Wasted Food for Thought
I've never personally done any dumpster diving, but I've eaten plenty of food that was headed to the garbage bin. My wife and I are former members of a "food co-op" which works with local grocery stores to collect food they were planning to throw away—perfectly good food to be discarded due to an overly cautious "expiration date" on a label—and then distribute the stash among several families. It was a great way to keep a lot of food from going to waste, to save money on our grocery bills, and to feed our family well.
It was a tiny role in helping America waste just a little less of the 96 billion pounds of food thrown away annually. Did you catch that? Ninety six BILLION pounds.
The new documentary Dive! Living off America's Waste (First Run Features), releasing to DVD today, explores the trend of dumpster diving and how much unspoiled food we toss aside daily (263 million pounds). According to the film, the U.S. ends up throwing away about half of the food we produce every year. All while billions around the world are starving or on the edge of malnutrition.
Christians like to use the word "stewardship" when it comes to our money and resources. Watch Dive! with the phrase "stewardship" on your mind, and you might want to throw up. You might gag at the idea of rummaging through dumpsters behind a grocery story looking for edible food, but that's precisely what the players in this film—including director/editor Jeremy Seifert—do on a consistent basis, often in the middle of the night, when they're least likely to get caught by police. But as one of the young men in the film states, how can anyone in good conscience arrest somebody who's digging through a dumpster for food—even if that dumpster is behind a locked gate?
The protagonists do most of their diving behind Trader Joe's stores in Los Angeles, which presents an irony for the grocery chain: Because they're portrayed as the best places for dumpster diving, the implication is that they're the worst stewards of their food. When the divers pull out literally thousands of dollars worth of perfectly good steaks, chickens, and fish from one dumpster, something is radically wrong. They try to interview the managers at those locations, but TJ's policy prevents managers from talking to the media on camera. They try to get an interview at TJ's corporate headquarters, but are basically told to cease-and-desist.
It's a shame Trader Joe's is the bad guy here, because in our own food co-op in the Chicago suburbs, several TJ stores were more than happy to give their expired food away, rather than see it go to waste. It's apparently up to each individual manager; my nephew manages a Trader Joe's in Maryland, and he and his store have excellent food distribution plans in place, benefitting local food pantries and the poor. Still, the Dive filmmakers ask viewers to join them in demanding Trader Joe's CEO Dan Bane to adopt a nationwide policy of Zero Food Waste. (See the petition here, and the letter here.)
So, why do they dive into dumpsters? For some of the same reasons we were in that "food co-op" for a number of years—good food, great price, feed the family—but also out of a sense of social justice and/or civil disobedience. And because it's simply a waste—and lousy stewardship, whether it's a grocery store manager or just regular folks like the rest of us—to throw away so much good food. The dumpster divers in this film share much of the food among themselves, but they also explore different ways to distribute the "rescued" provisions to food banks, homeless shelters, distribution centers—to those who need it most.