The plague of food waste: the culprits and the foragers

dumpster divingIllustration by Lauren Adamson.

Dumpster diving is exactly what it sounds like — it is jumping into a pool of trash. Except for this sport, you probably don’t want to go in headfirst, and you really want to wear more protective clothing than just a Speedo — though goggles may not be a bad idea.

Frank Bouchard was earning his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at the University of Florida when he used food rescued from Mother Earth’s (presently Earth Origins) dumpster to supplement his diet, as well as that of his five roommates.

Bouchard would check the dumpster every other night, but he said the process was hit or miss. Only once a week would there actually be something worth going in for.

His favorite part about diving was coming home after a big haul and seeing his roommates excited about his loot. Most of the items Bouchard recovered from Earth Origins were packaged groceries like cereal, cookies and other “junk” foods. He would also occasionally pop by a local chain grocery store to get veggie platters and cut fruit. The particular store’s name, however, cannot be revealed, because Bouchard knew it was not keen on divers and didn’t want any publicity to cause a dumpster lockdown.

Like Bouchard, some people bypass the front of the store for the scraps in the back, not only because it’s free food, but because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

According to a September report produced by Harvard and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), about 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten, and more than 90 percent of Americans may be tossing food because of confusion over expiration dates.

“Sell by,” “use by,” or “best before” labels, according to the study, are not meant to indicate the edibility of food, but rather to suggest when food is at its peak quality.

Yet Keith Schneider, associate professor of UF’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said companies are trying to maintain a certain quality level, and they don’t want customers to have a bad experience with their brands. For instance, he said if Pepperidge Farm extends its “sell by” date, someone might buy a loaf of bread one day, find it stale the next, and may never buy that brand again.

Also, companies may be afraid of being sued, Schneider said. A lot of the time, milk is still safe to drink way past the “sell by” date, but corporations don’t want to take the risk of someone becoming sick. A company cannot predict how a consumer will handle a product; there is a lot of variability to consider. In order to protect themselves, companies date products conservatively, Schneider said.

Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, has recognized the food-waste problem and introduced one possible solution.

Rauch is opening the first market of its kind next year in Dorchester, Mass. Rauch’s idea is kind of like Gainesville’s Repurpose Project; instead of materials, he is upcycling food. Perfectly good produce that is slightly past its sell-by date will be prepared into nutritious meals and sold at discounted prices.
Rauch’s idea is not new, however. While he will be introducing his repurposed meals in a more mainstream way through a storefront, food banks and dumpster divers have been living off a similar concept for years.

Michael Demers, director of development at Gainesville’s Bread of the Mighty Food Bank, said they get donations from stores like Publix, Wal-Mart, Winn Dixie and Trader Joe’s. He said they take food that is “dated,” meaning that it is about to be expired, but is still known to be good and safe.

When grocers bring in a load, food banks have to handle the food efficiently and safely. It has to be sorted through and distributed quickly to have the greatest shelf life for the individual family. Demers said they also keep their refrigerators cooler to increase the food’s shelf life. By setting a fridge at 34 to 36 degrees, rather than 50 degrees, you can get twice the storage life of your groceries.

Yet, even with the current donations, Bread of the Mighty is still short on food. The bank serves five counties, and according to an assessment by Feeding America, it should be bringing in 10 million pounds of food annually to cover the need of those who are considered food insecure. Currently, the bank produces more than six million pounds of food, still falling four million short. And of that supply, only about one million includes produce.

As well, there are obstacles with rerouting food. Roger Gordon, co-founder of Food Cowboy, a hunger relief group dedicated to rerouting dumpster-bound food to charities, told National Public Radio that it has been difficult to convince food companies to participate. Even one illness or death from rotted food could ruin a store’s reputation and cost them millions in court fees. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 may save them from conviction, but it won’t save their business. And though there is a federal tax credit for donations, some retailers don’t think it’s worth the risk. In addition, food charities may not be willing to stay open to receive loads on a trucker’s 24/7 schedule.

A possible solution to food waste is a reorganization of food labeling. The NRDC advises the use of “freeze by” dates in order to extend the shelf life of food. Also, making “sell by” dates visible only to the retailer would clear up misconceptions on the consumers’ behalf. For better consumer clarification, “sell by” dates should be replaced with labels indicating the days of shelf life after opening.

But until the system is changed, for those of us who do not mind getting messy, there is always the dumpster.