Whether Motivated by Eco-Activism, Social Consciousness or Simply Scoring a Freebie, Scavenging for Groceries Gains in Popularity
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006; B01
Bryan Meadows's backpack lay open on the ground, bulging with bags of peanuts, a tub of chocolate-covered ginger and two loaves of bread. He tossed aside a few moldy pastries and was on his way back for more when he suddenly realized the jig was up.
"Can I ask what you're doing?" asked the Trader Joe's employee in a Hawaiian shirt.
Meadows was caught dumpster diving, though he is neither homeless nor destitute. He considers himself a "freegan" -- a melding of the words "free" and "vegan" -- meaning he tries not to contribute to what he sees as the exploitation of land, resources and animals wrought by commercial production.
The employee at the Trader Joe's in Falls Church was polite at first, but within 30 seconds the conversation turned antagonistic. Meadows insisted he had done nothing wrong, and the employee grew impatient with the 18-year-old college student's refusal to cooperate.
"Put all of it back in the trash and get off the property now," the employee ordered.
As Meadows saw it, that chocolate-covered ginger had a one-way ticket from the Falls Church store to the Fairfax County landfill, so he was liberating it, not stealing it. The employee saw it differently: The garbage was on his company's property, so the teenager had no claim to it. He also didn't relish the idea of someone getting sick from something carrying the Trader Joe's label.
The number of freegans in the D.C. region is anybody's guess, but the ranks appear to be growing. Spokesmen from several groceries said the sight of people behind their stores has become more common, and stores are citing trespassing laws, food-safety concerns and the fear of being sued to discourage dumpster divers.
"It's certainly something you hear about more and more," said Sarah Kenney, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market's mid-Atlantic region. "It seems like people tell their friends, and then there's an article about it and it grows."
A half-dozen longtime divers said such Web sites as Meetup.com, which connects people looking for activity partners, have seen a huge increase in the number of curious first-timers seeking fellow divers. And disillusionment with the Bush administration's environmental policies has pushed some young people to everyday forms of protest.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 96 billion pounds of food are thrown away each year, making up 12 percent of the trash produced in the United States. Because of federal and state regulations for restaurants and grocery stores, expiration dates often come before the food actually spoils. Much of it ends up in bags separate from the rest of a store's garbage, providing easy access for divers.
"I'm trying to limit my participation in some of the corporate farming practices that are terrible for the environment and aren't healthy," said Columbia Heights resident Ryan Beiler, citing pesticides, animal cruelty and pollution. "I'm struck by the absurdity of how the American economy works."
Beiler, Web editor for Sojourners magazine, estimated that 95 percent of the food he eats comes from his every-other-week dumpster runs.
Like many dumpster divers, Beiler and Meadows have had multiple run-ins with police or store managers, leading in some instances to the shut-off of prime locations. The same day that Meadows was caught diving at the Trader Joe's in Falls Church, employees began locking the dumpster.
Employees at several stores said they are aware that divers visit regularly but declined to discuss specifics on the record. Spokesmen said grocery chains are doing their part to produce less waste by contributing to charity and recycling, better solutions than the liability involved in having people digging through their trash. And because dumpster diving generally requires trespassing, divers are bound to accept stores' refusal to allow them access to the trash.
"We would not recommend removing Trader Joe's items from the dumpsters for the simple reason that these items have been evaluated by our crew as questionable to donate due to safety concerns," company spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki wrote in a prepared statement.
Trader Joe's and Whole Foods both donate food deemed unsalable to homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and Whole Foods composts much of its other food waste.
"It makes me concerned about what type of food waste people are eating," said Kenney, the Whole Foods spokeswoman. "You generally don't want people in the dumpster because of safety reasons."
Kenney added that Whole Foods stores don't throw away edible food -- a claim challenged by a half-dozen divers.
Even if food from dumpsters looks edible, food safety experts advise against eating it once it's been thrown away. Jack Guzewich, an epidemiologist with the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said cooking would destroy only some of the bacteria that could contaminate food in the trash. Between cross-contamination from other items in the dumpster, lack of refrigeration and the presence of rats and flies, Guzewich said, items from a dumpster should not be consumed even if there is no sign of mold or rot.
But several experienced divers said they've never become sick from food found in a dumpster. Half the fun of dumpster diving is the anticipation of the unknown, they said: A late-night run could lead to a confrontation with police, a case of rotten bananas or a huge score. Beiler has come home empty-handed some nights; on other trips, he's netted pounds of smoked salmon, full containers of lobster, several trays of sushi.
"It's about allowing God's provisions to be available," Beiler said. "I'll eat vegetables for a week, and the next week it'll be mostly carbs."
Beiler's "dumpstering mentor," his Columbia Heights neighbor Preston Winter, said that it's difficult to maintain a balanced diet when he is relying on the trash but added that it's also easy to get spoiled. He used to be excited when he found gourmet cheese, but now he's come to expect it when he visits a high-end grocery store. He once found 40 unopened bottles of wine.
"A rack of lamb is always nice," said Winter, who studies fiscal accountability in foreign aid for the federal government. "I have a couple of those in the freezer."
The reasons people are drawn back to the dumpster vary widely. Beiler said his Christian beliefs push him to live simply and refrain from wasting natural resources, whereas Winter described his motivation as "a mix of 'wow, it's free food' and a desire to conserve resources." Meadows said he dives mostly because he knows the food is there.
Brian Kruglak, meanwhile, sees discarded food as a good source of nutrition for the homeless. Three years ago, he and a few friends founded a D.C. chapter of Food Not Bombs, which cooks meals out of food from dumpsters to serve to hungry or homeless people at Dupont Circle every Sunday. The group serves only vegetarian meals both because members object to eating animals and because it can be difficult to tell when meat has gone bad. Food Not Bombs informs clients that the food has been reclaimed, and anyone who doesn't mind is welcome to eat.
Kruglak, a 23-year-old security guard at the Black Cat nightclub, said he does not eat out of the dumpster because he believes privileged people should not take free food from people who need it.
"Our motto is that if we'll eat it ourselves, we'll serve it to others," Kruglak said after pulling his head out of the side door of a dumpster in suburban Maryland.
The outing to Kruglak's favorite location didn't yield any loot, but he wasn't fazed; Food Not Bombs already had enough supplies for that Sunday's lunch. Besides, one store's employees leave bags of unusable food outside the store for Food Not Bombs members to rifle through before it hits the trash.
But Kruglak said finding places to dumpster dive has become more difficult. A planned trip to Whole Foods in Tenleytown was called off when the store replaced dumpsters with trash compactors.
John Hoffman, an author who coined the term "dumpster diving" in a 1993 how-to guide, said stores are taking steps to discourage divers.
"Compactors are Satan's little helper," he said. "Unless [store employees] are evil, why do they care that you're taking trash off their hands?"
Grocery spokesmen shrugged off the accusations.