ThE DIvERS’ DIET

STORy AND PhOTOS by MATThEW GREEN

lose to 1 billion people in the world don’t have enough to eat, and more than 300,000 people in alameda County alone are at risk of hunger. but while grocery bills skyrocket and charities strive to meet growing demand, a large number of east bay dumpsters burst every day with edible bounty. “look at this, i’m standing in a salad bowl,” says suze b., her body halfway submerged in a large dumpster outside an east bay supermarket on a recent sunday night.

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she and housemate rachel J. work diligently, filling up boxes and bags of seemingly fresh produce. Digging through the container’s contents, they triumphantly recover head after head of broccoli and pounds of kale, collards, chard and lettuce with hardly a wilted leaf. Nearly all of it is organic and just hours before, it all sat on the produce rack with a robust price tag. parked on a quiet side street, the strikingly un-stinky bin was put out that evening for compost pickup, the produce inside most likely discarded to make room for slightly fresher deliveries. Hoisting herself up the dumpster wall, rachel joins her harvesting partner inside the cool, damp chamber. The two mid-20-year-olds dig beneath the top layers of green, retrieving armfuls of roma tomatoes, parsnips, kumquats, and radishes. in the pale yellow glow of the street lamp, the produce looks fresh enough to have gone straight from farm to dumpster. “This is a pretty good night,” says suze. she notes that the great variety of produce she’s scavenged forces her to be creative in the kitchen. she recalls a recent score of rutabagas and no initial clue of what to do with them. The two live in a 10-person oakland household that gets about 80 percent of its produce and all of its bread from the trash. The contingent is among a thrifty, leftist-leaning crowd of self-labeled “freegans.” They’ve embraced the dumpster diving lifestyle as much to keep their food bills remarkably low as to directly address what they argue is a rampantly wasteful food system. “We’re not doing this ’cause there’s no other way. it’s definitely a choice,” explains suze as she stuffs boxes overflowing with veggies into a small wagon attached to her bike. she notes the commonly held trash stigma that repels most people from such gathering practices. among these people is her mom, who she once convinced to join her on a diving trip, however apprehensively. “it just seems like such a farce to pay for it at the store, to pay for a system that creates more waste…For me, the obscenity of waste is so much more powerful than the stigma of trash.” a study by the environmental protection agency estimated that americans annually generate about 30 million tons of food waste. it makes up roughly 12 percent of the total waste stream, and the vast majority ends up in landfill. While cities like berkeley and oakland have recently adopted measures to dramatically expand compost pickup programs, such efforts reduce waste but don’t directly counter the excessive amount of food that isn’t eaten. it’s a fact clearly evidenced not only behind markets and bakeries, but also in residential trash and restaurant garbage bins. although they’re unable to accept dumpster donations due to health concerns, the alameda County Food bank, which funnels food to its network agencies and feeds roughly 40,000 people each week, has
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over the past three years significantly increased the amount of fresh produce it accepts from farms and distributors, according to executive director suzan bateson. “We run a quarter of a million pounds of food each week,” she says. “but i know we don’t reach everyone.” one in three children in alameda County, she notes, goes hungry at certain points during the year. a large chunk of adult recipients have jobs—in nearly 40 percent of cases, there’s at least one working member of the household, says bateson—but they are still unable to buy food regularly. after diving for food in the east bay for years, rachel and suze, through much trial and error, have developed a solid map of the best dumpsters in town that satisfy pretty much any food or non-edible demand, plus many luxuries; they’ve found fine chocolate, inexplicably discarded and unopened lavender skin lotions, and a worn but serviceable dining room set. as suze puts it: “if you put out a couch where i’m from in pennsylvania, you’re considered white trash. if you do it in oakland, it’s gone in 20 minutes.” They even know of many spots where artists go to collect free art materials, such as discarded flowers used to make artisan paper products. For many divers, Trader Joe’s is the ultimate goldmine, since the chain grocer packages almost all of its products and is quick to toss things on their sell-by date, even things that are still good to eat for another week.
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While generally vegan, the two have gone so far as to sample discarded meat and fish that they’ve deemed fresh enough to consume. Dairy is generally avoided, although they eagerly scoop up eggs, where oftentimes a single cracked one has been cause to land the whole dozen in the trash. both say that they’ve never gotten sick from their finds. some stuff they eat raw after a good washing, and if something’s slightly questionable, they’ll cut off the rotting part and boil the rest. as another seasoned diver advised: “if there’s any question about it, just cook the hell out of it.” Dumpster diving has long been a tradition of bay area counterculture. even esteemed food critic ruth reichl did it while living in a cooperative house in berkeley in the 1970s, an experience she details in her autobiography, Tender at the Bone. The practice launched the freeform food kitchen project Food Not bombs, which still exists in a number of cities throughout the country, often using scavenged food to provide free meals to the hungry (the berkeley chapter, which still serves a daily hot meal at people’s park, now gets most of its food through donations). The ranks of divers grew markedly in the mid-’90s out of the anti-globalization and environmental movements, and more recently, has continued to steadily attract participants and also media attention. rachel and suze both object to the way it’s often portrayed—as a rebelEDIBLE EAST BAY harvest 2008 39

