How to Host a Food Waste Fiasco

Robin Greenfield standing with a group of people, with neatly arranged food waste in front of them.
ActivismDumpster DivingFood InsecurityFood WasteLiving in Service and VolunteeringTips and How To's

A Food Waste Fiasco is a visual demonstration designed to educate on the issue of food waste and food insecurity in the United States and globally.

Simply put, we waste nearly half the food we produce in the United States while one in seven Americans are food insecure.

I have hosted over a dozen Food Waste Fiascos across the nation to create awareness around these issues, and every one of them has been met with intrigue and interest by the public. The local media has come out to every demonstration to report and the campaign has been covered by media both nationally and internationally. Few campaigns I’ve done have so easily and consistently received media attention.

This is a form of activism that requires little to no money and access to minimal resources. The Food Waste Fiasco is a highly successful campaign for shocking people into seeing the truth behind our global, industrial food system and for creating deep critical thought and conversation.

Ahead is a guide for how to host a successful Food Waste Fiasco.

Planning and Preparation

Scouting out the Dumpsters
The first step in planning for a Food Waste Fiasco is to discover whether it is possible to pull one off. This is, of course, most dependent on finding high quality wasted food. Without the wasted food there is no Food Waste Fiasco.

In the dozen cities where I’ve hosted events, I have never failed to display a substantial Fiasco. Even more, nearly every city where I have hosted a Fiasco, I was merely passing through for a matter of days and was not familiar with the dumpster scene there. I believe that in any city of substantial size, a Food Waste Fiasco can be managed and in some areas with fewer stores, it would just require more driving to accomplish a successful Fiasco. Or if you are not able to do it in one particular place, you could explore doing it in another larger city in the region or beyond.

Although I have never had to do pre-scouting for an event, I would recommend scouting out the dumpster scene before finalizing your decision to do a public event.

Choosing a Location
When it comes to locations, I recommend choosing a place that naturally gets a lot of foot traffic. With this strategy, you won’t need to do any successful marketing in order to reach people with your message. Foot traffic is much preferred over vehicle traffic so that people have the time to really take in the message.

I recommend public parks and my general go to is to choose the busiest public park in the city. I generally set up on the edge of the park, along the main walking thoroughfares and within easy sight from a road.

I like to be set up on a grassy patch of Earth, but I have set up on concrete as well.

When choosing your location, make sure that you are not in the way of any traffic or movement. Blocking movement is likely to get a Fiasco shut down and with the substantial set up time involved in a Fiasco, it is not ideal to have to move spots.

The ideal Fiasco is set up for multiple hours so that there is time for many people to see it. So when choosing a location, make sure to choose one where you will be comfortable for two-to-five hours or more.

You could also set up in a private place if you get permission. University students have hosted Fiascos with me on university campuses.

Another thing to take into account with location is access to dropping off and picking up the food by vehicle. I like to choose a location where I can easily bring the transport vehicle close to the Fiasco location.

Choosing a Date and Time
I always choose a date and time when there will be plenty of organic food traffic at the location. For public parks, this is generally on weekdays during the late afternoon, early after work and school gets out or on the weekend. Another way to gain organic exposure to many people would be to set up outside of a festival, concert, or event.

In this manner, the people will already be there and you have less of a need to promote the event, or you may not even need to promote it at all in advance if you are strategic about picking a location, date and time.

Getting the Word Out
It is not required to spread the word in order to host a successful demonstration, but successful marketing of the demonstration is likely to increase your reach and thus your ability to create critical conversation and movement toward change.

I recommend that you be organized and precise with your information. Write out your content in a way that clearly and simply shares what you are doing and what you are hoping for from the people you are reaching out to.

Here is what I generally have done for every Fiasco I’ve created:

  • Create a press release
  • Contact the media, especially local news stations and newspapers
  • Make a Facebook event
  • Spread the word around on social media
  • Invite key people in the community
  • Invite groups with a similar mission

For media, I generally contact them via email, phone and social media and reach out to their newsrooms and general news tips accounts. However, another excellent strategy is to seek out the journalists who have reported on this topic or similar topics before. Any journalist who reports on environmental issues, food waste, food insecurity, climate change are worth reaching out to. However, because of the intriguing nature of this demonstration, just about any journalist can be interested in doing a story. Remember that journalists are everyday human beings, just like us. For many of us, it might stimulate a lot of anxiety to reach out to the media. But, the worst thing that will happen is they say no or they just don’t respond. The key to success is to play the numbers game. The more media that you reach out to, the more likely you are to get media coverage, along with reaching out to the people who care most about this issue.

My Food Waste Fiascos have gained substantial national media coverage. For those doing this sort of activism for the first time, it is not reasonable to expect to accomplish this without substantial work. By hosting multiple demonstrations and being dedicated to this issue, you are more likely to gain larger media coverage. By starting with local media, you build your credibility for the larger media.

I recommend using the success of the media coverage already to show media that this can be a successful media story. Often media does not want to take a risk, but when they see that a story has been done already, and has been covered nationally, it can help to get a media outlet to come out.

My media coverage is included in the resources section below.

