Did I See You in the Dumpster?

You’re either going to think we’re super icky or super cool after reading this post. Whichever you choose, know this…everything I’m about to tell you could have easily been prevented or better yet, could have positively impacted a lot more than just the 6 people mentioned in the story.

First, a little background…

Angie and I have a huge issue with food waste. It’s probably the one thing we think about more than minimalism. Last year, watching my mom’s neighbor let his garden rot on the vine drove us so crazy that we jumped the fence nearly every day to rescue tomatoes. Finally, my mom asked them if we could just harvest the remaining crops ourselves.

And that’s just one episode of our vigilance against food waste. We’ve been known in the past to bring home bags of other people’s popcorn from a baseball game to feed the ducks. Several times we’ve driven 25+ miles to pick up leftover pizzas and party trays after an office party at my mom’s work. We’ve picked pears, apples, and peaches off the ground in our neighborhood (sometimes right out of people’s yards!). We even stopped to pick up an onion once that was rolling away from a produce store parking lot.

We had just never crossed the line into dumpster diving. Until now.

Last year we watched a documentary called Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. It’s about a couple who spend 6 months living only on wasted food – a lot of which comes from dumpsters. At the time, I remember thinking to myself, “That’s all well and good but you’d be hard-pressed to find a dumpster worthy of diving into in this town.” Well, I was wrong…

potatoesonionsLast Friday, Angie walked over to Walmart to return a RedBox movie. There’s a short cut through the woods that spits you out behind a small grocery store in the strip mall next to Walmart. We’ve taken it dozens of times but never paid much attention to the dumpster. That day, Angie caught sight of a man in a van rummaging through a box on the ground by the dumpster. Curiosity got the better of her and she went over to have a look for herself (after he left, of course). Lo and behold, what did she find? A whole lot of really good produce! Since she didn’t have a bag (or a jacket with pockets), she grabbed a handful of potatoes and 2 red onions.

foundeggsThe next day, she took me to see what she’d found. It looked as if the dumpster had been recently dumped but we did manage to rescue 3 zucchinis. On our regular Sunday morning walk, we stopped by again – this time with a bag. We brought home 3 dozen eggs. Instead of reshuffling the cartons to replace the broken ones, the store simply tosses the entire carton. There were dozens more eggs remaining but we had only one bag. On Tuesday, again while taking our regular walk, we stopped by with 2 bags.

Up until this point, we had kind of thought of it as an adventure. We were rescuing a few little things from the dumpster – things that we would definitely make use of. But on Tuesday, what we found gave us great pause. The dumpster was filled with pineapples, corn, celery, broccoli, apples, and MEAT! There were no less than 4 banana boxes full of meat, including bacon and what had to be a 10 pound pork roast. It was sickening.

40% of the food produced in America goes uneaten. In fact, the amount of food wasted in just one day is more than enough to fill a football stadium. Yet, every day people starve to death right here in this great country of ours. It’s sad…and yet, largely preventable. Seeing this dumpster full of food made me want to walk in and shake the store manager.

There are too many organizations that will accept out-dated or blemished food donations- organizations like Nashville Food Project and Society of St. Andrews – and turn them into meals for the hungry. Grocers have a real opportunity to turn the tide on hunger in America by simply picking up the phone instead of tossing usable food into their dumpsters.

That day, we grabbed a few things we could share with some friends (who didn’t know until now where their gifts came from. Sorry, friends!). Sadly, we had to leave the meat. I’ve read a lot about dumpster safety and even though it was all of about 45 degrees that day, I still didn’t want to take any chances. Today, I wrote a nice letter to the store manager that included the names and phone numbers for every food rescue organization in our area. I hope he pays attention but just in case he doesn’t, we’re going to keep checking and keep rescuing what we can reasonably use or share with others.

If you’re wondering how you can help reduce food waste (without perhaps jumping in a dumpster), here’s a useful infographic that we saw at last week’s lunch and learn.

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A Few Thoughts on Food

This morning I’m sitting at my desk eating a rescued Panera cheese bagel and a banana while I work. I haven’t bought any groceries since Angie left for Texas on May 4th. Come to think of it, I haven’t bought groceries all month! It wasn’t my intention to skip the grocery store during the 2 weeks I’m home alone (with Caesar) but a few days in, I saw the possibility and at that point, the zero-grocery challenge was born. What can I say, I love a good challenge (and I needed something to keep my mind off Angie being gone).

I didn’t expect this to be a very challenging challenge. I knew from the start that my mom had every intention of having me over for dinner at least every other night. I also knew we had food at home. It’s not always what I want to eat but nonetheless its food. And I knew our CSA was set to start yesterday. So I felt pretty confident that I would be fed…and fed well.

There were 2 things I didn’t anticipate though – first, a major storm flooded the farm that supplies our CSA share so they had to delay the start of the season for another week. Second, my mom went back to work. The latter brought with it a delightful consequence – the ability to rescue food.

20160506_114037On the first day Mom returned to work, she came home with a Ziploc bag containing 3 apples, an orange, and a bunch of grapes. They were all in good shape. One of her coworkers had been cleaning out the breakroom fridge and tossed them out. She also tossed out a dozen Panera bagels. My mom brought the fruit home, telling her coworker, “Melody and Angie will kill me if I let you throw these things away!” Good job, Mom! (She’s still learning.) Mom was too late to get the bagels (though had I been there, I would most definitely have pulled the box back out of the trash).

My mom works for a large corporation. They like to buy breakfasts and lunches for their employees, especially during meetings (and they have a lot of meetings!). Sadly though, not much of the food is ever eaten. Last summer when Mom was working more often and we were camping full time, she brought home whole untouched pizzas, half eaten deli trays, full loaves of bread, and more than once, an entire fruit tray from Chick-fil-A.

Yesterday was Nurse Appreciation Day so they threw a party – with more Panera bagels. This time, Mom brought the leftovers home. She also brought a still-warm Chick-Fil-A sandwich (which I ate with a salad and baked potato for dinner). Yes, I know it’s technically fast food but that’s a battle for a different day. Today, I’ll celebrate it as a victory in reducing food waste.

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My lunch yesterday: PB&J (using a jelly packet my mom brought home from work)

We think a lot about food waste and food security around here. You might say, food waste is our passion project and it has been for a very long time. I don’t want to disparage my mom’s employer. In their field of expertise (nursing), they are superb, but when it comes to good food stewardship, they have much to learn. They are just one branch office of one company in one city and it bugs me to know that they are not the exception. We are a country of wasteful consumers.

So what can we do? The simplest answer is to buy less. If everyone bought only what they could actually eat, a lot of our food waste would end. Challenging myself to stay out of the grocery store for 2 weeks is a small sacrifice. At most, I’ll forego milk and bananas. At best, I’ll clean out the cabinet and fridge, readying them for restocking of good wholesome foods in quantities that make sense for our small family. And who knows, along the way I might rescue a bagel or two!


Do you subscribe to Amazon Prime? (If not, you can get a 30-day FREE trial here). If you do, check out Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. It’s an eye-opening documentary about a couple who spend 6 months living only on wasted food. I was blown away by the volume of food they found!

If you want to learn more about gleaning and food rescue, I encourage you to visit the Society of St Andrew. They’ve gleaned nearly 30 million servings of fresh produce this year to feed the hungry.

If you’re interested in learning ways to reduce food waste at home, consider taking the Food Steward’s Pledge.

If you happen to work for a company like my mom’s that likes to treat their employees to meals, encourage them to treat less often or give gift cards instead.