Interview with Matt Homewood: An Urban Harvester
Updated: Feb 26
Oftentimes when people hear the word "dumpster-diving" it's something that brings a frown to one's face accompanied by a mild feeling of disgust. Eating things from the trash? Yeah, no thanks. Let us give you a little reality check though; just because something ends up in a dumpster - it doesn't mean that it's trash, far from it actually. You guys are all in for a treat with this week's blogpost! Our guest is an incredibly driven and knowledgable person who proves the intersectionality of the food waste issue and shifts the perspective from the consumer, which we often tend to focus on with embellir, and shines light on the flawed food system through questioning the producer-side and management of food in the public sphere. I won't keep you any longer, get comfy on the couch with a cup of tea and enjoy the following minutes of reading!
Tell us a little bit about your background and how that’s set the stage for your sustainable mindset?
"My name is Matt Homewood. I was born in Paris but grew up in London with my sisters to French and English parents. I was soccer mad and spent most of my youth in local parks with friends. So, even though I was not that interested in local nature, I did spend a lot of time outdoors.
Like so many teenagers, it was Sir David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries that got me hooked to the natural world. After a year of backpacking across numerous countries in South-East Asia, I headed to Scotland to study Zoology at Edinburgh University as I had my heart set on becoming a wildlife filmmaker. During this degree, I spent a formative year on exchange at Uppsala University in Sweden, and I also learnt about the ongoing sixth mass extinction. So, upon graduating, I immediately moved back to Scandinavia, where I pursued a Climate Change MSc at Copenhagen University. One of the highlights of this course was travelling to the vast, mysterious island that is Greenland. My group’s goal was to study the impacts that climate change was having upon the whale populations living off Disko Island. Seeing the icecap and icebergs during those three weeks was something I’ll never forget and to this day drives many of my activities today.
Denmark is one of the most progressive nations on Earth and, in addition to providing students a small stipend with which to live on, Danish universities are relaxed about taking six-month sabbaticals. So, just before writing my thesis, I cycled from New York City to California alongside my friend Rob Greenfield and 35 other intrepid adventurers. It was during this mad adventure that I learnt about the Western food waste epidemic. From NYC to Minneapolis, our group more or less lived off supermarket food waste. So, for my MSc thesis, the global food system was what I focused on, as well as exploring some of the alternatives that exist, namely agroecology."
What specifically sparked your motivation to create “An Urban Harvester"? How did it come to be?
"Well, after being bombarded by the endless campaigns about making sure that I compost my banana peels and eat up my leftover bread to help society “end the problem of food waste”, I wondered: “Why is it that it's as always we consumers who get the blame for food waste?” What about the places that sell us all this food? What role do supermarkets play in this catastrophe? Are they generating any waste? What is it that they waste the most? How much? How often?
My mission was that, for the entire of 2019, I would visit my three local supermarket dumpsters every single day, dumpster dive what I could find, take a photo of my day’s harvest and share it with the world on Instagram. And that mission of bringing food waste statistics to life continues today albeit on a weekly basis.
For those who have yet to come across the statistics: the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that society wastes between 33% and 50% of all food produced on this planet. That’s between 1.2 and 2 trillion kilograms of wasted food every single year."
Food waste is undeniably a multidimensional issue, in your opinion; how should consumers and producers each balance the problem and take their own responsibility?
"Well, it is important to be clear that we consumers do waste too much food at home. This is a tremendous waste of money and resources, so greater efforts need to be made on that front.
Supermarket food waste is a complex issue indeed and in many ways it is a symptom of a broken food system. I have chosen to focus on this issue, as I believe that there are legislative tools that could help us fix the issue at the supermarket level, although it won’t fix the waste existing further up the food chain.
(All of the food above was found in a dumpster in Denmark)
Our broken food system hints at deeper issues though. In the US, for example, around 2-5% of the entire population works in agriculture. This is such a small fraction! The industrialisation of our food system and the rapid urbanisation of our societies have seemingly divorced a huge chunk of the population from our food source and from nature.