Remember you’re not bothering the news and journalists. It is their job to find stories. By going to them you are doing their job for them. For many reporters, it is exciting to wake up and have this opportunity in their inbox. Share this opportunity as a gift. You are helping them. My experience has been that a lot of journalists really love this story and are grateful to have the opportunity to report on an important issue in a unique way!

Practice is key to success. The more conversations you have and the more you reach out, the more likely you are to find your stride. You have a very intriguing and visually captivating story, so much of the persuasion is already done, but dedication will still likely be needed.

Use my extensive content to educate yourself and create your marketing and talking points.

Invite groups with a similar mission. This can help to build the movement by bringing in people who are experienced with this issue. It can also help to build support for your demonstration. Offer to have them share about their organization and, if you are doing a larger event, to set up a booth with some information.

See:
How to Create an Environmental Activism Campaign
Sample Press Releases for Activism Campaigns
and the resources section below.

Know Your Rights
I have not had issues with police officers during any of my Fiascos. Location choice certainly plays a role in this.

Some cities require a permit to host a demonstration, which are generally free. I have never needed a permit for any of my Fiascos. One time in the Miami area, however, I had to change locations when the police arrived during my set up.

It is part of a skillful strategy to at least know your rights in the instance where police arrive. Knowing your rights is key to being able to confidently assert yourself and exist in a state of ease and comfort.

To learn more about your rights with demonstrating in public spaces see these resources:
ACLU
Amnesty International
Civicus Global Alliance

Dumpster Diving and Pre-Fiasco

It’s time to start dumpster diving!
If you don’t know how to dumpster dive, you’re going to want to learn. The good news is that it is very easy. You simply drive around to the back of the store and look inside the dumpster. If there’s food in there, you take it out. Simple as that!

But I’ve also created an extensive Guide to Dumpster Diving.

Hearing from many people on their challenges of finding food, I also created 10 Tips for Dumpster Diving Success.

Keep in mind with this guide that it is not designed for creating a display of food waste, but rather for collecting food to eat. Most everything in the guide applies to this, but there are a few other things to keep in mind.

I typically just dive for one to two days leading up the demonstration in order to have the freshest food to display. Every Fiasco that I have done was pulled off with just a couple days of diving, often even just the night before and once just on the day of the Fiasco.

How far in advance to start diving depends on weather, storage ability and what type of food you are harvesting. In the peak of summer heat, food spoils much more quickly. In the fall and spring, the food in the dumpster can often be chilled the whole time it is in the dumpster. No refrigeration or freezer is required to pull off a Fiasco, especially when you are doing all of your diving within 24-48 hours of the demonstration. The benefit of having access to refrigeration or freezers is that you have the flexibility to dive for more nights and longer in advance. The downside is that it is a lot of extra work to load and unload everything into a fridge or freezer. Much of the food simply does not need to be kept cold in order to host a Fiasco. My ideal scenario has generally been to store the food in a cool basement or air-conditioned house if it is summer. Ideally there is easy access from the car to the storage location. When dumpster diving the night before the event, I often just leave the food in the car to save time. Again, this depends on temperature.

I have accomplished all of my demonstration using vehicles. Although this could be done without a vehicle, it certainly limits the ability to pull off a large demonstration. Generally, my main limiting factor has been the size of the vehicle I have to transport the food. To pull off a sizable demonstration, I like to fill up a whole vehicle such as a minivan, SUV or truck. When I say full, I mean seats laid down and boxes of food stacked from bottom to top. A Fiasco can be accomplished with just one vehicle, but having two or three vehicles out dumpster diving to cover more dumpsters ensures a higher likelihood of success.

To be most effective at the demonstration, it is nice to go through all the food prior and to sort out anything that is not ideal for display. Much of this can be done at the dumpster by taking items selectively, but efficiency at the dumpster is important, so there is usually further sorting to be done. It is possible to do all of this while setting up the demonstration, but the process runs more smoothly if you’ve already removed any food that won’t be displayed and wiped off any of the packaging as needed at the start of setting up. Organizing the food into boxes with an idea of the display also makes for a more efficient set up, which is key if there will not be much support for set up.

The key to dumpster diving for a Food Waste Fiasco is to only take food that would accomplish your purpose of conducting the Fiasco. I generally only display food that proves the point that the food is still edible. Although any wasted food can be displayed, what I find most effective is creating a display that is so incredibly pristine that people have little resistance to the concept and instead are shocked by what they see. So, I am particular about displaying food that looks more or less like it would right on the grocery store shelves. The more pristine the food is that I am able to find, the more I’m able to adhere to this goal.

Organizational check list:

  • List of dumpsters to visit (make a goal of 10-30 dumpsters)
  • Place to store the food
  • A vehicle(s) to do the dumpster diving with
  • A vehicle(s) to transport the food to the Fiasco
  • People to help with organizing the food
  • People to help with set up
  • A place to bring whatever food is left, whether to be eaten or composted

 

Setting up the Fiasco

The purpose of my Fiascos is not to feed people. It is to create a shocking visual that creates deep critical thought and self-reflection. The goal is not to feed a few dozen people today, but to bring awareness and create change that can in turn create more food security for thousands of people with consistency. So, aesthetics is always the number one priority in the display over eating it.

