Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Individual Responsibility In Action

Career Visions #9

Trash Pickers'

Non-Violent Action

In God's Own City Creates

Snowball Effect, Resulting In

Thousands Receiving Food

During this season,

as we struggle

to make sense of the frenzied

post-Thanksgiving holiday

shopping season, and wonder

what our individual priorities are

and what we can do—

in the face of horrifying

man-made devastations

in West Asia and Africa

and the natural calamities

caused by the tsunami

and earthquake

in southern Asia,

and Hurricane Katrina in

the United States—

I would like to bring

to your esteemed attention

the spiritually uplifting

Career Visions for a Small Planet

from God’s Own City by the River:

The Trash Pickers of

Grand Rapids

Whose Action Contributes to

Saving Mountains Of

Food for Hungry People

It’s an inspiring story of taking

individual responsibility, using

nonviolent action to confront

several of our institutions on the

ethical questions around food

waste in a hungry world, an action

whose intended consequence was

developing a system of distributing

to hungry Americans

mountains of food wasted daily.

I first reported this story

in an interview article

in 1976, which I would like

to share with my readers of

today. You will find it below in:

Segment One--set in 1976.

I also have a report from

two of the non-violent activists,

Judi Buchman and Richa

(formerly Richard Chandler), on the

impact to-date of that action

over the last 30 years.

You will find it below in:

Segment Two--set in 2005

Segment One

New River Free Press, November 1976/Reprint

Lifeboat Ethics &

The Making Of The Trash Pickers:

The Issue Of Personal Responsibility

"It's a strange and uncomfortable world to live in when in the midst of scarcity and world hunger, people salvaging food are put in jail and the people throwing it away are protected by police, and courts . . . ."
--Kathi Byrne

We are all on LIFEBOAT EARTH; our resources scarce, our waste plentiful.

The Trash Pickers of Grand Rapids, using the techniques of nonviolent action, have confronted several of our institutions on the ethical questions around food waste in a hungry world. Their confrontation with Kroger's ended in early October [1976] on a positive note with Kroger's deciding to distribute food to appropriate groups, food that would otherwise be wasted because of legal and commercial merchandizing requirements.

The following is an interview with three of the more than half dozen nonviolent trash pickers of Grand Rapids: Kathi Byrne, Judi Buchman, and Richard Chandler. The three live in the abandoned Central City house that Don Heinzelman, Kathi, Judi, and others saved from demolition, and rehabilitated (see New River of April 1975). Interspersed with the interview are excerpts from a narrative written by Kathi soon after some of the shocking incidents of July 1976 occurred. (You'll find her narrative in the italics below.)
[--Michael Daniels, Editor & Publisher, November 1976]

JUDI 28 years/ 5' 7"/ blue eyes/ brown hair/ elementary school teacher by training/ 6 years in GR/ program committee member of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group/ she feels a closeness to Quakers/

RICHARD 28 years/ brown hair/ brown eyes/ 5' 11"/ 150 lbs/ 2 years of prison education/ 3-5 years of a lot traveling/ bearded/ has learned a lot of life in the last 10 years since he left school/

KATHI 26 years/ brown hair/ grey-green eyes/ 5' 5"/ 127 lbs/ native Grand Rapidian/ previously staff member of the American Friends Service Committee, presently member of its program committee/ one child/

The story of the trash picking arrests begins about two years ago. That was a time when it dawned on us that the Farmers' Market had some good produce in those dumpsters on either end of it. So we started there. With our awareness of how much food was thrown out there, we became more and more interested in trash bins. Soon we were doing a regular route of four Kroger stores twice a week. We continued it up until July when five people were put in jail at the orders of the Kroger Co.

Trash picking for us has been more than just a way to get food. It's a life style choice. It's saying that we can live off the waste of the food industry, we can salvage food to give away to supplement other's diets and in good conscience we can't leave it to rot to be taken to a dump. It's also been a joyful sharing in our household, taking turns going to the stores and bringing home the crates of food, six to eight of us working in the kitchen, unloading, washing, separating, cutting, bagging, storing, putting aside what we wouldn't use--to be given away, cleaning out the refrigerator and filling it up. Somehow, we've managed to do all of this together, moving in and out of spaces in our small kitchen somewhat like a bullet. It always amazed us that we never bumped heads.

NewRiver What type of things led you to become trash pickers?

Kathi . . . I was just thinking of the other things we were working on at the same time--working with American Friends Service Committee, living here, working with the soup kitchen that became Capitol Lunch on Bridge . . . I worked at a soup kitchen in (Washington) D. C. after that. Richard, didn't you work in one . . . ?