One of the best things I recommend to North American consumers is that, if time and money allows, try to sign up to your local Community-Supported Agriculture scheme (CSA model). This food can be much fresher, more local, and much better value than going to the supermarket, although it will mean more home cooking and more meal planning, which isn’t altogether a bad thing.
Trying to eat more plants, more products that are local and in season, to cook more scratch, more whole foods, etc. are all things that can support a more sustainable and equitable food system.
When it comes to domestic surplus food, if you have stale bread for example, cut the bread in cubes and fry it in a pan to make breadcrumbs. It’s always worth looking up how they did things in the olden days, when circumstances meant that people had to be far more frugal with the resources they had at hand."
We can see on your social platforms that you go “dumpster-diving” or as you creatively like to call it; harvesting. What do you think is the main reason that so much food gets thrown into dumpsters? And what happens with the products after you’ve collected them and “documented” them?
"It’s vital that we change our overall perception on all things waste, and this includes food waste. When journalists write about food waste in the mainstream media, many readers probably think that this is food that is near inedible. This could not be further from the truth!
Due to a variety of reasons, supermarkets are dumping out masses of perfect food on a daily (e.g. “best before” dates; blemishes; over-stocking; etc.). This is why I call what I do Urban Harvesting, as I am simply harvesting amazing food that should never have ended up in the supermarket dumpster.
After harvesting in thousands of supermarket dumpsters and seeing scores of Urban Harvesters harvest delicious food right across the West, it’s safe to say that there is something very dodgy going on with supermarket economics.
Take for example one of my recent and most memorable harvests, 153 kg (337 lbs) of cow cream that I harvested from just one medium store in Copenhagen. Those 305 cream packs were all that I could bring home on my bicycle. How a store can continuously dump out food like this on this scale so often is extremely worrying. I worked out that 3.3 tonnes of CO2 had been emitted from those 305 cream packs. For comparison’s sake, the average Rwandan citizen emits 0.1 tonnes of CO2 per year. So, just on one afternoon, a single Western supermarket dumped out products that had emitted what 33 Rwandan citizens emit over an entire year. This is a grotesque situation that needs to be dealt with urgently."
What take-home message do you want to leave our readers with?
"Cultivate a far deeper relationship with food. When you start becoming enlightened about all the different foods that you eat, you will likely change many things in your life, mostly for the better. Be humble and always keep learning. In November, I took a deep-dive into sugar and realised that sugar was not the culprit but fructose was. So, I have cut out 95% of all fructose from my life (all sugar types, honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.). The more I learn, the more I realise that I know extremely little.
By developing a far deeper connection to your food, you will likely become much healthier, our food systems will become much more interesting, and our planet will become wilder. Taking back control of food from Big Ag and Big Food is imperative. I’m just delighted that an ever-increasing number of people are coming to that realization too."
A big warm thank you to Matt, for first of all agreeing to do this interview, inspiring the embellir team and hopefully all of our readers! But secondly, for reminding us to look at the food waste issue through a wider lens. What can seem to be an overwhelming number of tips and directives regarding food waste today can actually be simmered down to simple and logical everyday reminders. If a modern world with cutting edge technology wastes between a third to half of all the food produced, it becomes more and more obvious how far removed we've grown from the thing we take the most for granted in the western world today; the food on our plates. It makes us believe that it's time to go back to basics, to listen to our conscience and think logically. Buy those apples even though they have small scars on them. The can of chickpeas that has a dented side will be just as good as the one that doesn't. And no, a carton of milk two days after it's best before date won't kill you. Lastly, stay curious and informed!
Don't forget to check out Matts website; www.matthomewood.com
But also on Instagram - @anurbanharvester.
We hope you all enjoyed this week's post! Stay happy and healthy! SFH.
*This interview was conducted following and respecting COVID-19 restrictions*