The Spoils Room
We see our share of waste at the grocery chain, especially here in the heart of downtown between the Laundromat and the pet store, where uneaten food goes out the door by the cubic yard on a daily basis. But the day of the clementines was a particularly bad one.
Barbara had sent me over into the produce section to restock the bagged salads when I caught something amiss in the massive clementines display at the end of the aisle. Working in a grocery store — especially one this busy — gives you a sixth sense for things that don't belong: a bit of liquid oozing out of a solid, a faint trail of rice leading somewhere to a messy, broken bag of basmati, and, in this case, the sharp pungent smell of burnt feet that denotes rotting citrus, an odor just sharp enough to grab the nose and jerk it in the direction of the problem.
The display was arranged with that particular meticulous architecture of salesmanship: the cardboard boxes, which are printed to look like wood crates, were arranged in a Jenga pattern rising four feet tall and about three feet deep, creating a Berlin Wall between the dry produce around one corner and the wet stuff kept in the coolers around the other. I examined the base of the structure and discovered the culprit at ground level — flecks of white and green mold had invaded what was supposed to be a pristine patch of orange skin designed to pique the customers' tastebuds as they walk by.
Official policy says that when you spot spoiled food, all other priorities fade into darkness, and the eradication of the blight must be executed with military speed. Like most large chains, the store operates in a world of hyper-reality, where all the food is arranged to seem farm fresh and all the shelves stocked to seem like product stretches back into eternity, even if, in fact, that watermelon has been on the shelf for two weeks or a few jars of peanut butter are spread across a shelf to hide the brands that are out of stock.
I looked around to see if any other staff members working nearby had noticed the pungent smell: Sandra was throwing bags of onions from a box on the floor onto a low shelf, stopping every few minutes to tap away at a cell phone she was trying to hide under a bag of organic reds; Joey, who keeps kosher, was standing near the meat section guessing answers to questions a customer kept asking him about ways to cook shellfish. Jessica, one of the managers, was pacing up and down the aisles with a clipboard and pencil in hand, muttering to herself and periodically scribbling, erasing then scribbling again.
I bent down and started the extraction — a complicated series of yanks, tugs, hoists and shoulder thrusts you pick up in the first few days of grocery boot camp. The box slid out but I quickly noticed it wasn't the lone culprit: I could now see its neighbors too had been invaded by mold, with some boxes now filled more with sickly green and white than the healthy orange. The clementine process was quickly evolving from a quick-strike extraction to a full-scale boots-in-the-mud assault. It was unclear how many casualties would pile up before the operation could be deemed a success.
Sandra looked over at me as I inspected row after row of fruit. She snorted a laugh to herself, grabbed another bag of onions and turned back to the shelf.
"I can see your crack," she said into the shelf.
I stood up, sighed, hoisted up my pants and realized reinforcements would be needed. I left and came back with two shopping carts to start the brutal process of counting the casualties. I tossed the first few netted bags into the cart but had underestimated just how long rot had set in: they hit the bottom of the cart and exploded in a juice bomb all over my jeans and the floor. I heard laughter again and saw Joey walk by toward the bathrooms, arms crossed. I lined the bottom of the cart with a diaper made of cardboard and continued. Barbara came over to ask why no one had touched the salads for an hour. I responded: "Because this," and held up a sad sack of fruit dripping all over the floor. She rolled her eyes, sighed and walked over to Sandra to ask what was taking so long with the onions.
Each row came down like a Lego fortress and each box removed revealed another one full of rotting fruit below it. The wall of clementines got shorter and shorter while the mess in the shopping got bigger. As per store policy, every container — even if it contains one slightly moldy clementine and 11 perfectly ripe ones — has to be tossed. Finally, what had once been a handsome beacon heralding citrus for snacking had been reduced to just three or four lonely (but still salable) boxes on a bare floor.
The Spoils Room is the destination for all bad food in any grocery store. The rotten fruit, the ripped bags of rice, the severely dented cans or the defrosted chicken: The room is the transition zone, the triage facility where the food finds out if it's bound for a donation or the trash can. Most of it ends up in the trash.
