SoCal Connected on KCET

Dumpster Divers: Preventing Food Waste

Original Airdate January 27, 2012; Updated August 6, 2014

Val Zavala: In a small apartment in Highland Park, an unusual group of people are gathering. They’re on a mission that will last until three in the morning and take them into places most of us wouldn’t touch. But first, a hot meal. But not just any meal.

Eric Einem: I asked him if there’s anything he wanted me to bring from the dumpster.

Val Zavala: All the food on this table came from the trash. That’s right. These folks are feasting on discarded food. Call them “dumpster divers.”

Well, the first thing I’m sure you hear from people is, “Yuck! How can you do this, and aren’t you afraid of getting sick?”

Eric Einem: Yeah, I get that sometimes. Although, surprisingly, a lot of people I tell about it, you know, are like, “That’s cool.”

Val Zavala: And, surprisingly, for the four years that Eric has been doing this, he’s never gotten sick.

Eric Einem: I use common sense, ‘cause you can tell by the, you know, by the smell or how it looks.

Val Zavala: Michel hasn’t bought food in years. He came to the U.S. from France and remembers how shocked he was by our huge refrigerators.

Val Zavala: Do we waste a lot compared to the French?

Michel Breard: I think so - Europe in general. I mean, just look at the size of a fridge. You know, if you go in Paris, kitchens are small.

Val Zavala: Tonight, they’ve invited others – friends and strangers – on one of their regular dumpster diving tours. Zavala: It’s 11:30 p.m. Some of them go on bikes. Others follow in cars. They don’t want to reveal the stores they’re going to. It’ll only increase the chance that the dumpsters will get padlocked. The first location is easily accessible.

Dumpster diving is not for everyone, but it has gained popularity among some daring environmentalists who hate to see food go to landfills. That’s what motivated Jeremy Seifert to make a documentary called “Dive!”

Jeremy Seifert: When you pull out of the trash what should be food for people, and know that this was headed for the landfill, where it will be buried and produce methane -- which is 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide -- and instead it feeds you, it really changes the way you look at food waste and hunger.

Val Zavala: A U.S. Agriculture Department study found that, of all the food produced for domestic consumption, 25 percent of it is thrown away.

Jeremy Seifert: This is not something that our grandparents did. You know, generations back, they were much more careful with their food. They did know hunger. Food waste is a bad habit born out of excess.

Val Zavala: It’s about 1 a.m., and the divers are heading to a place Eric and Michel have been to before. They say this place is usually a bonanza. And yes, technically, they’re trespassing.

Eric Einem: A lot of bananas and some potatoes, grapes, spinach, a big roll of paper...

Val Zavala: You may wonder why grocery stores don’t give this food away or let employees take it home. That’s what Seifert wanted to find out, but most of the time, he got the cold shoulder from corporate headquarters.

Jeremy Seifert: They won’t talk to me – company policy, no interviews. Nope. No interview. I’m Jeremy. I know that a lot of it was or is systemically a fear of litigation. “What if we give away this perishable food and someone gets sick?” But the Good Samaritan Act put in place in 1996 by President Bill Clinton protects food providers when they give donations, and that Good Sam Act has never been challenged.

Val Zavala: And there’s one grocery chain where dumpster divers won’t find much to take home. Albertsons is on the cutting edge of food rescue. Five days a week, food banks pick up extra food from nearly 250 stores. Over four years, that’s amounted to a hundred million pounds of edible food going to people who need it.

Rick Crandall is the man in charge of the food rescue program. So far 100 Albertsons stores have achieved zero percent waste.

Rick Crandall: Now it is going to people who are food insecure. And doing the right thing for people, planet.

Val Zavala: A win-win.

Rick Crandall: Win-win.

Val Zavala: It’s 2 a.m. The divers arrive back at Eric’s place with boxes and boxes of food. This was Donna’s second time dumpster diving.

Donna Fazzari: Everyone here can afford to buy food. It’s not about that. It’s really about the waste. If you don't take this, rescue the food, it is going to the landfill.

Val Zavala: The night was a success - so successful, there is food left over even after people took what they wanted. Eric and Michel will give this away or compost it.

Michel Breard: It’s one thing to hear about it. It’s another to see about it with your own eyes what’s wasted. And anyone can do it. It’s right there.

Jeremy Seifert: The numbers of hungry people in the country have continued to rise. And that’s where these huge grocery chains can step up and do something beautiful in their communities.

Val Zavala: In the meantime, Eric, Michel and others like him will be doing their grocery shopping...after hours.

Eric Einem: I’m looking forward to the day when we don’t have any more trash, which I think we’ll get there.

Quick Links

Food: Why Do We Waste So Much Food?

Do you cringe at the sight of food being wasted and thrown away? You're not alone.

A group of environmentalists from Highland Park are on a mission to save edibles that would have otherwise gone to waste.

These "dumpster divers" schedule regular dumpster diving tours, usually after normal shopping hours. Around midnight, the team makes it a mission to bring out the sanitary gloves and rummage through piles of unopened food from dumpsters throughout Southern California.

A recent U.S. Agriculture Department study found that of all the food produced for domestic consumption, 25 percent of it is thrown away.

Join host Val Zavala as she explores a growing subculture of dumpster divers in this episode of "SoCal Connected."

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Eric Einem, dumpster diver
  • Michel Breard, dumpster diver
  • Jeremy Seifert, director/producer, "Dive!"


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