Diaries of a Dumpster Diver
By Shannon Lavelle
“You eat food from dumpsters?” I asked, with a tone of horror and disbelief.
It was August, 2015. I had just met a tall, handsome traveler at a drum circle in Nimbin, Australia. He beseeched me to quit my monotonous job sorting macadamia nuts to join him on the road. I didn’t have enough money, I told him. I wouldn’t need money, he said, if I stuck with him; we would hitchhike, camp in the woods and get our food from dumpsters. I promptly rejected the latter part of the proposal, thoroughly disgusted by the idea of eating trash.
Days later, he appeared with a hand basket full of beautiful, clean, delicious-looking produce. Having lived primarily off $1 cans of baked beans for several months, my eyes lit up. I asked him where he got the food, fully aware of his aversion to shopping at supermarkets. It turned out that he did get it from the grocery store — from the dumpster behind it. After the hearty feast we ate that night, I never felt the same way about eating trash again.
For months afterward, we went skip dipping — as some Aussies call it — up and down the east coast of Australia. There was so much food in the dumpsters that it was often hard to choose what to take with us. We found fresh watermelons, German chocolate cake and cases of beer. I was eating better than I had been in months. I dumpster dived my way through New Zealand, across the USA, and back to Berkeley.
I had become accustomed to finding open dumpsters filled to the brim with food. In Berkeley, however, I encountered padlocks, cameras, fences, and barbed wire. Such security measures, I thought, are typically only utilized to protect items of great value. Why, then, do local supermarkets use such extreme measures to safeguard their trash? Within these dumpsters lies a secret many grocery store chains would rather keep locked up — the quantity of food wasted in the United States.
This is no secret, however, to dumpster divers — people who salvage food and other goods from trash receptacles. I recently interviewed Lindsey McAuley of Oakland, who began dumpster diving after leaving home at a young age. The main attraction when she was young, she said, was that the food was free.
“I found out that there’s all this free food that they just throw away – like this good food that’s not expired,” said McAuley. “I didn’t think twice about it.”
Years later, she moved into a household where she met several people who volunteered for Food Not Bombs, a Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to nonviolent social change. She began to dumpster dive with her housemates, but this time with a different goal in mind — to feed those in need. The group salvaged food from supermarket dumpsters in Berkeley, often climbing over fences to access them.
“We would go and get just so much food, like the entire kitchen, the whole floor would be covered with boxes of produce — and we would even get flowers for the house.”
She and other volunteers prepared vegan meals from food they had salvaged and served it to people, typically members of the homeless community, at pop-up kitchens on the streets of Oakland. Often the line of people waiting for food would stretch down the block.
Every day of the week we would set up in a different area,” said Mcauley, “and there would be a line of — I don’t know — maybe 50 people on average.”
After hearing tales of this dumpster bounty, I set out to do some investigative research. I started off by visiting every supermarket in Berkeley to see how their food waste was stored. I searched every back alleyway and loading dock behind the city’s major grocery stores and found no accessible food waste. The key word: accessible.
Both Safeway locations, Berkeley Bowl West and Trader Joe’s keep their trash receptacles inside, out of sight of the public. These receptacles are only moved outside for municipal trash collection. Berkeley Bowl’s Oregon Street location padlocks their dumpsters. Both Whole Foods locations have trash compactors, making discarded food inaccessible to the public.
Next, I visited Walnut Creek, a more affluent suburban community, to see if supermarkets there took the same security measures. There I discovered open bins filled with hundreds of pounds of mostly organic fruits and vegetables, prepared meals, and packaged foods behind most grocery stores that I visited. Both Safeway locations I visited had several large boxes filled with discarded food, most of which was in perfect or near perfect condition. The city’s two Whole Foods locations left a portion of their dumpsters unlocked, where I found bags of organic produce, cheese, cured meats and bread. One store here was the notable exception: Trader Joe’s, where I found every accessible dumpster locked. Additional trash receptacles were guarded by tall fences topped with barbed wire.
Why the difference in security measures between Berkeley and Walnut Creek? The answer is likely poverty: poor people are more likely to dig through dumpsters looking for food, and sometimes they leave a mess. According to the US Census Bureau’s website, the percentage of Berkeley residents living below the poverty line in 2017 was 19.9 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in Walnut Creek.
While keeping dumpster divers at bay, locked dumpsters and trash compactors amount to more waste. The food rots inside, and then makes a journey to landfills and compost sites as far away as the Central Valley, where it releases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it decomposes. That food, which may have been perfectly edible, will never find its way to someone’s stomach.