At the same time, probably 80% of all the food I’ve ever displayed has been taken home by people who viewed the display. This is a very satisfying bonus of the demonstration.

I certainly encourage you to use the demonstration as a way to share food with anyone who would like the food.

Generally, I have had between two to five people to help with setting up the Fiasco and this has been an ideal number. It can certainly be done solo, but if you have a carload or a few carloads of food, this can be overwhelming, especially if there are a lot of people gathering before you’ve even completed setting up. I would ideally go into a demonstration with a minimum of two others to support with the vehicle, unloading and carrying the food to the location and setting up the demonstration. Setting up a demonstration generally takes about an hour or so, but I would generally leave two hours to set up.

The key is to lay out the food in a visually appealing manner. See my Food Waste Fiasco photos as examples. We have generally come up with the design on the spot, but there have been occasions where I planned ahead. If you generally experience anxiety and worry, I recommend doing more pre-planning. I am always so grateful when people come to the event early and help to design the display, especially people with an artistic touch. My priority is never too much artistry though. The food does most of the “talking” by itself and I am very precise about making sure the food is the focus and not doing anything that takes the focus off the food.

Laying the food out on sheets is really ideal, although most of the time I have not done that. It does make for easier clean up and keeps the food more sanitary, but most importantly it can provide a backdrop that helps to improve the visuals. I recommend the sheets being plain colored and all the same color.

Anything that is not going into the display I recommend setting off to the side where it won’t be seen in the photos/videos and where it does not create any distraction for the people passing. If there is a pile of boxes, I like to stack them tightly and put them aside, behind a tree. Remember, visuals are extremely important. Our trash is out of sight and out of mind for most people and it is best to keep the trash out of sight here as well. At least that’s what people will think at first, until they realize the entire beautiful display is made of food that was taken out of the trash!

Making a few basic signs goes a long way. I have made these with cardboard from the dumpster and a marker. I keep the messaging simple and clear on the signs.

As soon as you are set up and before the action begins, I recommend that you take a quality photo/video. That way you get the content that you need in order to share your message and don’t risk missing out if the event gets shut down or if the food starts getting taken.

At this point, you could also send the photo/video out on social media and send it to the local media to try to get some last-minute coverage.

Items needed:

  • A bucket or jug of water for rinsing off any food that could be used for visuals
  • A box(es) to place food in that is not going into the display
  • Sheets (enough to make a 32′ x 48′ area)
  • Cardboard and markers to make signs
  • Boxes and bags for people to take the food home. (Use the boxes you brought the food in.)

 

Hosting the Fiasco

It’s time to host the Food Waste Fiasco!

Although, in reality the set up is very much a part of the Fiasco. I rarely ever have been able to set up the demonstration before many people are stopping to observe and ask questions. The setup is part of the process and the story itself.

Here are some of my key suggestions for hosting the Food Waste Fiasco:

  • Know your talking points and be educated on the basics.
  • Have a few signs with basic information.
  • Aim to show and educate, not to preach.
  • Let the powerful visual speak. No pushiness is needed.
  • Be courteous and kind to all who stop by.
  • Engage the people. Take time to talk with them and share your passion.
  • Be ready for a crowd. Wouldn’t you want to stop and take a look at this Fiasco?
  • Address the crowd. When you see that there are people gathering, open up your space and address everyone that you can.

I recommend having the demonstration set up for a specific time frame and to then allow the food to be taken freely. For example, display is from 5-7 p.m. and then the food is free to take from 7-8 p.m. This period of seeing the food being taken is a powerful part of the Food Waste Fiasco. Seeing dozens of people from different walks of life is powerful proof that the food is still desirable and edible.

Make sure to keep the demonstration looking clean throughout.

Leave the Space Better than you Found it
Make sure to leave the place better than you found it. Clean up all the food that is left. Take all of the boxes. Check the area to see if anyone who took food made a mess anywhere and clean those up. Do not stuff the park garbage cans with trash. I recommend taking everything with you. I encourage you to compost whatever food is not eaten.

I hope that you have found this guide helpful in planning and preparing to host your very own Food Waste Fiasco. I would love to know if you are planning an event. Please email us here. Please also send us photos of your Food Waste Fiasco!

Below I have shared a list of resources to help with your education on the issue of food waste.

Resources:
The Food Waste Fiasco: You Have to See it to Believe it
Stop the Waste. Ask Grocery Stores to #DonateNotDump
Guide to Dumpster Diving
10 Tips for Dumpster Diving Success
Solutions to the Food Waste Fiasco
Food Rescue Programs – A selection of programs across the USA
How To Start a Food Rescue Program
How to End The Food Waste Fiasco TEDx
The Dumpster Divers Defense Fund
Food Waste Activism and Dumpster Diving Resource Guide
Food Waste and Dumpster Diving Resources
How to Create an Environmental Activism Campaign
Sample Press Releases for Activism Campaigns

Photos of Food Waste Fiascos

Dozens of people gathering the food to take home at the end of the Food Waste Fiasco in San Diego.

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