“The kind of society that would waste this much food is one that doesn't value the earth or the products it produces. It's in our own personal detriment to continue the process.” -Dr. Timothy Jones
Every year in America we throw away 96 billion pounds of food.
The Department of Agriculture estimated in 1996 that recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed four million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people. Today we recover less than 2.5 percent.
I will admit that the idea of eating food out of a dumpster was a bit off-putting at first, but I wanted to try it and see what the experience was like. I especially wanted to try it after talking to numerous people in a community I greatly admire who dumpster dove on a regular basis. There was a whole network of sharing resources - "where did you go last?", "how was the haul?", "which dumpsters are now locked or have been moved?". Dive expeditions would be planned ahead of time and the primary principle was to share the wealth you found. Rumors of finding twenty pounds of chocolate from Theo Chocolate Factory was a definite draw as well!
I first met Meatball during a day I spent with the Anake class as I looked for a wilderness program to enroll in. I then had the privilege of working with him during summer camps this past summer. During that time we talked about food and I discovered he was an avid dumpster diver and I asked if it would be possible for me to tag along some time. Thus at ten o'clock on a Friday night in August I found myself buying coffee to stay awake and picking up Meatball for our adventure and my education in dumpster diving.
We didn't really have an agenda, but Meatball had recently heard that the Naked Juice factory had re-opened their dumpster and would possibly have a large inventory so we set out to see what the haul would be. Along the way we made a quick stop at a QFC known for having lots of dairy products - eggs, cheese and milk. You have to be careful with these, but he stated he had found dozens of eggs in perfect condition just tossed into the dumpster.
Meatball started dumpster diving after watching Dive! right after it came out on Netflix. He started diving in Santa Cruz which was, in his opinion, probably the worst place to start. The dumpsters had cinder block walls and razor wire surrounding them or they were heavily locked. Towards the end of his time in Santa Cruz, he thought of cutting the locks. When he moved to the Seattle area he discovered an avid diving community and much easier diving territories. This renewed his drive and he began to dumpster dive regularly.
When you are dumpster diving the only illegal part of the activity is the trespassing. It is not illegal to take food from a dumpster, nor is it considered stealing as the food has already been dumped. The act of entering the dumpster, cutting locks or being on company property is considered trespassing and therefore illegal. The reason many companies lock their dumpsters is because in our country, people obsessed with suing someone for any little thing, have the right to sue a company if they were injured or became sick in the act of dumpster diving.
We arrived at the Naked Juice factory located in West Seattle and discovered a lone dumpster sitting in the dark. I turned the flashlight on my cell phone on and we discovered...
and sometimes you find very few things. However, he stated that whenever he talks a person diving for the first time they always seem to have amazing luck. Hopefully I wouldn't ruin his track record!
As we drove towards Metropolitan Market in Seattle I asked Meatball if he had any rules surrounding dumpster diving. He stated that he has three personal rules:
- Leave it like you found it
- Use Purell
- Do not eat directly from the dumpster
I would add to not go alone for a couple of reasons: it is more fun with someone else to share the excitement and the haul, and it is a bit safer. Meatball stated he has never been sick from anything he has eaten from his dumpster dive adventures and that the only things he absolutely wouldn't take would be things that were obviously rotten. He also tries to only take enough for himself and sharing with others, but some things he just cannot leave. For example, finding 50 or so $20 steaks.
One half of all food prepared in the US and Europe is never eaten.
We pulled up next to Metropolitan Market and parked on a side street. There were two large dumpsters that had padlocks on them, however, you could bend the lid and slide it out from under the bar and still enter the dumpsters. The amount of food we found was staggering to me!
Bags of bread, bagels and pastries; bags and boxes of produce; what seemed like the entire spread of the deli and salad bars; and other miscellaneous food items. Meatball said that to discourage dumpster diving companies will often dump all the mixed salads from the deli into one giant bag and it makes a giant slop of nastiness. Tonight we were lucky and most everything was in individual bags. We came away with bags and boxes of produce, most of it organic and in perfect condition. Meatball even rescued a bunch of flowers. We drove to the nearby Seattle QFC, but much to Meatball's devastation the dumpsters had been moved. It was one of his favorite places to dive at, but the dumpsters were nowhere to be found and we decided to move on.
Most food is thrown in a dumpster because a new shipment of items comes in and they need to make room on the shelves; sometimes it is thrown out because of expiration dates; rarely it is thrown out due to a recall or suspected contaminant; and great quantities of food is thrown out due to damaged packaging, bruised or imperfect produce. For example, we found handfuls of clementines that a couple had been nicked when the boxes were being sliced open. A sobering moment for Meatball had been when he had slaughtered his first chicken and then had gone dumpster diving and found all of these chickens thrown away. It was staggering to think he had just taken this care and respectfully killed an animal, and then to go and find a dumpster filled with these slaughtered animals with no thought to the cost.
