Bring less food than your (nervous) impulses tell you to bring

bunch of radishes

Nowhere to buy food? In the desert for a week? Better stock up on food, right?…No!

My experience in those last 24-36 hours before I leave the default world (and the land of retail, commerce and shopping opportunities) and head into the playa, I seem to develop a frantic need to provision and buy lots of food. My nervous shopping has resulted, over the years, in —

  1. buying way too much food,
  2. buying playa-inappropriate food (food that simply doesn’t work well in the desert conditions),
  3. unfortunate food waste (from bad cooler management) and
  4. unnecessary food waste (not wanting to eat back in the default world food that has sat in my hot tent or barely chilled cooler).

I can pretty much guarantee you that in your first year you will bring way too much food. Though you can learn from my mistakes, and those of tens of thousands of others who have brought way too much food to Burning Man.

How much food should you bring to Burning Man?

The short answer to this question is bring significantly less food than you think you need. I offer you can probably —

  • cut in half the food you think you’ll need,
  • cut that amount in half again … and
  • you’ll still bring twice as much food as you’ll need.

Seriously. You won’t eat nearly as much food (nor eat as often as you typically do) in the default world, plus you’re likely to get gifted a bite to eat here and there.

My grocery shopping list

Check out my grocery store shopping list to see how much food I typically bring for two weeks on the playa, assuming I’m not a part of any official meal plan. I plan my food purchases based on two main categories: perishable food and dry goods.

My food purchases includes food to share with people: a bite or two here and there, sharing a whole jar pickles, gifting friends bites of smoked mackerel. And I know/trust I’ll be gifted food too. It’s part of how things work on playa.

Make sure you can eat what you bring

Unused food (especially fresh food and prepared food) is a significant area of waste, and it can make packing your trash out a stinkier, wetter, heavier mess.

I’m also of the belief that there is an unwritten rule about fresh food brought to festivals: What is brought to the festival must be eaten at the festival. While Burning Man is not a festival, per se, it most certainly is an event requiring that we pack and bring a lot of food. Anything fresh, requiring refrigeration or opened, e.g. a bag of chips, needs to be eaten at the event, and I’ll count Exodus in as part of that event.

Good cooler management is key

Cooler management and keeping fresh produce from getting banged up or ruined in your cooler because it wasn’t packed protectively (or because it wasn’t cooler-friendly food) is another source of food loss, as is losing insufficiently protected food because it fell to the bottom of the cooler and got soaked in melted ice water. Been there.

To this day, I distinctly remember how I felt when I found two links of my favorite salami at the bottom of my cooler, floating in ice water. Not only did I lose a significant protein source I was counting on to eat (and wasted the life force energy that had gone into making that food), but I also now had meat that had to go into the trash, early in the week. Talk about a stink.

As one example of adapting to the conditions at BRC, I now buy a salami that, while it isn’t my favorite brand, it does come in a hermetically closed package and it can float in the bottom of my cooler for days and still be fine. Me? I’ll take that over food loss any day on the playa.

Single-serve food packets can help reduce food waste

Over the years, I’ve come to favor single-serving packs of food, particularly for ready-to-eat snacks: nuts, fruit, olives and other items. Throw them in your backpack or pocket. They’re great to have on hand, especially during your camp set up and tear down when the kitchen or your own supplies may not be available.

You can even purchase single-serving string beans nowadays, or sweet peas or corn. I point to these items because you have to rethink food consumption and storage on playa. There’s no refrigerator to put your uneaten leftovers from your dinner. (Gift that stuff right away. Don’t let it sit around.) Any food you put in the trash is 1) waste, pure and simple and 2) going to start decomposing and smelling right away.

Collexudus: know about it and plan ahead

While it is true that the Department of Public Works at Burning Man (DPW) will take some of your leftover food (and most certainly any unopened liquor), they’re not a dumping ground for your brown and bruised banana, or that last third of a bottle of juice you didn’t drink, or your yogurt cups that have been sitting in your sketchily chilled cooler for a week.

The effort to collect unused food and items at the end of the Burn is called Collexodus, and through it they accept unopened items such as beer, liquor, mixers, fruit cups, electrolyte drinks, beef jerky and any salty snacks.

DPW also accepts personal hygiene items such as shampoos, soaps, medical supplies and even pillows and blankets. Anything you would bring with you to Burning Man (other than things on their NOT list) is something Collexodus could use.

I encourage you to google and read up on these subjects of food purchasing, food prep and food waste reduction at Burning Man. There’s a lot of advice out there. Here is a starting point and an eplaya thread on the subject.

Radish photo by Damien Creatz on Unsplash

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