Wasted adventures

Foodsharing: utopian community of reformed dumpster-divers, or stress-inducing exercise for the broke, unhygenic and/or friendless? We tried it out for ourselves...

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Illustration by Agata Susiuk

It’s an enticing concept: stores get rid of their expired food, un-picky Berliners get free groceries, the world gets less waste. But how does Foodsharing stack up in the real world? Our reporter gave it a go.  

Dumpster diving, retrieving still-edible but unsellable products from supermarket bins, has long been a pastime among skint and/or environmentalist Berliners for whom the “sell-by date” is a mere suggestion (and possibly a capitalist plot). They’ve even got a verb for it: containern. But what if you could easily and legally get your hands on the tossed-out goods without having to scale fences or dodge guards? Enter Foodsharing, a Germany, Austria and Switzerland-wide internet platform and community co-created by Raphael Fellmer that has done to the reappropriation of food what Mitfahrgelegenheit did to ride sharing: legitimised it, added myriad rules and regulations and given it an “environmental” justification. As one might expect, it’s both based and thriving in Berlin. Eager to do my part in the war on waste and see what all the fuss is about, I’ve decided to sign up.

Testing the waters

The Foodsharing community comprises various levels of involvement. You can be a “Foodsharer”: picking up or giving away individual food items, displayed as shopping basket icons on their digital map. If you take a quiz and go on three “trial” pickups, you can become a “Foodsaver”: going on regular trips to “rescue” expired goods from stores affiliated with Foodsharing, from Bio Company to tiny Turkish bakeries. Finally, super-committed users can become “Ambassadors”, coordinating pickups as well as community meetings and events.

I start out at the bottom of the totem pole. After creating a login and profile for the site, I scout around on their online map for “Essenskörbe” (baskets) in my neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, there’s ridiculously little out there – maybe 15 people are giving away food in all of Berlin. My neighbourhood, Neukölln, yields only dried fish (“a gift from China”, writes Frank, the benefactor). Eventually I connect with a user in Wedding: Inga, a physical therapist and young mother, is giving away a single package of coffee that someone brought to her office. She doesn’t drink the stuff herself. “I use Foodsharing just here and there,” she tells me as I come to pick it up. “I used to give this kind of thing to my neighbours, but since I moved here I don’t know them anymore.” She invites me to stay for a tea, but I’ve only got 20 minutes to get to the other side of town to pick up two kilos of expired yoghurt.

Bettina’s also a young mother, with a kindergarten-aged boy and a couple of cats running around her Lichtenberg apartment. She’s a bit more alternative, with tattoos and piercings, and a bit further involved in the community. She started with Foodsharing to stretch her food budget after losing her job as a receptionist last year; two months ago, she decided to “level up” and become a Foodsaver. The yoghurt she’s giving away, only five days past its prime, is part of a too-large payload from Bio Company. “It’s funny, normally you don’t get so many dairy products.”

Finally I take a trip out to Schöneweide, where an energetic guy named Benjamin is parked out in front of his apartment, his white van full of crates of fruit. Active since May, Benjamin has picked up some 3850kg of food and earned three “trust bananas”, digital symbols of good faith bestowed on Foodsharing users by other users. He almost never buys groceries anymore. He makes pickups nearly every day of the week in between gigs as a courier; what he can’t use, he delivers to a circle of friends and neighbours and a nearby squatter encampment. If there’s anything left over, he gives it away online.

As we talk, he’s nursing a bloody cut on his finger. “I didn’t know I had it before, so I got blood all over everything…” I pick out a couple apples and wash them, thoroughly, before eating them.

By this point I’ve traipsed all around the city for very little payoff. It’s exhausting. I need a bigger and better score. I need to become a Foodsaver.

Food rescue in action

To do this, I must take the quiz: 10 questions, one to three correct answers per question, full of unfamiliar German words and puzzling hypothetical situations, only two errors allowed and only three chances to pass.

I fail, twice. To prepare myself, I spend a rainy Saturday afternoon at a workshop led by Fellmer and a couple of his cohorts at the Forum space in Kreuzberg. There are nearly 200 people here, almost all German, the expected mix of punkish youngsters and older Öko-Spießer types. I count three man-buns. The workshop takes three hours, including an exhaustive Powerpoint presentation, a Q&A session and repeated emphasis on punctuality and responsibility. One participant criticises the quiz for being “elitist”. “We wanted to make sure people are really motivated, not just looking for free food,” Fellmer says. “As for the language, we’re working on translating it.”

