimes I sip sugar-laden ginger ale from a disposable plastic cup to calm my stomach. I have Dramamine in my bag, but it doesn’t taste like what my mom used to give me when I was sick.

In the hotel I don’t use the travel-sized toiletries in plastic bottles. I think about the girl who used to collect them, for whom a stay in a hotel was a wild luxury and hotel toiletries a treasure to stash away. I’ve since donated them to a teen homeless shelter, full of kids for whom hotel toiletries are the scraps they depend on, for whom a full sized Super Walmart shampoo of their own would be a luxury.

I think about waste.

Janae Phillips

Written by

organizer, engagement designer, writer ⚡Director of Leadership & Education @TheHPAlliance