Food Justice Evolved

Photo courtesy of Raquel Panitz

Meet Gleaner’s Kitchen 2.0: The Genome Collective—a housing cooperative that started in the wake of Gleaner’s Kitchen, a dumpster-diving community food hub.


Two feet sprouting out of a dumpster is Maximus Thaler’s norm. He wears two different high-end socks that he proudly paid nothing for. His crown of brown curls touches packaged produce illuminated by magnetic lights he stuck to the walls of the dumpster. His pants and sweater are dumpstered. He made that robe, and, yes, he very well might be an actual wizard. In the middle of the night behind the grocery store, the 25-year-old digs, ready to turn waste into wealth.

In his ingredient-based cookbook A Curious Harvest, Maximus writes about the first time he literally dove into a dumpster behind a juice distribution center. He gathered thousands of dollars worth of unopened strawberry, mango, and carrot juice packages, on which the expiration dates were weeks or months out. “The clandestine midnight gathering, the foreignness of the distribution center, and the otherworldliness of the Dumpster [sic.] within it, the mountain of juice containers and meaningless price tags, the risk of being caught,” he wrote, was exhilarating. “I thought to myself, ‘I am never buying juice again.’ It took a few more dives before that thought turned into ‘I am never buying food again.’”

The Gleaner’s Kitchen in Boston

Maximus Thaler has been hopping into dumpsters for seven years along the East Coast, trying to recover some of the abundant truth that grocery stores have thrown in the trash. He takes products deemed unsellable and strips off the barcodes; stagnant plastic wrap tears as the soul of the food breaks free of its capitalistic binds. Alongside friends and strangers, he cooks warm, free meals. The “garbage” he foraged is in his kitchen as a source of nourishment that should be accessible to everyone.

Abundance is hidden by advertisements telling us we need more of the shiny and new. Food used to come from the land after people lovingly, hopefully, and sweatily sowed seeds into the soil. They worked, nurtured, and waited before enjoying a meal. Today we stroll into the store to find boxes neatly stacked under fluorescent lights instead. Food is biology, not a packaged product void of speckled beauty. Most of us can’t picture the original source and we don’t know the experience behind how the product was made. The current food system in America is stripped of the valuable land-human relationship. Maximus constantly discusses how value is not synonymous with price, but since most of our food comes from a business whose goal is to increase profits, it’s what it has become.

In 2013, Maximus launched The Gleaner’s Kitchen in Somerville, MA. near Tufts University, just northwest of Boston. He had grand ideas to host a space for anyone in the community to enjoy free dinners, art, and flowers. Their Kickstarter campaign raised more than $3,000 and the concept received national attention at Time, Boston magazine, and The Huffington Post.

But, trouble with the landlord shut down their efforts after only a couple months of planning. From all the press, Maximus achieved dumpster-diving fame and was regarded as a radical, soon-to-be hero. When the Gleaner’s Kitchen lost its building, a few news outlets were quick to follow up on their original stories, criticizing Maximus’ idealism. However, the mission remained alive in his heart, and he knew this wasn’t the end.

Now a graduate student at Binghamton University in New York, Maximus has had time to reconsider how to reach his goals. A major problem with the Gleaner’s Kitchen was that it didn’t have enough people to back it. In fact, in the initial Kickstarter video he said, “…money is the least of our concerns. We need visionaries.”

Step one: Recruit more visionaries.

Step two: Find a stable physical place for the ideas to safely manifest and root this time. End result: cooperative living.

Cooperative Living in Binghamton, NY

In February 2016, Maximus moved into a home in Binghamton to recruit more visionaries for the reinvented Gleaner’s Kitchen.

Rebecca Herman was a founding member of the Gleaner’s Kitchen back in Boston and has been vital in the launch of the cooperative as well. The 24-year-old student was beside Maximus through the rise and halt of the initial project, saying their philosophy hasn’t changed. 

“This time, we're building an intentional community of which food justice and dumpstering (sic.) is just one important part,” Rebecca says. “We are setting up the infrastructure for a self-sustaining community where all of the people have a vital and hopefully equitable role.”