Fortified with new information, I take the quiz again… and fail, again. (Later, I’m informed that as a non-native German speaker, I should’ve just asked an “ambassador” for help.) Thankfully a Kreuzberg team member clues me in on a pickup happening at the Maybachufer Turkish market. It’s had a contract with Foodsharing since 2013, though vendors are known to give away boxes of leftovers to anyone who asks nicely.

I show up at the appointed time (punctuality!) and join a group of Foodsavers led by Chuy You, a bubbly French expat and Berliner of 12 years. Among us are four Germans and a bespectacled Canadian carpenter who’s here on behalf of his WG. Chuy You leads the charge as we ply the market’s vendors: “Hallo, wir sind von Foodsharing, hast du etwas für uns?” Used to the drill by now, most shrug and thrust crates of old fruit and vegetables at us. The Canadian seems particularly experienced with dubious produce, finding theoretical uses for half-rotted oranges (“juice!”), persimmons (“jam!”) and bananas (“banana bread!”). He and Chuy You enthusiastically root through the mouldiest specimens as the Germans and I hang back.

We regroup at the other end of the market to divvy up the loot. After we’ve taken all the food we’re going to use ourselves, a massive mound remains unclaimed – and we’re bound by the rules of Foodsaving to leave nothing behind. I recall Fellmer’s words at the workshop: “The goal is to save food from being wasted, not to provide you with exactly what you want.” It’s dark save for the occasional bike headlight, and we can’t really see what we’re shovelling into our bags, which might be a godsend. When I get home, I realise I’ve been saddled with roughly 100 Turkish green peppers, most of which are quite mouldy on one or both ends and require some strategic circumcision to be rendered edible. Just what am I supposed to do with all this?

Time to give back

As a Foodsaver, it’s my duty to choose how to redistribute my newfound bounty. “Use your creativity!” Fellmer had said at the workshop. With the help of Facebook I foist some veggies off on coworkers and friends, but it’s not enough. Worried I’ll be seen as a friendless loser but having no other choice, I post a “basket” on the Foodsharing site. Within an hour I get two replies, both women; I tell them to come to my apartment that evening. One sweeps a good mass of peppers into her bag; the other, child in tow, stares disappointedly at the greyish ends, gingerly takes a couple of the least offensive ones and leaves the rest behind.

As a last resort, I look for a Fair-Teiler. These are distribution points operated by Foodsharing, about 20 across the city, where anyone can leave or pick up food anonymously. Most take the form of fridges in co-ops, swap shops or squats. Sabine Werth, chair of charity organisation Berliner Tafel, finds these problematic. “What if someone put rat poison in one of them? They mean well, but it’s dilettantish, really,” she says. In fact, Foodsharing’s first fridge (in Markthalle IX) had to be taken away due to poor hygiene; they’ve since established stricter cleanliness rules.

The Foodsharing site tells me the nearest Fair-Teiler is the tea shop Chasinho. It turns out they don’t have a fridge, just a box for bread. The guy there indifferently tells me they normally don’t accept groceries that need refrigeration, but he takes my bag anyway. “I’ll see what I can do with it.” I keep some peppers, arugula and coriander for myself, but over the next week, as my workload grows and my time and enthusiasm for cooking shrinks, they sit neglected in my fridge. Before I know it, they’re covered in fuzz and slime. With shame in my heart, I toss them into the Bio-Müll. The quiz was right. I’m a bad Foodsaver. And what if I’ve taken away food from people who need it?

Werth from the Berliner Tafel charity won’t call Foodsharing competition. She does, however, see it as “problematic when they’re contacting firms, because that’s really Tafel-Arbeit. I think they should stick to the smaller firms, the ones we cannot reach because it’s too far away or too little food to pick up. Then it’s great if they go there.” But clearly Foodsharing’s primary goal isn’t to feed the hungry, only to raise awareness about and reduce food waste. And to build a community of like-minded souls: idealistic, resourceful, with time and energy to spare for the cause. I may not be one of them. But I wish them luck.

Originally published in issue #135, February 2015.