March 31, 2012

Trash: it's what's for dinner

My grandpa, Poppy,* was a Dumpster diver when I was a teenager.  I was totally embarrassed at the time, of course, but now I appreciate his resourcefulness. 

It started when he took a part-time greeter/bagger job at a grocery store after he retired.  He discovered that grocery stores throw (literally) tons of perfectly good food away everyday.  Some food (mostly bread and canned goods) nearing expiration gets donated to food pantries, but a staggering amount of fresh produce, milk, and meat gets wasted.

My grandpa also volunteered at a food pantry.  The juxtaposition of grocery store waste and food pantry need bothered him.

Why did these grocery stores waste so much food when there were families going hungry?

They were afraid to get sued should their food donations inadvertently cause someone to get sick.

Prior to the fall of 1996, grocery stores had little protection against lawsuits from consumers of their donated goods.  On October 1, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.  This act was designed to encourage stores to donate food to non-profit programs for distribution to those in need.  It protects them from "criminal and civil liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the recipient."

But there was no such act when I was growing up.   

I was embarrassed about my grandpa's Dumpster diving, but it didn't stop me from eating the food he brought home.  I was just afraid someone I knew would recognize my Dumpster-gatherer grandpa and then tell all the kids at school that we were too poor to afford food. 

And we weren't.  Dumpster diving wasn't about poverty for us; it was about avoiding waste.

My grandpa had grown up poor during the Great Depression.  His father died when he was 5, and his mother raised 5 kids alone.  They often didn't have enough to eat.  As a result, it was important to my grandpa to always have plenty of food in the house.  And he always had a vegetable garden.  Even in the suburbs.  He grew amazing tomatoes. 

Poppy and Tree Guy in the garden

Poppy made sure to only bring home still-cold perishables, so we never got sick from any of the Dumpster food.  I went on to work at that same grocery store when I was 15.  I too saw the waste firsthand.  I also discovered that there were other Dumpster divers.  These people knew when the grocery stores around town threw out their expired food, and they shopped the Dumpsters like most of us shop at Walmart.  That normalized it for me somewhat. 

Besides, if you think about it, the difference between a grocery store sale rack and the Dumpster is only about 50 feet.

For more about dumpster diving, check out Dive!

Have you ever Dumpster dived?  Would you eat food from a grocery store Dumpster?


*On a side note, this poppy tattoo on my back is in honor of my grandpa.


  1. I learned about this food dumpster diving a couple of years ago -- the modern parlance for it is "Freeganism" and there are loads of people who do it -- for the same reason Poppy did -- because it's Wrong to throw away food that is edible. I applaud Poppy for doing it before it was "cool" with a (highly annoying) name (:

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Freeganism: it's not just for broke hippies. :) Yeah, the older I get, the more I realize that my grandpa was ahead of his time. He knew all about the benefits of flaxseed and deep breathing exercises and the importance of fresh foods way before it became cool. He also grew an organic garden before that became the "in" thing to do.

      Poppy was awesome!

  2. P.S. I didn't answer your question... sheepish grin.

    I don't think that unless I had a need that I would go food dumpster diving. Maybe if I knew where to go and when and had someone or someones to go with...but that's a lot of conditions.

    As I've written, I've always taken non-perishable things out of the dumpster, garbage or curb. Just yesterday, I added 3 adirondack chairs to my patio furniture (which also includes an outdoor coffee table from a neighbor's garbage) --from other neighbor's garbage. I'm sitting in a Total Score office chair from a neighbor --whcih replaced my last garbage find office chair which was a little forlorn, but worked just fine.

    Here's something I think is ironic --
    the same neighbors across the street that threw out the perfect condition adirondack chairs yesterday, threw out their matched collection of rolling garbage bins with hinged lids last summer. i'm still using them -- they're perfect in every way: they have the lids, the hinges, both wheels, no cracks, etc. the neighbors replaced them with 5 new ones that probably cost them about 300.00. whatever man. shameful really. i'm so freaking happy that i didn't have to spend money on garbage cans!

    1. You know, I don't blame you for being squeamish about perishable Dumpster food. It's been a long time since our Dumpster-supplemented dinners,so I'm not exactly running to a Dumpster near us for a snack myself!

      Bravo for being all green with your trash to treasure acquisitions! I admire that. Maybe you could post some pics of your finds on your blog! And yeah, I think it's ironic to spend $300 on TRASH cans!

  3. here's a funny article on freeganism here in florida for a funny quick read:

    1. Thanks for keeping me (and my readers) in the know! Now I'm all current and stuff! Going to read it now!

    2. That article WAS funny! I cracked up several times, including the part about the edible chicken nugget hemmorhoid pillow for dogs!

    3. ROFL...hemmorhoid pillow.... awesome.

  4. I would do it in a heart beat. I've taken bags of bread "scraps" (mainly the ends) from Panera to (as they said) "feed the birds" home to my freezer and my kids eat it for weeks. I'm not picky, we're generally broke and I don't need extra crap, but I do need food. If I knew when they were throwing crap out, I'd be there waiting to dive in as soon as they were gone.

  5. We did dumpster diving when I was a kid, but it was outside storage places. We got some odd finds there. I have never dived (diven?) for food, but I have also heard of chicken places pouring bleach on their tossed chicken to keep people from taking it - another way to CYA from getting sued.