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Tell Trader Joe’s to Stop Wasting Food

3p Contributor | Wednesday June 22nd, 2011 | 8 Comments

A meal from a dumpster (courtesy flickr user daisybush)

By: Jeremy Seifert
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 as the name 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 had 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. My dumpster diving is the subject of a new documentary I made, called Dive!, which will be released on July 19th.

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! This mind-boggling amount of trash is what prompted me to start a campaign on Change.org asking one particular supermarket chain to combat food waste.

Americans—including grocery stores—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 recent study found that food waste in our country accounts for 300 million barrels of oil and 25 percent of our fresh water supply every year. That’s oil and water that’s used to produce food that winds up in a landfill, 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 most likely 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, fifteen whole chickens, and even a 12-pack of Irish Stout with only one broken bottle.

I 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 the Change.org campaign. The campaign asks Trader Joe’s to adopt a corporate-wide policy to end food waste in all of the company’s 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 the food that they do. 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 many 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 they do, my hope is that other stores—like Whole Foods, Von’s, Safeway, and other national chains—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 puts all of us on center stage in this culture of consumerism and waste. But be encouraged! We all have the opportunity to awaken to something new, transforming our homes and communities and, ultimately, our entire society into a place that values the earth and all that it produces.

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. Send a message to Trader Joe’s. Tell them that you care about the environment, food waste, and hungry people—and they should, too!

Jeremy Seifert is the director of the award-winning documentary “DIVE! Living Off America’s Waste.” “DIVE!” has won 21 awards at festivals around the world and is Jeremy’s debut film.  His current film is on the issue of GMO’s and is currently in production. When he isn’t dumpster diving, Jeremy can be found in Highland Park, CA with his wife, Nuf, and three children, Finn, Scout, and Pearl.
DIVE!” will be released on DVD, iTunes, and Netflix on July 19th.

[Image credit]


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  • Rebecca

    The local Panera used to donate their unsold bread to a local food pantry until their lawyers told them they were leaving themselves open for a lawsuit if someone got food poisoning. I think we need good samaratian laws for food donations to protect individuals and companys that donate food in good faith; then it will be easier to get grocery stores and restaurants to donate rather than throw away.

  • Jose

    I have worked for three Trader Joe’s and all of them donate everything they can to an organization that comes by and picks up the food. Anything that goes into the trash is stuff they will not accept for various reasons. If this is not done company wide, that is sad, but it might just be that logistically there is no certified organization that is willing to come by and get the food.

    Also, if you have the money to buy the food, then do so. Isn’t the fact that you are not buying it, only causing more of it to be donated or thrown out because it hits it’s expiration or sale date. Maybe by dumster diving and not going into the store to buy the food, you are only adding to the problem.

    At our Trader Joe’s any food that ends up in the dumpster or compost, is stuff that would not be safe to sell people or donate.

    I’m also a past dumpster diver, and I see a great need to connect stores with organizations that can distribute food that is no longer sellable. Maybe your campaign will do some good…

  • Deelicious

    Love the idea about how the gmo factor is coming about in your next film. People need to realize how vitamins nutrients we need can be banned within a few strokes. Gmo food is the worst. Its so bad the contamination is horrible. The people that make “round up” are one of the players damaging things.

    Please notated how the population is dependent on maybe 6 agriculture companies that can have us by the balls and all want to go the gmo route. Gmo = cancer and bad for you. I will check this film out and hope its not so sugarcoated if you will to be politically correct…

  • kevin

    I have worked for Wholefoods for many years, our store donates whatever food is still edible to the food bank, any other food waste is composted and only a small amount is left in the dumpster, (we have one small dumpster, 3 large compost bins and one large shelf for food bank. BEWARE OF THE FOOD IN THE DUMPSTER IT IS NOT SAFE FOR CONSUMPTION. If you are eating or sharing from dumpsters you are taking your life in your own hands. We put rotted foods, raw meat bones and blood as well as bathroom trash including used feminie products into the dumpster. We clean our our drains and grease traps and some of that goes in the trash. When rodents are caught in traps, it goes in the dumpster. Also, all dumpsters are infested with flies, there is no refrigertation so food born illness can mulitply, litterally into the billions of cells in just a couple fo hours. You are just asking for trouble with this behaivior. Beware, peace, Kevin

  • Ineke

    The most food is wasted thrue the animal products use,
    The production of meat takes 6 to 36 pounds of vegetable food,
    and 50 to a 100 times more water.
    And aprox. 25%of greenhouse gasses comes from cattlefarming
    Vegan food is better for people, animals and the environment.
    of all the food wasted perfect compost can be made for vegan agriculture.
    Go vegan
    http://www.Meatlessmonday.com
    http://www.veganorganic.net
    http://www.vegansociety.com

  • Andrew

    I have worked for Trader Joe’s for a few years now and I can say that Trader Joe’s does everything it can to give the extra food to charities. Every morning we donate the edible to two different charities. This article is incorrect.

  • Daria

    I have been picking up write offs since 2004 from a local Whole Foods for local church run food banks. It is not true that everything is either composted or donated and very little goes into the dumpster. I see the signs posted around the back and in receiving about reusing, composting, or recycling,but it all depends on the attitude of the Team Leaders and Store Personnel. Every time there is a change in Personnel I have to jump through hoops to continue to pick up.Right now, if I can’t get there before 2pm when receiving closes, it goes in the dumpster. I can get there before 2 and be told by say, the person working in dairy, that they don’t have time to write it off while I watch them stand around gabbing. I have to leave by 2 and if they write it off after that, it goes in the dumpster. I have gotten approval from upper management to pick it up only to have lower store employees thwart me because they are jealous and would like to take it home themselves but it is against store policy because it could encourage store personnel to label something as damaged in order to take it home. I see store personnel take it home anyway by hiding it under their coats or putting it in their purse. I have also watched store personnel toss tons of flowers and plants (especially after the holidays) into the dumpster rather than composting them and also say no to me taking them to nursing homes. Then you have the other side where the food banks, which are run mainly by middle class volunteers, reject donations that are perfectly good because they or their insurance companies are worried about the sale by dates. Take milk, for example, where I have had dairy delivery drivers tell me that milk is good for 10 days past it’s sale by date, but the food bank doesn’t want it if it’s on or one or two days past the sale by date. They confuse sale by with expiration dates. Chips, rice, or pasta do not immediately go bad on those dates but they won’t take it.  I have four boxes of grocery items today in my car that the food bank rejected. So I get a lot of free food. I have never gotten sick.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielDickey Daniel Dickey

    Saw the documentary. Awesome stuff!

    http://www.DanielDickey.com