Meatball stated that of the food he collects during a haul, he rarely throws any away. Most of it is shared, made into other useful food items or eaten quickly. For example, he's made chocolate bars with chocolate from Theo Chocolate Factory; dried banana chips from a huge banana haul; and fruit leather from strawberries which were not spoiled, but had been bruised in shipping. He actually eats better dumpster diving than when he buys food because on his income he cannot afford to eat the food he really wants to. With dumpster diving he can eat the way he wants to versus buying heavily processed, packaged food, such as pasta and breads. He also saves a substantial amount of money! He went from spending around $300 per month on food to about $30.
As we drove back towards the eastside, Meatball received a text from some friends saying they had made a huge haul at a local food mart so we decided to swing in. Our luck wasn't as productive as theirs, but we came away with some more produce which was in pretty good condition. I asked Meatball if he would be willing to try some dumpsters in "my neck of the woods" and he agreed saying that it would be fun to try some new territory.
A couple of things about dumpsters... Some of them are those big upright dumpsters with swing lids, pretty easy to jump in and out of if you are tall (like Meatball!) and not much risk of the food inside having been smashed to bits. The other type of dumpsters are compactors - they have products dumped into them and then compress it down to giant blocks of sludge. This is highly frustrating to dumpster divers as it makes the food products essentially unusable and unsalvageable.
The dumpsters located in the spots I took Meatball were all compactor style. The first stop we made was at a QFC in Redmond and the dumpsters were locked or empty. We did find this great sign... Meatball said that the only run-in he has had while dumpster diving is employees telling him to "get-outta here!"
We decided to try one more spot and hit a second QFC in Redmond which is right next to a Trader Joe's and we hit another mother lode! They had obviously just finished cleaning things out and closing down, because the compactor was packed!
Frozen dinners, fresh tomatoes, ice cream - all still frozen and in nearly perfect condition, no expiration dates and no visible reason for being in the compactor. We loaded boxes so heavily that eventually we had to make the decision that neither of us
would have enough capacity to store everything. Both of us chuckled at our nervousness over having watched too many horror movies and not wanting to reach in to the compactor too far. I will admit I was not quite comfortable taking the ice cream which had started to melt a bit, but was frozen solid in the middle. Looking back, I would definitely have added it to my box, but this time I let Meatball take it with him.
There are two phases to dumpster diving:
- Find it and take it home
- Clean, wash and sort it
- Share! (I added this one)
Our haul for the night included fresh vegetables and fruit, frozen entrees, ice cream, high end juice, bags of stirfry, and flowers. We guesstimated that the cost was around $500 worth of groceries. Split between us it would feed Meatball and his roommates for far less time than it would Nick and I, however, Nick and I did not need to do hardly any grocery shopping for nearly three weeks. Meatball stated that at times he has come away with over $700 worth of food.
There were a couple of negatives for me from the experience:
- Dumpster goo - the nasty, stinky stuff that sometimes lines the lid of the dumpster or is a puddle in the bottom.
- My height - I don't know if there would be any way for me to enter and exit a dumpster safely. Meatball could jump in and out easily, but my legs are far shorter!
- The amount of processed food we ended up bringing home versus produce.
This last one brought up a question for me - when do you say yes or no; GMO (genetically modified organism) or non-GMO; processed or fresh? If you find a dumpster filled with loads of packaged food do you turn up your nose and become an elitist dumpster diver or do you load up? Some other questions I had were:
- Why risk being caught trespassing?
- Why risk catching a food borne illness?
- Why choose this way to obtain food?
- Is it a choice or a necessity?
- If I can afford to buy the types of food I want to am I obligated to obtain my food conventionally or do I give corporations the finger and obtain my food in, what many consider, a subversive manner?
I do not know that I have the answers to these questions and I definitely want to dive again and see what my next experience would be like. I definitely feel this is a viable option for obtaining food and is a way to reduce the amount of food that enters the waste cycle. Since the movie Dive! came on the scene the dumpster diving community has grown substantially.
Why?!? Why dive? Meatball stated that this is the biggest question he is asked and for him this lifestyle is a choice, many others do not have the choice. Best answer to the question - corporate garbage and greed.
“Because food is our most primal need and our common bond to the earth and one another, it can ground us as we stretch ourselves to draw in all the interlaced threads—so we can weave a whole, meaningful picture. … With food as a starting point, we can choose to meet people and to encounter events so powerful that they jar us out of our ordinary way of seeing the world, and open us up to new, uplifting, and empowering possibilities.” - Frances Moore Lappe, Hope's Edge
Many thanks to Meatball for taking me on my first dumpster diving expedition, showing me the ropes, sharing some of his favorite spots, telling his story and providing his guidance and wisdom!!