Richard In Baltimore.

Kathi It seems to me the things we worked with like--5-6% of the world's population using 40-60% of the world's goods. It seemed that holding all that and you have the huge waste of food--it seems to me we waste humanity in this country . . .

Judi . . . Knowing that we throw away more than what people use in other countries. . . .

Kathi We don't consider food as a life support, only a commodity.

NewRiver Do you think you, yourselves, have wasted food?

Richard My parents very much taught me not to waste. People starving in India was the example they often gave me . . . but, I never came to really understand that in an emotional way until I was in prison (for refusing to be a slave or to kill) and you found people were happy to be in prison because they could get three square meals a day and I made the connection about food being thrown away because they threw food away every day in prison (which had an inmate population of 1,200).

And a few years after that I moved to Baltimore where I worked with some friends in a soup kitchen and we collected the waste from the wholesale produce market. We also got a lot of stuff from the stalls. We were able to feed 50 to 100 people a day. So when I moved here I immediately fitted into what people were doing here. I understood and could expect it. Both in Baltimore and here, I have seen people, not really starving, but who could make use of wasted food, and I know it would be immeasurably less so here than in some other places where if some of these large corporations would make the food available overseas, it would help. I see what we have done--recycling food that would be otherwise wasted--as very much as political action.

NewRiver The question that occurs immediately as a follow-up is how far you'd go personally? . . . Would you consider your consumption to be wasteful in relation to the consumption in the poorer parts of the world?

Richard No, I wouldn't consider my consumption to be wasteful, generally speaking. I'm aware of the difference in consumption comes largely in consumption of meat. I've seen the figure that per person we consume 2,000 lbs of grain per year mainly in the form of wheat, whereas in some Asian countries it's 400 lbs. And the major difference here is that in Western counrtries a lot of meat is consumed. . . . Also people are used to eat more than they need because they have the food. . . .

Kathi I feel I do buy into the waste. I'm part of the waste, and maybe for me it's a difference in how much. I feel I'm willing to salvage food and use that. And I guess my awareness came when I began to think of the figures Richard mentioned about not eating meat. But drinking coffee is the same thing; coffee is a cash crop that takes away from food crops in poor countries--the land and resources could be used for growing food. We got the coffee beans from the trash, too. One of the other things that occurred to me is that our supermarkets live on the concept that the bigger things and the fresher things will only do. It's our mind-set that it's got to be shining and beautiful to be edible. It seems to me that that's the way people can deal with it when they are shopping--that the bruised apple at the bottom is not bad. . . .

Judi If the customers would ask for the bruised food and ask for a reduced price, it would help prevent waste.

Kathi I'm aware there are times we have found a whole bag of apples in the trash because there were a few bruised ones at the bottom. If customers would ask questions about them so that the price would be knocked down and they could buy it instead of it going to waste, it would help. But, it's such a big question . . . Where the seller is there, you can deal with it, but in the supermarket that's not possible, the bigness makes it so hard to deal with it.

Judi I also think of people taking personal responsibility on the matter--people saying, "That makes sense," and acting upon it.

Kathi That has happened in some places. I guess one of the solutions is to establish a system to take care of the problem before food reaches a stage where it's wasted. In D. C., I know of a cooperative which has a bin filled with food that was for free because it was old.

Judi . . . This other store that Richard dealt with in Maine . . .

Richard There were two stores I dealt with in Maine. One was very well aware of the problem of starving people and used the food for the poor, the other store wasted it. And when I took the food to use it and to distribute it to needy people through a church program, the second store started calling the police.

Through the two years of going to the Kroger stores, we talked with different managers and employees trying to convince them to give the food away. Nothing came of our efforts until last March. Judi Buchman and I were arrested by the Kentwood Police at the 44th & Kalamazoo Street store. The charges of simple larceny was dropped. (Who can put a value on garbage?) We were warned not to come back and the manager said he would give the food to an authentic organization that we could have contact him. When people from the Capitol Lunch food program called, he wouldn't return their calls. So we continued to trash pick.

On July13, 1976, Judi Buchman and Richard Chandler were arrested at that same store. There was no warning, the police just came and they were given no choices about putting the food back or talking with the store people. They were swiftly carried off to the Kent County jail. There was another place where there was little opening for dialogue and both of them refused cooperation on their individual levels. When Judi balked at the County clothes she was given, she was threatened with male guards to strip her and dress her. There was a lot of that kind of pressure used on them. Arraigned on Wednesday, Joseph Kelly came to their cells to hold his court. There were several reasons for that apparently, mainly having to do with the difficulty of carrying the two of them from place to place.