When I pushed through the door, Jeff was already in there, dropping a case of warm strip streak on the floor next to a stack of leaking tahini and rummaging through a container of cookies whose safety seal was missing.
"Holy shit," he said, crumbs spilling out of his mouth, as I walked through the door with leaking, foul-smelling carts of fruit in tow.
The Spoils Room gets particularly foul in the summers, when all the food piled back there waiting to be written off into the computer sits and stews in its own juices, often for several hours on end. This hot July day was no exception. The unholy confluence of punctured and dripping chicken, broken jars of pasta sauce, stale beer and moldy cheese gets warmed up into a foul cocktail in the trapped heat of the building, garnished with a layer of flies and the occasional maggot or two, who must be eating better than all of us.
Usually you'll find a few cardboard boxes stacked on the ground containing a sampler platter of spoiled fruit — as I pushed my carts closer, I saw two lumpy grapefruits, white strawberries and a smashed apple forming a wretched fruit salad. The official motto of the spoils room is emblazoned in black marker on a cardboard sign: "SPOIL AS YOU GO," instructing staff members to enter food into the computer immediately so it doesn't pile up back there. Most people will push a cart of expired product in front of that sign and go back out onto the sales floor, if no one's looking. There's a sink between the computer and the door to the trash room with a shelf of cleaning supplies that until recently served as base camp for a cavalcade of flies. The shelf is now bedecked with three unfurled canisters of fly tape, each one thoroughly pockmarked with dead or twitching fly bodies like some sort of ghoulish Christmas tree garland.
"Was this the whole display?" Jeff asked, surveying my caravan. "What happened?"
What had happened, I told him, was a foolish construction process with little oversight, ensuring the fruit at the bottom would never get rotated, only buried under for weeks and weeks by fresher produce at the top.
Jeff grabbed a trash bag while I started counting how many clementines we were throwing away.
The final tally on the scanner was staggering. The computer didn't believe it at first: the system automatically shoots an error message questioning the quantity of a spoil that large. But, we confirmed for the computer, it was true: we had just written off more than $3,000 worth of clementines, some 500 cases.
"Yeah, that's three weeks' of salary for both of us," Jeff said.
"Or new MacBooks for each of us and a friend," I said.
"Or 428 Chipotle burritos," Jeff said, checking the math on his phone.
Or even, as we eventually reckoned while tying the trash bags and hurling them into the long metal trash bins, enough gas money to drive the remains of the fruit back to the West Coast where they were grown. We could do it in three trips even and have money to spare.
The staff here are used to this sort of thing. We know what a box of spoiled bananas smells like from afar, how it creates a low-lying fog that smells like open baby food containers and rotted jungle soil. The clementines reminded me of the day last summer when I passed by the shelf in the back room where the cases of bananas are stored and saw a swirling mass of black dots in the corner of my eye. When I got closer, I saw a horde of fruit flies circling about what had turned from once-ripe fruit into a warm miasma of pudding-like mush. I had to wheel three four-foot stacks of banana cases back into the spoils room, never to even come into view of a customer. We go through so many bananas like this it's hard to even count them; most people just make an estimate of 100 per case and throw them all in the trash.
We can also dig through a pyramid of apples to find the severely bruised one undermining the foundation, and we know how to tell when meat is going bad (the plastic bulges and balloons as gas is released). Even the cheap beer we have goes bad, but in truth the only reason we have so much of it all the time is because it's ample filler. A tall storefront display proudly proclaiming the value of a certain type of cookie or cracker was probably bolstered behind the scenes by several cases of cheap beer, each one flat and strong and solid enough to support any product. The beer by default has become the secret building block of the store, except, of course, for something like the clementines, where someone chose to use delicate fruit to build an entire display.
It's hard to keep track of such an abundant product as the beer and sometimes the cases sit out too long and go bad, the aluminum cans developing a ring of rust or spotty mold on top. Or sometimes they're rammed by a cart so hard the aluminum rips open and you discover how rotten and green the beer has become as it leaks on the floor.
