A new documentary about food waste could dampen grocery chain Trader Joe’s crunchy image.
"Dive" illustrates the waste of wholesome food by following a group of “Dumpster divers,” people who mine trash bins for usable products. In the film, the divers are not homeless or even particularly poor; they just don't like to see good food go to waste, and they like to get stuff for free.
“In the United States, even our trash cans are filled with food; you just have to go get it,” director Jeremy Seifert says during the film’s opening sequence.
The “freegan” divers – Seifert, his wife, Jennifer, and a bunch of their friends – discover large quantities of fresh meat, vegetables and fruit in bins behind a couple of Trader Joe’s stores in the Los Angeles area. Seifert is appalled that so much food that is not spoiled and not past its freshness date is being discarded.
“In our consumerism we‘ve become wasteful,” he told CNN. “And I try to bring it back on us because of the food waste in the home.”
A typical household of two adults and two children loses $600 in food per year through spoilage and mishandling, University of Arizona professor Timothy Jones estimates.
Still, “I don’t get mad at people when they don’t think about food waste, because I didn’t think about food waste,” said Seifert, 34, who holds a master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
“I didn’t think about food waste until I started eating trash.”
That began when some friends brought food they had pulled from a bin behind a store.
“Half of it was inedible and half of it was amazing,” he said.
“Dive” is Seifert’s first film. The 53-minute documentary cost $200 and innumerable hours to make as he taught himself how to edit video, he said. Gaps in the video storytelling are filled in with animated graphics and long stretches of archival stock footage. It has won awards at 21 film festivals and was released July 19th on DVD and through Netflix and iTunes.
Seifert said egregious waste occurs at most grocery stores, but Trader Joe’s bins simply were more accessible. Some food gets donated to food banks, but not nearly enough, he said.
“Trader Joe’s are doing a pretty damn good job, and doing a lot better job than a lot of other stores,” he said.
“This is like a family quarrel. I like Trader Joe’s. I shop there. I Dumpster dive there. And I want them to do better. So I’m not really trying to go after them or harshly criticize them, I just want them to do better.”
Seifert has started a petition on Change.org demanding that Trader Joe’s make zero waste a part of its corporate identity.
The petition, which had garnered nearly 77,000 signatures by Tuesday morning, is unnecessary, said Matt Sloan, Trader Joe’s vice president of marketing.
The company works with each of its more than 250 stores to arrange with local food banks and other charities for daily pickups of food the stores don’t plan to sell or aren’t able to sell, Sloan said. The program isn’t perfectly executed, but there is a program, and it’s not optional, he said.
“In 2010, Trader Joe's donated more than 25 million pounds of food – that's equal to almost 656 truckloads of food or 20 million meals,” the privately owned chain’s website says.
“Trader Joe's long-running policy is to donate products that are not fit for sale but are safe for consumption,” it goes on. “Each store has a designated Donation Coordinator, whose responsibilities include working with local food banks, food pantries, and/or soup kitchens in their communities to facilitate donations, seven days a week.
“We continuously strive to improve our processes in our efforts to reduce food waste and provide hunger relief.”
Even so, the chain has no national donation agreement with Feeding America, the network to which most food banks belong, said Feeding America spokesman Ross Fraser.
“Nearly every other retailer has a donation arrangement with us - Wal-mart, Sam’s, Kroger, Target, Food Lion, and just about any other grocery chain you can think of,” Fraser added. Feeding America rescues nearly half a billion pounds of fresh food yearly, and most of that comes from Wal-mart, Fraser said.
Given Trader Joe’s carefully cultivated progressive image, many customers are pained to learn of waste at any Trader Joe’s store.
“They have such an earthy feel, they feel so funky, and I would think they would want to do something more about it,” Deborah Buczarski told CNN.
“Now when I go in there and I see them pulling all this stuff off the shelves, I know what they’re doing with it,” she said.
Buczarski, a librarian in Santa Ana, California, said Trader Joe’s may have a policy, but it needs to make sure whoever is responsible for coordinating a store’s food donations actually has the time and resources to do it.
“The change would have to come down from the top. Allow them some time to do this, some leeway,” she said.
“Trader Joe's is my favorite store so I really hope you will step up to this important task,” petition signer Cheri Acita wrote on Change.org. “PLEASE help fight hunger and stop your waste of food. It is very sad to know about this because I love all you stand for.”
In 2010, about 5.7 million people came to food banks seeking help, Feeding America’s Fraser said.
“We need every morsel of food we can get at this point,” Fraser said.
“It’s very common that we simply run out of food before everyone standing in line gets what they need.”
He acknowledged that individual Trader Joe’s stores regularly donate to local food banks, but Feeding America would prefer a nationwide plan.
“If they’d like to work with us, we’d be delighted to work with them,” he said.
“It’s about more than not wasting food,” Seifert says in the film. “It’s about making sure everyone has enough to eat.”