Maximisms: 

"When organisms cooperate, occasionally they fuse to become a creature of a higher order. Go back 800 million years and look at the oceans and the earth. There were no sharks and no giraffes. There were tiny, single-cell creatures and they were swimming around and eating each other, out for themselves. And then something shifted. There were major transitions in evolution where you get these collections of creatures living together and it’s not useful to refer to them individually anymore. They started clumping together and became colonies. They’d share resources. Eventually it didn’t make sense to call the collection a colony anymore and we started to call them multi-cellular creatures. Organisms haves genomes: the guiding pieces of information making the whole which can be considered a living organism."

The house in Binghamton is an old Victorian with an attached three-car garage. Members of the house are referred to as the Genome Collective: one living organism who strives to be a sustainable and progressive entity. Above the garage is the “temple," a 400 square-foot meditation and gathering space adorned with rugs and flooded with light.

The Genome Collective claims the discarded food and outcasts whose beauty has not been fully appreciated by the world. They joyously celebrate that biology is not cold-heartedly regulated, packaged, and conforming.

Members of the coop are working to collaborate with others in the larger community. Kristina Klimek of Honey Bean Yoga offers donation-based classes in the temple, and local bands come to groove in the garage. Members frequently open the house to the public for socializing and home-cooked, dumpster-foraged eats. They’ve also partnered with a local farmer to start a mushroom business in the basement. Maximus says that, unlike the plan with the Gleaner’s Kitchen, they have sought out business ventures—like the mushroom farm—so that the house can generate its own income.

Jayne Clark-Jones says she has found herself in Binghamton after searching on Craigslist for housing collectives mostly as a joke. However, now she has become a valuable part of the cooperative and works closely with the basement mushroom farm—like using leftover coffee grinds from local coffee shops for mushroom substrate. “When we live symbiotically, we can all thrive,” Jayne says.

She describes a sense of fulfillment of being surrounded by people actively involving themselves in their passions, and also notes that the issues of poverty and child hunger motivate her joining the collective.

Another way the coop differs from the Gleaner’s Kitchen is that Maximus is now working in accordance with the city and the landlord. He says what they are doing is not within normal Binghamton culture and the group is likely to get some pushback. “It looks weird—a bunch of people living together, dumpstering and stuff,” says Maximus. “But we’re working on it, and the goal is to be a sustainable food hub.”

Know your agro-terms!

  • hydroponicsmethod of growing plants in water rather than in soil
  • aquaponics: a system where fish supplement and clean the water that the plant grows in
  • hugelkultur: raised garden beds made from layers of compostable materials

 

Their plot of land is approximately a quarter of a football field and gets plenty of sunlight but is largely paved. To grow food, they want to use permaculture design and high-tech setups like hydroponics, aquaponics, and hugelkultur. 

On the suburban plot, they don’t have much exposed earth to work on, so much of the growing will be done in containers. Eventually they would also like to raise chickens for fresh eggs, but urban animal laws will confine how they can optimize their space.

“Community is, in my mind, the best way to avoid waste,” Jayne says. “When you're actively involved in the lives of your neighbors, you know their needs and can help meet them.”

Be a Part of the (R)evolution

Rebecca seems to be pleased with the transfer of their efforts from Boston to Binghamton. “I think that there's a lot more potential for us to make an impact [here] than in an urban area, particularly one with a lot of progressive people and existing coop culture.”

In order to build a sustainable community and work toward food justice, the members of the Genome Collective are repositioning themselves with biology; it’s hard to imagine anything but positive evolution resulting.


Plan a Visit

 

Location: 65 Park Ave.
Binghamton, NY 13903

Check out the website: GenomeCollective.space

Watch something: The YouTube Channel

Read the cookbook: A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything by Maximus Thaler

Learn more about Gleaner's Kitchen.

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Amber Newman packed up her car and became a vagabond for a year after graduating form Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. She worked on more than a dozen organic farms in every corner of the country. As a perpetual wanderer, she's based in Minneapolis as a freelance editor, writer, and floral designer. She's an advocate for ethical and sustainable equality-based products and organizations. Her mission is to help connect all humans with the pure beauty of the land. Read about her farming adventures on her website With Dirt On My Hands and follow her on Instagram @bambwhat.