Dumpster diver says: Trader Joe’s must stop wasting food
Dumpster diver says: Trader Joe’s must stop wasting food
By Jeremy Seifert / grist.org
Jun 24, 2011

For many years now, I have fed my family food from the dumpster. It’s not because I can’t afford to shop at grocery stores like other, normal folks. It’s because supermarkets across the nation toss perfectly good meats, cheeses, eggs, and produce into the trash every single day.

So I dumpster dive, which is exactly like it sounds: I jump into dumpsters, pull out not-yet-expired food, and bring it home to my family. Yes, you could say we eat trash—but it’s delicious! It used to be that nearly every meal we ate contained some “trash” in it, like a head of broccoli, fresh ahi tuna, or strawberries. With three kids and a busy life, it’s been harder to keep up the practice, but the food is there, waiting to be salvaged before being carted off to the landfill. Dumpster diving is the subject of a new documentary I made, Dive!, which will be released on July 19.

Grocery stores dumping their goods provide me with a free lunch, and the film was certainly a fun project. But the documentary showcases a huge problem—food waste. Every year in the United States, we throw away 96 billion pounds of food. That’s 263 million pounds a day, 11 million pounds an hour, 3,000 pounds per second!

All in all, Americans throw out a whopping one-half of the food we produce and import. This wastefulness coexists with a devastating recession and record numbers of Americans dependent on food stamps—one in eight of us, to be exact. Our propensity to waste has now reached beyond our means to do so, and yet we keep up the bad habit even while our neighbors go hungry.

As for the environmental impacts, a 2009 study found that food waste in our country accounts for 300 million barrels of oil and 25 percent of our freshwater supply every year. That oil and water are used to produce food that winds up in landfills, rots, and produces methane, a greenhouse gas 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And if you know anything about meat production, genetically modified crops, pesticides, soil degradation, and global warming, you undoubtedly have an unsettling picture of how destructive wasting food is—because you know how destructive producing it is.

Supermarkets stand out as some of the country’s worst offenders, but you wouldn’t know it because they don’t have to report their food waste. Most of the major chains crush their garbage in giant, bus-sized compactors, making it impossible to dive in for a late-night snack.

Some of the smaller stores, however, ditch perfectly edible food into dumpsters. The one I’m most familiar with is Trader Joe’s since it is, as the company’s motto says, my “friendly neighborhood store.” On many nights, my friends and I have filled cars with bags and bags of sprouted-wheat Ezekiel bread, fresh loaves of sourdough, packages of baby lettuce, cartons of eggs, whole chickens, and even a 12-pack of Irish Stout with only one broken bottle.

Dive! movie posterI enjoyed the fruits of my labor (literally), but think of how many hungry people could have benefited from that food if Trader Joe’s donated it instead of throwing it away. It’s why I started a campaign on Change.org asking Trader Joe’s to adopt a company-wide policy to end food waste at all of its 350+ stores. I hope you’ll join the more than 30,000 people who have already signed my petition.

You see, Trader Joe’s and countless other supermarket chains don’t need to throw out all that food. Rather than ditching soon-to-expire goods, stores could donate food to local charities, homeless shelters, and food pantries. In fact, some individual stores are already doing this.

In many respects, Trader Joe’s is better than most grocery chains out there, and that’s part of the reason I’m starting my food-waste campaign with them. It seems appropriate to start with a company that people assume is already doing the right thing. Trader Joe’s needs to take a leadership role on food waste. If it does, my hope is that other national chains—like Whole Foods, Von’s, and Safeway—will follow suit. 

People are literally aching from hunger in our country. The soil and air are gasping and withering, good water is disappearing. Food waste is a serious issue, an issue of ethics and justice that can no longer be ignored. 

As we knock on Trader Joe’s door and gradually move on to other grocery chains with far worse practices, we must also visit our own kitchens and learn what it means to value food and one another. Household food waste can cost nearly $600 a year—a damning statistic that shows how we’re all part of this culture of consumerism and waste.

This is something that we can change in our lifetime. Imagine a world of empty dumpsters, good food in full bellies, and regular people leading sustainable lives. We can make it happen.

DIVE! will be released on DVD, iTunes, and Netflix on July 19.

Jeremy Seifert is director of the documentary DIVE! Living Off America’s Waste, which has won 21 awards at festivals around the world. He’s currently at work on a film about GMOs. When he isn’t dumpster diving, Jeremy can be found in Highland Park, Calif., with his wife, Nuf, and three children, Finn, Scout, and Pearl.

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Dumpster diver says: Trader Joe’s must stop wasting food