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.