The 2010 release of “Dive!,” a documentary film produced by Jeremy Seifert, resulted in what was likely unwanted publicity for Trader Joe’s and other major grocery store chains. Cameras followed Seifert and his friends as they dived their way through LA’s dumpsters, revealing the massive amount of food discarded by the city’s supermarkets. After the film’s release, Seifert launched a letter campaign asking Trader Joe’s to adopt a corporate policy to end food waste. He also started a petition on the website Change.org titled “Tell Trader Joe’s To Stop Wasting Food!” According to the website, the petition gathered 82,001 signatures before it was closed.
Richard Pilara, store manager of Trader Joe’s in Berkeley, declined to comment on the company’s waste policy. I spoke on the phone with Erin Baker, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the company, who likewise declined to comment. Baker said that the company policy is summarized on their website in an announcement published January 1, 2018. It states that “It’s been our long-running policy to donate 100 percent of products not fit for sale but safe for consumption.” According to the same publication, Trader Joe’s stores donated 70 million pounds of food to local food banks and other food recovery partners in 2017.
Trader Joe’s is by no means the largest food supplier in the US. This prompts the question, then: how much food do other large supermarket chains donate or discard?
I approached management at the other three major supermarkets in Berkeley to inquire about their food waste policies. Both Safeway and Whole Foods management declined to comment and referred me to their corporate offices. The store manager at Berkeley Bowl’s Oregon Street location was unavailable for comment and did not respond to my request for an interview.
I placed a call to Safeway’s corporate office and was forwarded through a chain of representatives, none of whom knew anything about Safeway’s policy regarding food waste. Whole Foods’ Northern California media contact did not respond to my request for an interview.
Due to the lack of information available from the stores’ management and corporate offices, I sought answers from an alternative source: a current employee of Whole Foods in Oakland. The employee, who has worked there for several years, requested to remain anonymous.
The individual reported that Whole Foods Oakland donates a portion of its spoilage — that is, products deemed inappropriate for sale — to charitable organizations. They said that the top three products discarded are produce, prepared foods and bread.
It is at the discretion of the team member discarding the food, they said, whether to place items into the compost receptacle or donation totes. Frequently, though, employees throw the entirety of the spoilage into compost due to time constraints, or simply for the ease of doing so.
Produce is often rejected because it does not meet the company’s standards for appearance, even though it has no other defects.
“A decent amount of the produce either donated or composted is cosmetic because Whole Foods definitely culls through their produce more so than other grocery stores. Meaning, they’ll pull something off a display or not even put it out for cosmetic reasons — because they want everything to look perfect.”
When it comes to packaged goods, the employee said that it is more common to discard a product due to damaged packaging than its expiration date. They do, however, remove items from the shelves three days before the sell-by date. Cartons of eggs, they reported, are among the most frequently discarded items.
“If one egg is cracked or some water [condensation from the cooler] drips on the packaging, we can’t sell it.”
The employee reported that at times large quantities of food are discarded due to labeling errors. Their primary vendor, United Natural Foods, Inc (UNFI), occasionally sends the store mispicks, which are products that arrive in mislabeled boxes. Storage space is limited, and unless there is room for these items on the shelves, the entire shipment of mispicks ends up in spoilage.
Storage space is also a consideration, they said, when it comes to food donation. There are days when no organization comes to collect products set aside for donation. On these days, said the employee, all the donation totes will likely fill up and all remaining spoilage will be thrown into the compost compactor.
Still, the source says, Whole Foods’ donation program has improved significantly during the time they have worked there. The company previously had a policy of donating only shelf-stable food items and began donating perishable food items only a couple years ago. The employee commended the company for this shift in policy.
Because supermarkets do not make information about their food waste available to the public, it is impossible to know how much food passing through grocery stores reaches consumers, how much is donated to food pantries, and how much ends up in landfills. The bottom line, though, is that a lot of work remains to be done to reduce food waste in this country. One easy place to start ‒ your own fridge. A study by the USDA found that U.S. consumers waste nearly a pound of food per person per day.
According to their website, the USDA estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted. Meanwhile, the USDA describes 12.3 percent of US households as “food-insecure.” These figures mean that while millions of people in this country go hungry, billions of pounds of food end up in landfills every year.
For the best dumpster diving in the Bay Area, join me on Monday nights in Walnut Creek. To find out what you can do to help reduce food waste, check out the website for the Bay Area-based organization, Food Shift, at foodshift.net. Learn more about the East Bay chapter of Food Not Bombs at ebfnb.org.