We pretty much know why it happens too. The building itself doesn't help, for one. It was designed 90 years ago as a city government headquarters, big and impressive and ornate, perfect for handling the cold ruggedness of municipal wrangling but not the delicate balance of foodstuffs. Hot air gets captured in the high ceilings among ornate carvings of animals and symbols. Warm smells circulate out from former office rooms now holding cases of apples; strange drafts enter at all times of year from cavernous boiler rooms and stairwells.
But much of the waste is human error: the store trains people to be overarching caretakers of the customer experience, not meticulous curators of food freshness and efficiency. All it takes is someone who will stock sausage that expires in two weeks in front of sausage that expires in three days. We once saw an entire stack of artisanal cheeses left standing outside the door of the cooler. By the time anyone realized it, the cheese was warm and congealing. It got wheeled directly into the spoils room, barely four hours after it came off the delivery truck.
Cooler doors are left open, Thanksgiving turkeys are over-ordered, racks of bread are found days later hidden behind some bags of trash, and all of a sudden a whole lot of that food you shipped in gets a direct deposit into the trashcan. Customers never even got to see the sell-by date.
At the end of our shifts on the day of the clementines, Barbara assigned Joey and I to take the trash bins out to the curb. I had asked her about how we could throw away $3,000 worth of product in a single hour and not be raising alarm bells storewide.
"Cost of business, I guess," she said, not unsympathetically before she turned and chased after a new hire named Nick, who she'd spotted trying to bang out a text message with his hand buried behind the ketchup shelf.
The hot mess of mold that laid waste to an entire store display barely made a blip on the radar upstairs in the main office. But the slow-building stench of rot is hard to register amid the daily conflagrations, such as, irate customers playing shopping cart demolition derby on a summer afternoon. However, that food sometimes gets a second life after the spoils room.
Joey and I pushed the bins up against the wall out back between us and the Laundromat. I caught a glimpse of our plastic bags from earlier, full of three grand in clementine currency. We stepped back into the trash room to get more bins but before the swinging doors even closed we saw the familiar nightly visitors emerging from the shadows and out of parked cars. About 20 people (known as "Dumpster Divers" in popular nomenclature, though the term is inaccurate, because our trash bins are WastePro brand, not Dumpster. I prefer the brand-neutral "trash trawlers") who rummage through the bins outside major food stores and restaurants all across the city, salvaging anything that looks edible. When they first showed up outside the store a year ago, there was an abortive attempt to scare them off using a combination of police calls and in-house security, with some talk of more extreme measures such as pouring bleach over the food or peeing in the trash bags. But the store has a reputation statewide as a place with ample trash for the trawling, and the people came night after night until everyone tired of bothering to do anything about it.
Joey hip-checked open the door and we slid the next metal trash bin out, discovering it to be particularly foul with thick waves of something old and corrupt flowing out from the bottom. Joey wondered, just a bit seriously, if this was the last of the big leftover turkey trash from the holidays eight months ago. We threw it against the wall closer to the Laundromat and took a deep breath. Instead of going right back into the humid trash room, we took a detour to see if the people who were elbow deep in our trash bins had found anything.
To my surprise, they had hoisted all the big trash bags of clementines out of the bins, untied the knots, cut open the mesh netting of the fruit bags and were now meticulously going through each one, separating the rotten fruit from the ones that looked — at least to the naked eye — edible.
The people who go through the trash every night are a mix: not just homeless bums, as many people assume, but also gutter punks, recent immigrants, quiet old people and other bike-riding freegans who can't or won't pay for food. They load their food into boxes, canvas bags, backpacks or bike baskets, and what they do with it after that is a mystery to us (wash it fiercely, we hope).
"Ah, gross," Joey said, and started to say something about bacteria to dissuade them from digging through the bags, but I put my hand across his chest and cut him off.
"Just please throw them back in there when you're done," I asked them, then turned and went back inside to grab more bins.
As we entered, the doors that connect to the rest of the store opened across the room and Sandra walked in pulling two more carts overflowing with trash bags behind her.
Joey and I shared a sigh, then made our way over to Sandra to help hoist the bags into an empty bin.
As long as there's food in the store, the spoils room's work is never done.
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