It's a strange and uncomfortable world to live in, when in the midst of scarcity and world hunger, people salvaging food are put in jail and the people throwing it away are protected by police, laws, and courts. . . .

That night, Angie Hoogterp, Bill Kellerman, and myself leafletted the store while six others stood with signs off the Kroger property. After about 20 minutes of good and exciting dialogue with customers, we were surrounded by five Kentwood Police cars and quickly arrested. We also were taken to the Kent County jail.

The next day four of us appeared in the Kentwood courtroom. For the most part, each of us agreed that we had done what the police had recorded on us and that we didn't see our actions as criminal. Joseph Kelly heard this as pleas of nolo contendere and sentenced us to time served. Richard refused to come to the courtroom as he felt the responsibility for his release was on those who had immediate acces to his cell. There is so much to say about the jail experience but Richard's fasting for 13 days sums it up--that it was such a loveless place it was not worth staying alive in there. . . .

After our release, Judi and I returned to do vigil until Richard's release. We were told by Kentwood City and County police that if we stood on one side of the sidewalk, we would be arrested for trespassing on County property, on the other side for loitering on City property--on the sidewalk; we had to keep moving. After walking for eight hours and fasting since the arrests, we were ready to try something else.

For the next nine days, we did something of everything. We leafletted; talked-talked-talked to Kroger's, police, jailers, Joseph Kelly; held two candlelight vigils with 26 people at one and 15 at the other; picketed Kroger's and the jail; visited David Burt in Livonia; walked from Kroger's to the jail--eight miles with signs and leaflets; and spent hours on the phone.

On July 26, Richard walked into the Kentwood courtroom, exchanged hugs with us, and then attempted to leave, as he felt he was finished. Since Joseph Kelly hadn't okayed it yet, he was surrounded by police and dragged back. Joachim, who had visited Richard in his cell a number of times, helped Richard in his attempts to get Joseph Kelly to leave his bench. Richard challenged Joseph's role and his right to the power he was using. Kelly remained on his bench but released Richard with no bond and with a future trial date. . . . Richard had a very painful time in the next two days trying to resume a diet his body was not yet ready to break. . . .

NewRiver What steps do you think need to be taken to change food waste around?

Richard I think the first step is for the legal system not to be involved in negotiations between us and the stores.

Judi In other words, not arresting the people who are taking the food and using it. . . . I think the other thing people could do would be to ask the stores if they could get food that would otherwise be wasted, and get it at a lower prie. But, I guess, people don't have the energy to do that because of large families and they don't have a place to do it. I know of one woman who did that--made it through the winter through personal contact with the store owner and checking out such possibilities. I guess the reason why we did it is because we had the energy and went ahead and did it.

Kathi It seems that if groups like cooperatives--small neighborhood cooperatives--got some of this food that would otherwise by wasted, they would be of help. A group of neighbors could work together to get food cheaply and also help to use the waste from the food industry.

Judi I think one of the things that Richard was talking about was food banks . . .

Richard Arizona Food Bank. They're a group of people who go around to various stores, farmers, markets . . . and they store the food they get in donated refrigerated space and people take it to needy places. . . . They have storage space in Cincinnati where they store canned food and occasionally perishables.

Kathi One time, I went to Kroger's and brought back 80 half cartons of milk. What I was aware when they said they were dated was that the store could plug into places that could make use of it. If the store is in a risky position after the date expires, they could make a call to places that need it before the date expires. A phone call could take care of that.

Richard Judi and I got an exceptionally large supply of food and we gave it away in this neighborhood. They could probably take a lot of food in this neighborhood.

NewRiver Besides the issue of waste, what were the other issues involved in your recent morally-motivated actions?

Richard . . . There's the issue of food waste and then there's the issue of Police Power. Our society tends to rely on the police's powers rather than each person taking responsibility for dealing with things and getting to the causes of things and solving them. They are handed to the police to get rid of it, instead of getting to the root of it. People do not look beyond their immediate interests. That's been the response not only from Kroger's, but with other supermarkets. In arguing with them we found they had no explanations other than "Get out of here, or we'll call the police!"

Kathi The crazy thing is that people were not willing to take personal responsibility. The police felt they were only doing their duty. One time a police car drove up to us in a trash bin and the policeman asked us what we were doing. I said we were taking out food to use it. He said, "Oh, I thought you were putting something in it." But when the store called them against us, they came to arrest us and they didn't want to arrest us, but they had to because they had a complaint issued against us. . . .

Judi The man that arrested us said this puts me in a heck of a position because I know there's a lot of waste. There was that righteousness, but he felt like he had to do his duty rather than assume personal responsibility.

