I went dumpster diving Thursday night.
I got the idea for this blog from Jeremy Seifert’s documentary “Dive!” In his documentary, the Los Angeles “diver” traces the system of food waste in America and examines how anyone could go hungry in the richest country in the world. Over the course of the film, he found that a lot of good food was ending up in the trash instead of at food banks. After watching “Dive!” I felt motivated to do some independent investigation in my hometown. I wanted to see the food waste for myself.
The Lehigh Valley is a farmer’s market community hosting a number of weekly markets for regional farmers (the Easton Farmer’s Market, which takes place every Saturday year-round, has been running since before America was a country). But the Lehigh Valley also has a growing population and an expanding network of chain grocery stores competing for people’s grocery money. The Valley offers food stores such as Giant, Weis, Redner’s Warehouse Market, Aldi’s, Bottom Dollar Foods, Wegman’s, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target, BJ’s Warehouse and Stop n’ Shop – sometimes around the corner from one another.
My friend Val picked my brother, Jake, and I up from our apartment at 11 p.m. We’d all seen the documentary and wanted to see whether Jeremy’s depiction was accurate – we just weren’t sure it was late enough.
One of the biggest problems with dumpster diving is light. It’s inescapable. And, since the streetlamp was invented it’s brought more people out at night for longer. The suburbs are well lit and our small Easton and Bethlehem shine brighter. In some parking lots the lights bleach the pavement. Most of the time there is no one sitting inside the dark car, but every so often Jake or Val pointed out someone lurking nearby. At one store we caught the attention of idling truck drivers and drove away without stopping to check the dumpster.
Our first stop was Panera Bread, a delightfully isolated store with dumpsters enclosed behind chain link fencing. Jake went first to scout. After a minute he hopped the fence and disappeared. Curious, I followed.
The fence, taller than me, was daunting. Jake was already leaning into one of the dumpsters and I was anxious to avoid being spotted. I walked around the fence’s perimeter to find the best way in. Then I returned to the gate and flipped the latch. The gate wasn’t locked.
We hauled several long baguettes and sliced loaves before leaving the rest for the garbage truck. It wasn’t glamorous. In fact, between the coffee grounds and moist napkins, some of the bags we opened were downright gross. I would call it a success, though. All told, we visited two Panera stores that night and made away with enough sandwich bread for the month split two ways.
Our food system has no concept of waste reduction. If one avocado in the bag goes soft the store throws all five out. One egg breaks and they toss the carton. Dairy approaches its “best by” date and is snapped off the shelves faster than the last box of Twinkies. Common sense would prevent the waste, but America’s food system runs on efficiency, not conservancy.
All the large grocery stores we visited that night used industrial-strength food compactors. We drove around the Lehigh Valley most of the night in search of a store that still used dumpsters. The drive took us west to Airport Road and back east to Phillipsburg. Most of it was aimless hunting fueled by excitement and – in my case – 36 ounces of caffeine from the day before.
After stopping at D&D for a quick midnight snack of jellied doughnuts we hit the road again looking for smaller stores. Finally, we hit the jackpot.
I don’t have any pictures of Val balancing on the edge of a full trash bin or evidence that Jacob ever did disappear headfirst into a half-empty dumpster to rescue potatoes. We were too busy bagging groceries to take pictures, so I can’t prove that I ever stood in a dumpster with my brother sorting through bags of discarded apples and pears by flashlight.
But I can tell you that my dish drainer was brimming that night.
I can tell you that I ate generic Cap’n Crunch and yogurt for breakfast the next four days.
And I can tell you that I ate so many potato-zucchini dishes that I’ll never get the flu again.
If you want to go late night food shopping, I have a few commonsense tips for you:
No. 1 The trick is to wear dark clothes
No. 2 Be sparing with your flashlight.
No. 3 BYOB (Bring your own bags)!!!
No. 4 Don’t make a mess. That’s just rude.
No. 5 Oh, don’t break and enter. Trespassing is a no-no.