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We go dumpster diving to study food waste

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I don’t know what I was expecting when I climbed up on top of the garbage bin in a dark Albuquerque alley and hopped in.

I was looking for food with an acquaintance of mine who lives off the discards of grocery stores and bakeries. He and I were crouched in the bin in the dark, feeling around for groceries while another member of the Dumpster-diving fraternity stood outside the bin and offered his congratulations as we unearthed our bounty.

I’ll tell you what surprised me about my first Dumpster-diving experience: Hopping into a commercial garbage bin is easier than you’d think. It’s much cleaner inside a garbage bin than you’d expect. And there is a lot of perfectly good food in the trash.

Judging from the responses to my recent column about hunger in New Mexico, there’s still plenty of room for argument about whether many of us are really hungry. I don’t think there can be any argument that we waste food – billions of pounds of it.

Various sources estimate that 40 to 50 percent of the food grown in this country never gets eaten. Some is lost or wasted in harvest. A lot (an estimated 43 billion pounds a year) is tossed out by stores, either because it is damaged to some extent or past its sell date. Restaurants and caterers account for even more food going into the trash (an estimated 86 billion pounds a year). And households put even more into the compost or garbage – some 136 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

And we’re not alone in the world. Pope Francis, in his recent message on World Food Day, called global food waste a symptom of our “throwaway culture.”

Which brings us back to the garbage bin in the dark.

I was there with a man who was, in essence, doing his weekly grocery shopping. He has a job and a home – he’s not a hobo – but he has chosen to get everything he eats from the trash so he can give more money to charities. He never goes hungry. In fact, he gets so much food he gives some away.

I asked him to show me the ropes of Dumpster diving so I could get a close-up look at how much food goes to waste in Albuquerque. We met up after supper, and I asked him what he’d had to eat.

“Some greens from my garden,” he said, and everything else from the trash. “Some yogurt, a few burritos, milk, orange juice, a lentil dish.”

When I asked him the most surprising thing he’s found in his years of foraging through discards he said, “It would be hard to top 51 dozen eggs.”

Like I said, a lot of perfectly good food is put out in the trash. I don’t want to give away where we were scavenging, but I will say my companions walked away with big heavy boxes of delicious treats.

The simple fact is that what you see when you walk in the front door of a food store is pretty much what you see in the garbage can outside the back door.

Stores get rid of produce that is rotten, of course, but they also get rid of produce that is perfectly fine or close to fine. Someone over stocked. Some of the apples got bruised or the peppers didn’t look perfect.

“So much of it is appearance,” my friend in the Dumpster told me. “Their reputation is based on how the food looks.”

That’s why my diving companions say they never worry about getting sick from what they find, even if it’s meat or dairy products.

The other trash picker, a University of New Mexico student who also lives off the discards of others, told me he opts for the lifestyle because of environmental concerns.

“The more food we’re buying, the more food that’s being produced and packaged and transported,” he said. “I just want to reduce my impact.”

Some stores choose to make relationships with food banks or shelters and give away their excess. But most throw it away, sometimes in compacting trash bins that prevent scavenging and sometimes in climbable bins that allow for the possibility of a second act for some of that food.

Is it legal to grab that food from the trash? That’s a murky topic. When someone throws something out, the law generally regards them to have given up any private ownership right. But commercial trash hauling companies can argue that what’s in their bin is theirs, not free for the taking. And, at any rate, most trash bins are on private property, so accessing them without permission is trespassing.

To my two scrounging friends – and freegans like them all over the world – the risk is worth the benefit, whether it’s to save money or save the Earth from unnecessary trash.

“Cans of coffee, bread, chocolate, Odwalla juices, yogurts, these amazing chocolate-covered cherries,” my student guide told me. “There are many scores where you feel really great. And it’s always pretty reliable.”

He hadn’t eaten yet that evening, but he predicted a good meal. He had about 15 pounds of chicken, some bread crumbs and a chunk of Parmesan cheese – all saved from a trip to the landfill and brought to his table with a hop into a garbage bin.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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