Kathi That's what we found everywhere--we may agree with you but this is our job. We wanted to get across the issue of personal responsibility and people needn't just follow the (official) line.

Judi I guess that's the thing that needs to be considered--people, whatever they are doing, should take personal responsibility.

Richard Police had told Don Heinzelman that he had to leave the Grand Rapids Farmers' Market. A couple of weeks later, Kathi and Mark talked to a GR policeman who said they had talked about what to do if there were people picking trash at the Farmers' Market. They decided it was the Parks Department's responsibility. The police had decided that they would arrest trash pickers for criminal negligence unless they have a letter from the Parks Deparment that they could pick trash. I had a good feeling dealing with the Kentwood Police who could see the waste. I had a positive sense about the Kentwood Police, but a negative one about the Grand Rapids Police because they had decided to arrest us without talking with us and also perhaps giving us a a heavier penalty. I question why the people have to deal with that. They (the police) didn't do that when people were picking trash originally at the Farmers' Market, but after the (recent media) publicity they wanted to do that.

Kathi The sense I got was: "We are not Kroger's, we are the City (of Grand Rapids).

Judi It's a power game to them. . .

Kathi I got the sense from them that, "If you didn't learn your lesson on that little thing (with Kroger's in Kentwood), we'll teach you."

I feel we've learned a lot and grown with all of this. There are a number of things we may do differently in the future. I think we all have many more questions about authority, private property, courts, jails, poverty, coercion, and fear. It's been for me a clarification of nonviolence, stretching, reaching past limits I didn't know were even there. Seriousness. I want to find ways where we can do these things, raise these questions, point out the injustices and manage to remain human. I think we all are aware of that now though, and can learn and share and take care of each other in the time ahead. We certainly feel the commitment, both to each other and to the issue of food waste.

Segment Two

From: Michael Daniels
To: Judi & Richa (formerly Richard Chandler)

November 19, 2005 6:37:12 PM PST

Would you'll like to write a short follow-up to this interview from 1976?

From: Judi and Richa
To: Michael Daniels
December 2, 2005, 10:01:47 AM PST

Update On 1976

Non-Violent Action

On Food Waste

In Grand Rapids

Judi&Richa The publicity on the wasted food, the arrests, the follow-up did a lot to raise consciousness. And somehow in this process the director of the first such food bank, John Van Hengel, contacted us from his base in Arizona. At that time, some people were in the process of duplicating his model in Detroit.

We brought the idea to Vern Hoffman, director of GRACE (Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism). At that time, they had a group that worked on food issues.

They were not ready immediately, but soon one of that group, local minister Don Eddy, took the lead in bringing the concept to Grand Rapids, and Second Harvest Gleaners Food Bank of West Michigan (as it has since been named) was established in 1981.

We “trash pickers” figured we salvaged several tons of all varieties of perfectly usable food. Gleaners has multiplied that a thousand-fold, now distributing over 10,000 tons of food yearly.

Now, at Well House Homeless Shelter, where Judi works and lives and Richa volunteers, most of our food comes from “Gleaners”, as we still refer to it.

During 2004, we purchased 24,144 lbs of food that was sold to us at an average cost per pound of $0.14 which amounted to a shared maintenance cost of $3,294.92.

If we were to buy that amount of food it would have cost us $52,392.48. This is comparable to getting a grant of $49,097.56 without any paperwork, headaches, or reports to make it possible to feed folks in the shelter. Plus folks taking food with them when they leave, emergencies that arise, saving landfill space and the environment degradation that goes with that….

Well House is the example we know best. There are hundreds more, from youth programs to other emergency shelters to food pantries and more.

Check Out Judi & Richa's
Solstice 2005 Letter
In The Post Below.

______ * ______

You Have Been Reading In Part
A New River Free Press
Reprint/Nov. '76, And A 2005 Update

Copyright 2005,

New River Free Press International &

Michael Chacko Daniels. All rights reserved

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a

new and continuing Grand Rapids, Michigan,

Popular History Project.

If you liked the above report,

please be sure to check out the following

Popular History pages:












About the Editor: San Franciscan Michael Chacko Daniels, formerly a community worker and clown, and now a re-emerging writer and editor, grew up in Bombay. Books: Writers Workshop, Kolkata: Split in Two (1971, 2004), Anything Out of Place Is Dirt (1971, 2004), and That Damn Romantic Fool (1972, 2005). Read all about his Indian and American journey at

All views expressed in the interview are those of the interviewee
and not those of the editor or this website.

