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How to go food-shopping with trash

Sunlight streams through the trees of Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, dappling a heap of bottles and cans being collected by a 4-year-old named Dante. Strangely, the boy seems to be enjoying the work, as do most of the people milling around him, stockpiling rubbish in the hazy morning sun.

The mood in this lush green space is not one of desperation, but of opportunity. In March, the city introduced a monthly program in which residents are invited to exchange recyclables for fresh food—spinach, honey, mole sauce—supplied by area producers and paid for by the government. Judging by the throng at Chapultepec Park, the initiative has been a hit.

People begin lining up at dawn, hours before the barter market opens. By 10:30 a.m., there are more than 1,500 souls jostling for space. A little after noon, however, the stalls are empty, leaving many would-be shoppers disappointed. “Why this effort and sacrifice?” cries Mari, 50, who lugged her recyclables here on public transport. “I prefer to throw it in the trash!”

Mari’s frustration is understandable, but her plight also points to a kind of success. The idea here isn’t about food distribution so much as getting people into the habit of recycling. The more who take part, the further the message spreads. Accordingly, there are plans to open more markets and attend to more city residents.

As the crowd thins, volunteers distribute bags of organic fertilizer to those leaving empty-handed. A young man named Moises holds up his bag, grinning broadly. “A consolation prize,” he says. —DAVID BILLER

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