Freegans go Dumpster dining at Trader Joe's
July 29th, 2011
01:15 PM ET
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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.

But Seifert says the target of his film is wastefulness, not Trader Joe’s.

“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.”

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Filed under: Big Business • Business and Farming News • Freegan • Hunger • Movies • News • Supermarkets • Waste


soundoff (139 Responses)
  1. Jan

    Giant Foods is the absolute worst. Every single day they throw away enough food to supply many families. One year they the manager wanted to have our store as "a featured" store. The deli cases were packed to the brim and kept that way from Thanksgiving through the end of January. Than they threw away over three thousand dollars worth of cheese products because the manager let it expire.

    January 11, 2014 at 4:33 pm |
  2. Jan

    So now what will us people do who can not buy fresh (or semi fresh) food? I have just started dumpster diving and need to do it in order to feed my family. We get a small amount of food stamps, but it is never enough. We don't buy any junk food, soda, or boxed food because of health issues. When I go to the food pantry, I get those foods which we do not eat. I would like to see Trader Joes either have people sign up to get food from them or donate directly to local food pantries.

    January 11, 2014 at 4:29 pm |
  3. Amy

    Restaurants and deli's are the worst. I have worked at both and they trash perfectly edible food. Employees and customers are not allowed to salvage the product. So senseless.

    June 17, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  4. Millard

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    May 14, 2013 at 9:36 am |
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    March 2, 2013 at 7:59 am |
  7. Anthony

    Haven't done this yet, due to living in country (rural area) yet; but now plan to when I get the little truck planning to buy with tax refund check. I am on a very fixed income "SSDI", and wife just got a job after being fully unemployed 2 yrs.
    May try to buy a/some hog/s, to eat what we can’t, them eat it/them.

    February 22, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Ralph

    My mother used to buy boxes of distressed veggies for $5. It's the only way we could afford to eat, and the grocery guys loved not having to throw good (but unmarketable) food away. With big liability actions becoming more common, many big grocery chains require their produce people to put distressed stuff down the garburator.

    August 22, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • stephanie

      Garburator-What a great word! I love it!

      April 4, 2013 at 9:15 am |
  9. tommy

    i am eating a dumpster buger sanwich!lol!

    August 12, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  10. BLG

    Our Trader Joe's in Lincoln, NE tried to work with the local food bank but, they were very picky and rejectedmany items like meat that had a close expiration date and they complained a lot, making it a headache to donate to them. Now our TJ's donates to a local organization called Foodnet. There are always 2 sides to a story.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  11. Suzanne

    I'd say here in California, that we are so gun shy from people suing at the drop of a hat that we over regulate everything. The biggest fear being someone will say Oh I got this from TJ's or Vons... Most stores in my area donate to the homeless. The problems I have seen arent from the stores, its from the local law enforcement that shut down the "Divers" attempts at making free meals from this stuff for those that need it. Its happened in San Fran and In Fla. and Frankly if these people want to scavange and do good for those who need it. Why Not? Of course they need to be thoughtful in checking the quality of the product for safe consumption.Homeless or not no one deserves a stomache ache.

    August 1, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Robynn Rowe

      Dumpster Diving and the Law

      We aren’t lawyers but this is our best understanding as plain-old US citizens.

      Dumpster diving is legal in the United States except where prohibited by local regulation. According to a 1988 Supreme Court Ruling (California vs. Greenwood), when a person throws something out, that item is now the public domain. Here is some language from that ruling: “It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public.”

      However, if a dumpster is against a building or inside a fenced enclosure marked “No Trespassing,” you could be questioned, ticketed or even arrested by the police. Other law-enforcement tactics to discourage dumpster diving include:

      – to ticket or arrest for littering (hence the legal as well as common courtesy reason to leave a trash area neater than you found it!);

      – to ticket or arrest for disorderly conduct, if you are blocking a sidewalk or generally creating a ruckus while dumpster diving, or refuse to leave an area when requested to do so.

      Unless a town or city has specifically made dumpster diving illegal, generally the police will not come unless called by a store manager or property owner. In our experience, this is yet another good reason to be courteous with any store employee (or resident with a dumpster) who questions the dumpster diving in progress, and to use common sense about how long an individual or group stays at any one trash location. If anyone asks you to leave, consider doing so, even if the law is on your side– there are plenty of other wasted resources to be found.

      August 3, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • Robynn Rowe

        http://freegan.info/what-is-a-freegan/freegan-practices/urban-foraging/diving-and-the-law/urce:

        August 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  12. Michelle

    I realize that many folks are stuck in a US only mindset, but this is indeed a world wide problem. I invite you to watch the documentary short film "chicken a la cart" : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=an8qmTac8qk This film, though not made in the US might just open your eyes a little to food waste, edible food donations, and the impact on "the homeless" and needy. I believe the film could have been made in the US too.

    August 1, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  13. I want da gold!

    Glorified bums.

    August 1, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  14. RichardHead

    I reread this article and find that it is missing pertinent information......
    1. Do we have to bring our own springboard to gain access to said dumpster and will there be judges to give points scores for form and artistic style?
    2. What type of attire should we be wearing--a full spandex suit,a speedo,au natural?

    August 1, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  15. Pat

    Dumpster-diving for free food only sounds like a good idea to people who have never been hospitalized with food poisoning.

    August 1, 2011 at 4:22 am |
    • TheForager

      That sounds like a reason not to eat out at restaurants. When one dumpster dives, one can cook the food oneself and be confident that no bacteria survives.

      August 1, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  16. Ian

    The obvious choice missing from the choices is "God help me, only if I have to feed my children . . . " not very realistic if it doesn't include that, considering the spectacle your elected representatives are putting on and the jeopardy you're in – remember that place called China? Many still remember the dust bowl days, and those who don't are doomed to something, um . . . what was it again?

    August 1, 2011 at 1:11 am |
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