______ * ______

Solstice Greetings, 2005

From Judi Buchman and Richa

From Judi’s back window snow can be seen in every direction. Reminding us of this time of year, a time to hibernate and reflect. We’re in the heart of this time of reflection because it’s our December retreat. During this summer our bike trips included the wonderful Ottawa parks as well a trip to the Yankee Springs Recreation Area, all within a day’s bike ride.

During the winter, we’ve discovered the wonder of just being in Judi’s space. Being together, but also doing our own special projects as well. This weekend we did such leisurely events as walking to the library and getting a load of books and tapes (sound familiar?!).

Judi is working on an online interview with the Michael Chacko Daniels, who published New River Free Press, an alternative Grand Rapids newspaper, 30 years ago, and who continues to publish updates from that and much else. We both just did an update on “trashpicking” for his Grand Rapids history project (at

Richa is working on a justice rating of the City of Grand Rapids. So much of this retreat time is reading, connecting on the computer with friends and projects, playing games and music and mostly being able to wake up and not answer to anyone. The sense of excitement and relaxation over such simplicity is amazing!

In our county, Kent County, we just recently finalized a plan to end homelessness in ten years, and have gained considerable community support for it in the process. Richa served on the seven-person team (including two paid staff) at the center of developing the plan, while Judi was on one of the “project teams” and has been looking at how implementation might transform Well House. Funding criteria are already changing to support some key elements of the plan, so it may not be much longer before we see some of that transformation.

For Well House, in fact, we have been working towards that day for several years. Even though we know it will take some time, we want to start to live that future. For us that means getting a financial base that isn’t dependent upon homelessness, which is how we are now paid. So we applied and received a grant this year. Although our hope was that it would be for prevention, most was for operations of our facility. Even with that, it freed up funds for our staff time and efforts that keep people out of shelters. Plus some money to actually help with a utility or a month’s rent to prevent the eviction.

We recently joined a book discussion group on Marc Gopin’s “Healing the Heart of Conflict”, which has been a moving book for all of us involved. The group discussion is already getting to some deep issues for us. We recommend the book

For Judi her story is much the same as the last ten years. Her focus with her spiritualness centered in the Friends Meeting and her daily life, her peace work with the Institute for Global Education, and daily life at Well House Homeless Shelter. On the walk to the library yesterday, we walked by the Children’s Museum. It was around 10 years ago that we met with some of the organizers and our peace group. We had a vision of a safe place where kids and parents could come together when they needed to change parents, or a safe place for reuniting children and parents.

This didn’t happen, but the Children’s Museum did. This is a fun place that Judi has used to bring a parent and her children together with safety. They also have been generous in donating Well House an annual family pass so that residents can afford to visit. However, the need for other alternatives than taking children from families has been a recurring theme. In fact so much so that Judi’s vision for Well House after we end homelessness is a community living situation where families can come together with parenting and daily living support as they grow into healthy families without being separated.

It’s becoming more common for Judi to overlap her commitments so that we have the Friend’s youth doing service work here at Well House. We also have a sewing circle and spiritual time that includes both. Clearness committees are also being hosted at the shelter for Friends, volunteers and former staff.

We have both been disgusted by the corporate-owned mass media for a long time. Recognizing the major impact of the media, this year Richa led a local effort for a ballot initiative that would guarantee support for a public access newspaper. Many people lit up at the idea.

However, there were not enough people willing to give it high priority and we were unable to get enough signatures. But people keep getting more fed up, and now that the idea has been put out there widely, Richa believes it’s just a matter of time.

Meanwhile Richa and friend Kathy continue to publish SPOON, a neighborhood newsletter that has been pretty controversial, but that many eagerly look forward to. But we only have funding for about another year, so we are working on a grant submission (due by December 31).

After eight years on the neighborhood association board, Richa did not run again. This has freed up time for other things, and taken some pressure off. It is always a balance, working on various exciting and needed projects but not getting overwhelmed.

One new area of activity has been health care. Without dental care, Richa’s teeth had been getting progressively worse, with severe pain at times. After doors shut on the more likely possibilities, Richa started systematically calling dentists in the phone book, offering work or service in exchange for dental work. Nobody was willing. But eventually that plus other efforts succeeded in getting Richa into a program. A lot of work is required, and it is still in process, with two more teeth removed so far. Some specialized work will probably not get done, but at least eating is now pretty much back to normal.

This in part led Richa to get involved in a campaign building support for universal health care in Michigan. Started by a group in the Detroit area, Richa has been playing a key role in gaining support in West Michigan. The campaign continues, and is part of a longer-term plan to revisit universal health care nationally.

Otherwise, we are both doing well enough health-wise. An added joy is our great-niece . . . . Our gift to you remains working for a better world.