Dumpster Diving, Gleaning and Following the Rules

A friend in South Carolina during my undergraduate years was a dumpster diver, that is, he would peruse grocery store dumpsters for salvageable food that had been thrown out. He took this behavior one step further on campus, when he decided to take advantage of what students discarded in the cafeteria. I don’t think I ever saw him buy a whole meal, but I definitely saw him being scolded by cafeteria employees as he plucked the occasional uneaten fruit or vegetable from an abandoned tray. The point he was making was powerful and I admired him for it, but as a human wired to worry about spoiled and/or bacteria laden food affecting my health, not to mention stigma, I refrained from joining him. (This same guy was involved in Food Not Bombs and joined me for the annual School of the Americas protest. In his company, there was never a dull moment.)

I’m not sure where that same friend is now, if he’s still diving or if he ever got food poisoning, but almost 10 years later, I found myself standing in the kitchen of Bread for the City, a DC based non-profit, learning about ‘gleaning,’ or recovering food from locations where it would otherwise go unused. This organization is one of several that is combating the issue of food waste, theoretically making dumpster diving obsolete. For now, their framework and resources allow them to collect only excess produce from farmers’ markets, but many other organizations have made a real difference in grocery store waste by forming agreements that allow them to glean foods that would otherwise have to be thrown away due to stringent food safety standards.

Technically, dumpster diving is not illegal. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in California vs. Greenwood that discarded items fall under public domain. However, if a dumpster is against a building or behind a fence marked “no trespassing” the owner is legally entitled to ask anyone examining its contents to leave. Dumpster divers, or “freegans,” (a combination of the words free and vegan, though not all divers subscribe to a vegan lifestyle) may choose to engage in this activity for a variety of reasons, ranging from their own economic status, to environmental awareness, to the desire to make a political statement. A principal motivation for many divers is the reduction of food waste.

According to CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), “Roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption, about 1.3 billion tons per year, gets lost or wasted globally” and studies show that “40 to 50 percent of all food ready for harvest in the United States never gets eaten.” A large percentage of our nation’s food resources are lost in two places: in fields (pre-consumer) and grocery stores (post-consumer). On farms, mechanical harvesting misses a lot of produce. Sometimes, fruits and vegetables simply aren’t “attractive” (perfectly uniform and spot-free) enough to qualify for grocery store shelves and thus are worth next to nothing to farmers. The result is that 96 billion pounds of food is wasted annually before it even reaches prospective consumers.

The good news: gleaning can happen at the farm or retail level and a diverse coalition of individuals, nonprofits and even corporate enterprises have teamed up to reduce food waste with encouraging results. Albertsons grocery stores have received high praise for corporate responsibility due to the food recovery efforts of their Fresh Rescue program, referencing the Good Samaritan Act in response to questions about liability. Other organizations, including Society of St. Andrew4, Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton (OFRE) and Inter-faith Food Shuttle, focus on food wasted in the fields, gleaning fruits and vegetables to redistribute throughout nearby communities. In Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley Food Bank is a key player in food rescue, by collecting and redistributing excess food items, as well as providing hot meals at the Community Café and for after-school programs. Regardless of your inclination toward or aversion to the idea of assembling a meal from a dumpster, there are opportunities for all individuals concerned with reducing food waste to become a part of the solution.

There are many ways that you, the shopper, can help your supermarket cut waste so that perfectly edible food does not end up in the dumpster:

  • Urge your supermarket to donate to a local food bank.

  • Do not automatically disqualify a food product based on its sell-by date. Use your best judgment to decide which items might be appropriate to consume past this date.

  • Take advantage of sales. My favorite in town is Town and Country’s reduced produce section.

  • Shop thoughtfully! If you put something in a bag and choose not to buy it, the store will most likely dispose of the item to avoid contamination.