Treats from the Trash 

Alameda County discards more than 150,000 tons of food annually. Tonight's mission: to scavenge a decent meal.

"Flowers. Tons of bread. Potatoes. Some produce. Maple syrup. Peanut butter. Cheese. Tortillas." Ellen is recalling all the good food she has found in Dumpsters.

John Hoffman, author of the 1993 manifesto-slash-how-to guide The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving, calls the activity "part piracy, part rummage sale, with lots of bruised fruit." And in the East Bay, it's practiced for sport as well as sustenance.

Ellen, whose name was changed to protect the slightly embarrassed, is a 27-year-old full-time student who first learned how to Dumpster dive when she traveled around Mexico and the United States with some friends who never paid for their food. Several years later, money became scarce. "Before I got a student loan last year, spending $20 on grocery shopping seemed like a luxury," she says. "I was reminded of Dumpster diving." She started going out with friends once a week.

Why do it? Three reasons, none exclusive of the others. First, it's free. "When you really don't have much money, it's your only option," she explains. Second, you're reducing your environmental impact -- and that of others -- by siphoning off part of the waste stream. And finally, you're sticking it to capitalism.

That's all cool with Cara McClendon, a Food Not Bombs volunteer who stopped to talk to me once her team had ladled out all the brown rice, black-eyed peas, and salad on the group's table. Cara confirmed that most of the food that FNB's Berkeley branch serves in People's Park is either donated or Dumpstered. "But we do a lot of Dumpster diving for my personal house, too," she says.

The term freeganism seems to have entered the Anglophone lexicon sometime around the turn of the millennium. It pops up most frequently in lefty and anarchist circles, and can refer to vegans who will eat eggs and milk when it's served to them. But more often, freeganism means refusing to pay for food. As defined by the Web site Freegan.info, "the freegan rescues capitalism's castoffs from the jaws of the garbage truck compactor, defying capitalism's definitions of what is valuable and what is worthless."

In a Kantian twist, though, the author of this definition-cum-manifesto claims simply eating trash isn't enough: "And while the freegan can enjoy the liberty of indulgence in these goods, she is also mindful to never be too charmed by their allure to forget their history and to remember the ravages of the culture that produced them."

That's taking it a little far, in my book, but when you look at the numbers the freegans have a point. According to a study conducted by the California Integrated Waste Management Board in 1999, food is the number-one type of waste disposed of by businesses -- in Alameda County, it represents 15.9 percent of the waste stream, a whopping 150,870 tons a year.

Now, much of what the board calls "food" isn't really edible. Think of your own trash can: orange peels, rotten meat scraps, the wilted outer leaves of lettuce heads. But in an age when seasoned shoppers like yours truly sneer at peaches with small bruises or green beans with tiny spots, grocery stores who want to retain their reputation for freshness chuck a lot of edible produce, or donate it to shelters, or both.

And the quality of the booty? "Sometimes it's perfect," Cara says. "Sometimes the fruit is on the verge of overripe. There's tons of usable stuff." Some markets separate the food out from the rest of the trash, knowing their garbage will be culled. But not all are so thoughtful. "Sometimes the food is packaged," she adds. "Sometimes it's all mixed together. [What you take] all depends on your tolerance level. Some stuff is a little too gross."

Cynthia Bartus Jepsen, a supervising environmental health specialist at the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health, says her department doesn't set fixed guidelines for how long a market should keep a cauliflower, say. Produce needs to be checked daily, she says, but it's up to the store to determine when to toss its merchandise. Environmental Health only steps in when someone files a complaint, or when an inspector finds mold or deterioration during a site visit. In fact, Jepsen says, regulatory agencies don't set sell-by and use-by dates for individual products. Manufacturers do.

Is Dumpster diving legal? That depends upon where you live. Jepsen says Alameda County has no law specifically prohibiting it, nor must stores and restaurants guard against it. Basically, as long as they're not attracting rats and roaches, stores can control the destiny of their trash. Still, Jepsen says, "We would definitely not recommend it. The food is compromised if it's in the trash already. We know that the food is not safe to eat because of cross-contamination issues."

Neither Ellen nor Cara report ever having been sick from one of their finds. Then again, neither has picked up meat or eggs, and they choose pretty carefully. "I've found stinky potatoes, but I've never really gotten anything out of the Dumpster that I've gotten home and said, 'Oh, it's rotten,'" Ellen says.

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