When we learned of the bounty to be found inside the dumpster of a chain grocery store, of course we made the most of it.
My husband and I were expecting our first child, and money was beyond tight. But we didn’t feel poor; we were too full of youth and optimism, and had thus far been cushioned by good luck. And, we didn’t mind living simply. We didn’t own a car, but biked or walked everywhere, even when I was expecting. We knew when the quarter sale at the thrift shop was, and what times the health foods store gave away its excess produce. Aside from housing, our major expense was food, and we were always on the lookout for ways to eat healthy and save. We figured that the food in this dumpster was just being thrown out anyway, and we could keep it from being wasted and feed ourselves in the process. The situation seemed win-win.
You might be disturbed at the thought of a pregnant woman eating stuff from a garbage can. It’s true, the dumpster was really gross. It smelled like you’d expect a dumpster to smell, and there were alarming, unidentifiable blobs on the interior walls. But the food was inside of heavy-duty trash bags, and most of the time, it was also still in its own packaging. A lot of it wasn’t past its expiration date, and had never come into contact with anything unsanitary. So much of it was perfect that we didn’t bother with anything questionable. Anything that was less than stellar got left in the trash.
There were some amazing dumpster harvests of giant, juicy strawberries. And once, the dumpster was brimming with artisan breads. There were perfectly ripe avocados, tortilla chips, and fruit juice; bananas, apples, and watermelons. There were some things that we found consistently, like bagged salads and shrink-wrapped biscuits. But we got so used to finding delicacies that we took to leaving such common fare.
Loading up my backpack with Brie and Camenbert, I pondered the modern oddness of high quality cheese made in France, flown halfway around the world, and then put in the garbage. And there were always so many desserts! Often we found birthday cakes and other confections festooning the fetid insides of the giant garbage receptacle.
Eventually, a store manager came outside to use the dumpster, and found my husband inside it. He informed us we needed to leave immediately and not return, or he would call the police. I understand why he did that, in this litigious era. (Just in case this needs to be said: if you eat from a dumpster, you might get sick. I never did, but if you do, don’t sue anyone over it).
Dumpster diving is great if you’re able and willing to do it, and you’re smart and respectful about it, and you assume all liability yourself. But really what we need are solutions to the problems of food waste and food insecurity that don’t involve putting vast amounts of edible goods in the garbage, at any point.
The dumpster we used to “shop” from was not an anomaly; this level of food waste occurs regularly. It’s a national problem. I recently looked at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website; they estimate that thirty to forty percent of food in America is wasted. Not just wasted, but turned into a source of pollution, as it sits in landfills and off-gases methane.
This problem can be transformed into a great opportunity. We can create supply lines that connect excess food to people who can use it. In Moab, with our higher cost of living and lower average wages, that could make a huge difference for a lot of people. We can use the extra food to create compost, a valuable soil amendment. There could be an educational opportunity for students here as well. I’m sure the list of potential benefits goes on.
There are major cities, states, and even nations that have enacted legislation to restrict food waste. But I believe that if any community can come up with a solution to wasted food, without the need to enact new laws, it is Moab. In fact, some residents have already come up with ways to collect and redistribute some food that would otherwise go to the landfill, such as Pete Gross, who bikes around getting the leftover school lunch and other food, and takes it to people who can use it. But there is still so much opportunity to put the bounty we have to use, and so much good to come of it. Let’s get it done.
Heila Ershadi is a Moab City Council member, but the ideas expressed here are hers alone and do not reflect the council as a whole. She can be reached at 435.355.0280.