lious, underground activity that rich kids from the suburbs, turned punk urbanites, do for the thrill of it. They say the most crucial issue—that of food waste—is commonly overlooked in the discussion. rachel and suze join other dumpster diving advocates in rejecting the notion of a food shortage and urging a decentralization of the food system. “it’s not the amount, it’s the way it is distributed,” argues Max C., who helps run the farm program for people’s grocery, a West oakland food justice nonprofit. Calling the idea of shortage a “myth,” he references figures from World Hunger, Frances Moore lappé’s 1986 food investigation, in which she estimates that world grain production alone could provide more than 3,000 calories per capita per day. The World bank, issuing similar figures, estimated that current rates of production could also provide 65 grams of protein per person each day, far exceeding basic nutritional requirements, and if only 2 percent of the world’s grain supplies were redirected to those in need, hunger could essentially be eliminated. all of which adds to Max’s “utter amazement” with how much surplus he commonly sees in the trash. it’s discoveries of expensive products like unopened half-gallon odwalla juices that most mystify him. Tossed out on their sell-by dates, the products, he says, remain perfectly good for days afterwards. He describes scavenging behind local chocolate factories and carting away 40-pound chocolate blocks that were discarded due to some minor imperfection. Despite all this, dumpster diving generally means breaking the law, especially if it involves trespassing. Many store owners don’t look so kindly on the notion of people scavenging through their trash. While bins at some businesses are left unattended, their contents free for the taking, others are kept locked or guarded, and employees readily chase off divers. “i don’t quite understand how people feel free to trespass and take something that’s not theirs,” says Mike rose, owner of semifreddi’s bakery in emeryville, which in recent years has become a very popular diving spot. The activity, he argues, is fueled by self-righteousness; he says the growing ranks of people soliciting his dumpsters often pull up in cars that are nicer than his. “it’s no different from going on someone’s property and taking a lemon off their tree.” rose explains that the bins of mostly stale bread and dough scraps are not discarded or wasted, but instead converted into chicken feed through a contract with a feed company. He adds that the bakery donates $1,000 worth of fresh baked goods to local charities daily, and provides goods to any food kitchen that requests them. Dumpster divers he adds, could just as easily stand in line and get free fresh handouts, but are too self-righteous to do that.
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“it’s certainly an annoyance for us. people seem to have a sense of entitlement that they’re saving the planet by somehow not paying for what they eat,” he argues, noting that beyond the trespassing and stealing issues, there are also major health concerns: tainted products that have hit the ground; bins that aren’t air tight or guaranteed to be sanitary. basically it’s theft, he says. “They’re stealing it…at a certain tipping point, why shouldn’t everyone come and get it? Then i don’t have business anymore.” rose says his operation pulls bread from the shelf within 24 hours, but makes every effort to reduce waste. in addition to sending it out as animal feed, he is looking into using stale bread to make croutons and breadcrumbs. “it’s somehow become this groovy activity,” he adds. “but they’re not saving anyone. it’s not cool.” but for determined divers, such logic is hard to swallow. suze and rachel don’t believe that their actions are at all negatively impacting these businesses, most of whom they say have a steady stream of customers who wouldn’t set foot near a dumpster. and as long as there’s decent food to eat in the dumpster, that’s where they’ll go to get it. The two women are nearly at storage capacity for the evening. From one dumpster they’ve collected five overflowing bags and two boxes of fruits and vegetables, and now struggle to fit it all in the wagon. among the night’s finds was an entire case of biscotti. The dozen or so containers each have a price tag of $7.99 and were likely thrown out because one of them was dented or cut open. “We get the dumbest stuff. We don’t even know how to use it sometimes,” says suze. “There’s so much waste. yet people are starving. How could this be?” Matthew Green is a Berkeley-based freelance writer and environmental education teacher. In addition to EEB, he writes regularly for the east bay express and also contributes to the sF Chronicle.

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