The Food Waste Fiasco: You Have to See it to Believe it
You may have already heard a few appalling facts about food waste but just in case you haven’t, here are a few tidbits of information to catch you up on the issue:
- We throw away 165 billion dollars worth of food per year in the United States. That’s more than the budgets for the United States national parks, public libraries, federal prisons, veteran’s health care, the FBI, and the FDA combined.
- About 50 million of our 320 million US Americans are food insecure yet we produce enough food to feed over 500 million US Americans.
- To create just the amount of food that ends up in the landfills we waste enough water to meet the domestic water needs of every US American citizen.
Even with these mind-blowing statistics you probably still need to see it to believe it. That is where my work comes in.
This weekend I arrived in New York City from my second bike ride across the United States living on food from grocery store dumpsters. On my first ride dumpster diving across the USA, about 70% of my diet came from dumpsters, totaling up to about 280 pounds of food over 4,700 miles of cycling.
This is what a typical dumpster score looked like:
This time around, halfway across the country, I vowed to eat exclusively out of grocery store dumpsters until I reached New York City. For the 1,000 miles and seven weeks of riding from Madison, Wisconsin to New York City, you could have spotted me in any of 300 or so dumpsters across the United States.
I admit I slipped up on my vow a few times. Once when a brownie was set down in front of me in Baltimore, another time over some freshly popped popcorn, and a few times I picked a fresh tomato or leafy green out of a garden. Plus, I used oil and some herbs for cooking when visiting friends in their homes. Other than that I ate like a dumpster king and gained five pounds even with all of the time spent on my bike.
Here’s what a guy who eats straight from the dumpster looks like:
I’m not just dining from the dumpster to meet my needs though. I’m doing this to inspire the United States to stop throwing away food. My interactions with whomever I crossed paths with helped them to see the food waste fiasco firsthand, but still I said I would help YOU see it to believe it.
That is where photos from my public demonstrations come into play. In eight cities along the tour I went out dumpster diving, usually just for one night, and set up my find in a public park the next day. Many people were shocked by what I showed them and even more were angry, not at me, but at the waste of our society when millions of US Americans are hungry.
I had just a few days at most in each city to pull these fiascos together. Here is what my friend Dane and I managed to scrounge up in Madison, Wisconsin in two days:
I found a volunteer via social media with a vehicle to help in each city since I couldn’t carry all of the food on my bicycle. This was what we gathered in Chicago, Illinois:
None of the volunteers even had dumpster diving experience and I was completely new to the dumpster scene in each city. In Detroit, Michigan we started diving the morning of the event and the car was filled with this in 2 hours:
In Cleveland, Ohio we spent seven hours at the dumpsters the night before the event and brought this food to Cleveland Public Square. It was 90 degrees that day so much of the food we found in the dumpsters was spoiled. This is just the good stuff that we pulled out:
In Lancaster, Pennsylvania we had two vehicles and we hit about ten dumpsters between the two teams. This is what we took home in four hours:
Two days later I rolled up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 9:00 PM, started diving an hour later, and was sound asleep with this score by 1:00 AM:
And finally I rolled into New York City, where I was greeted by the people behind Freegan.info. In one night of walking around the streets of Manhattan we scrounged together this fiasco:
The food was still very high quality stuff but I never intended to even give it away. I just wanted to show people what we are wasting. But then people started to take the food and that made the mission all the better. David here was one of the many people happy to take home food and to share it with his friends:
Between all of the demonstrations that I hosted we ended up giving away over $10,000 worth of food and fed well over 500 people. To me that is proof of how good the food is that we are throwing away.
I’ve learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across the United States and collect enough food to feed 100’s of people in a matter of one night. Often, the main thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport the food. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across the United States, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies.
My intentions with these photos are to help you to get an idea of the scale of this issue. Even still these are just photos. Seeing it in person is a whole different story. So I encourage you to go to your grocery store and do something a little different from your normal routine. I want you to walk around to the back of the store, find their dumpster, and take a look inside. You don’t have to take any of the food home with you. You don’t have to get in the dumpster either. Just take a peek and see this problem for yourself. The dumpster may be locked or it may have just been emptied so check out a few places if needed. The first time you see a dumpster full of food your life could be changed forever. If you feel inclined to be a part of the solution I encourage you to photograph or video the wasted food you find and spread it on social media using #DonateNotDump. Tweet it at the store and let them know that we are not going to stand for their waste anymore.
With that action in mind you should be versed in this issue a little bit more before you hit the dumpsters. Our message to the grocery stores is that we want them to stop dumping their excess food and start donating it to non-profits so it can be distributed to people in need. Grocery stores may tell you that they can’t donate because they fear liability. This is either a lie or ignorance. Grocery stores are protected from lawsuits by the Good Samaritan Food Act, which was passed in 1996. This act Protects businesses from liability when they donate to a non-profit organization and protects them from civil and criminal liability should the product donated later cause harm to the recipient. Furthermore a University of Arkansas study has shown that not a single lawsuit has ever been made against a grocery store that has donated food to a food rescue program. The law is on the side of the grocery stores to donate. No grocery store with true knowledge and honesty can use the excuse of liability.
Thousands of food rescue programs exist across the United States that will actually go to the store and pick the food up. Examples of this include Feeding America, City Harvest, Second Helpings, Philabundance, and Boulder Food Rescue. Grocery stores just need to pick up the phone and call the local food rescue program, food bank, food pantry, or soup kitchen.
The good news is that thousands of grocery stores ARE donating food to these non-profits and these programs are feeding millions of people across the United States. Both huge chains like Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart and single location rural stores have proven that it can be done. However, all together grocery stores are doing only a very small fraction of what can be done. We need more stores to start a food donation program and we need the ones who already have a program to donate more of their food. I’ve witnessed many stores to claim they have an excellent food donation program and then found their dumpsters to be full of food. So don’t just stop talking when they say they donate, make sure they are donating everything they can.
This may take a little effort for the grocery store but the effort is minimal compared to the gain for humanity and for their community. Some states even offer tax deductions for donations and all stores will save money on their dumpster fees. Many stores are finding donating their food to even be a profitable venture versus throwing it in a dumpster.
You can reach out to grocery stores by talking to the manager next time you are at the store, starting a conversation with them on social media by sharing this video with them, calling them on the telephone, or emailing them. Simply by putting pressure on one store to donate you could be responsible for hundreds or even thousands of people being fed. Imagine the satisfaction of knowing you’d helped so many people in need.
Besides asking grocery stores to donate you can also ask if they have a composting program. The food that is no longer suitable for people should be composted or fed to pigs or chickens. There is no good reason for food to be in the dumpster and go to the landfill. You can also encourage them to handle their inventory better by marking prices down when food is nearing sell-by dates, using misshapen and blemished fruit in their juices and deli food, and stocking reasonable amounts rather than huge surpluses for visual abundance.
To lead by example, make sure that you are not wasting food yourself and you are sharing with people in need. Another great thing you can do to get involved is volunteer with your local food rescue program, food bank, or soup kitchen. Many of these programs can really benefit from your help. Ask them what they need help with or ask if you can volunteer as outreach to get them donated food that would have otherwise ended up in the dumpster.
I believe that together we can drastically reduce food waste and with citizen action we can be a big part of the solution.
Start by telling your grocery store to #DonateNotDump!
For a deeper look into food waste, detailed information on the problem and solutions, how to get involved, food rescue programs, dumpster diving, and more go to my Food Waste Activism and Dumpster Diving Resource Guide.