Food For Thought

Filmmaker Jeremy Seifert’s Dive! Living Off America’s Waste.

Food For Thought

“Most of our friends are aware we get all of our food from the dumpster,” proclaims Naomi Hunt as guests chow down during her baby shower, the party immortalized in Jeremy Seifert’s Dive!, an eye-opening documentary that exposes the problem of food waste. Every day, retail food stores around the United States fill their dumpsters with still-edible food, even as people in their communities are going hungry. In Dive!—which the Pasadena-based filmmaker describes as a combination of entertainment, guerrilla journalism, and call to action—Seifert and friends vividly illustrate the problem by “dumpster diving” behind a selection of Los Angeles area supermarkets, rescuing perfectly good food in an effort to highlight the ugly truth about “food loss.” That is, grocery stores know they are wasting food, and most refuse to do anything about it.

Seifert, 33, admits that he started dumpster diving three years ago because it offered the promise of free meals. “Some friends who were visiting from Philadelphia came over to my house early on a Sunday morning with five or six bags of food they had scrounged from a Trader Joe’s dumpster. That was all I needed to see. I was excited to go out the next night and see what I could find,” he offers.

What Seifert found were dumpsters full of meat, fruit and vegetables—not necessarily “fresh,” but still edible. Seifert and his buddies soon found themselves dumpster diving almost every night. Not only did they spend next to nothing on groceries, they were eating better food than they could ever afford to buy—everything from organic beef and free-range chicken to New Zealand lamb chops and Pacific Salmon.

“I eat much better out of a dumpster than I ever did before,” contends Seifert pal Noah Smith in Dive!, which also features friend “Alfonso,” a professional chef, preparing salmon stuffed with Feta cheese and spinach, and topped with a blood orange citrus ver blanc sauce—all from ingredients rescued from the garbage.

Between the delectable gourmet meals and the wide variety of foods available in the trash, Seifert admits he found himself getting spoiled—and picky. “I found myself wandering through Trader Joe’s, hoping for certain items to be waiting for me in the dumpster that night,” he confesses.

But the act of dumpster diving and eating out of the trash soon changed the way Seifert thought about food. “When you take filet mignon, baby broccoli, and potatoes out of the garbage and eat it—and it tastes damned good and it nourishes you—you begin to think about food waste in a deeper, more personal way,” he says.

Seifert began researching the problem and questioning store managers about why they were throwing away food instead of donating it to food banks? He discovered that select stores did donate on a limited basis, but with few exceptions (Albertsons’ Fresh Rescue Program, for example), the problem of food waste was being ignored at the corporate level.

Asked why so much food is tossed out, Seifert has a ready answer. “Waste is a natural byproduct of our excess. Throwing away food is a bad habit many of us don’t even think about,” he begins, noting that most people are ignorant about the vast resources devoted to producing food, and indifferent to the ecological impact. “If we were to cut our food losses in half, we would probably reduce our pollution rate by about 10 percent,” says Timothy Jones, former head of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, during a phone interview aired in Dive!

But for most grocery stores, the decision to discard food can be attributed to a combination of economics and convenience. “It’s easier—and maybe even cheaper—to just throw it away, instead of organizing with a food bank and setting it aside and keeping it cold until someone comes with a truck,” contends Seifert.

Some stores also express concern about liability issues arising from donating perishable food near or past its expiration date. However, that issue was addressed in 1996 when Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which was designed to “encourage the donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy individuals.” Specifically, the Good Samaritan Act provides that donors “shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food …” except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

But in the past few years, hunger has become much more prevalent in the United States, making food rescue a more urgent problem. “When I first started dumpster diving [in 2007] it was just me and a few friends; we almost never saw anyone else,” begins Seifert. “As I started making the film things changed. With the economic crisis there were more people at the dumpsters.”

“Thirty-five and a half million people in the U.S. are ‘food insecure,’ reckons David Gist, California regional organizer for Bread for the World, a Christian organization that urges decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. In other words, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. “But about 11 million people in the U.S. are actually going hungry,” he advises.

This begs the question: What can individuals do to help address the problems of food waste and hunger. “We can start by reducing the amount of food we pack in our cupboards and refrigerators,” suggests Seifert, noting that while waste happens at all levels of production and consumption—on farms, in transit, in grocery stores and restaurants—a surprisingly large percentage occurs in the home. “Of the total amount of food loss, about 40 percent is in the household. A typical household of four loses about $600 worth of food a year,” states Jones.

Seifert also encourages individuals to volunteer at food banks and halfway houses, and to get involved politically, by reaching out to senators and congressmen and supporting nonprofit organizations that provide food and meals to the poor.

He also has a few words of advice for those who are inspired to dumpster dive, emphasizing that “You have to research your local stores. The bigger supermarkets like Safeway or Vons have massive compacters that don’t have lids, so stores like that are impossible to dumpster dive at.”

Beyond knowing which stores have accessible trash bins, timing is the second-most important factor. “You should go after midnight or 12:30 a.m.,” he contends, “because if you go earlier and employees are still around they get angry and disgusted and usually start locking the dumpster, which ensures total waste.”

Seifert also encourages people to follow Dive!’s “three basic rules for dumpster diving.”

First, “never take more than you need,” a guideline that is surprisingly difficult to adhere to. “When you first start you tend to take way too much,” he claims. “If you jump into a dumpster and there are 80 pre-made salads, it doesn’t feel like much to take five. But five is a lot when they are already near expiration.”

Rule number two is more straightforward: “First one to the dumpster has first dibs, but sharing is mandatory.”

And rule number three prescribes “leaving the dumpster [and surrounding area] cleaner than you found it,” which at first seems counter-intuitive, considering that it’s a dumpster.  The rationale is to avoid giving store owners a reason to put a padlock on their trash. “If I worked at a store and night creatures came and made a mess of my dumpsters, I’d start locking them too. Nobody wants to clean that up,” reminds Seifert.

As for the risks involved with eating out of the trash, Seifert urges individuals to make like Toucan Sam, the avian mascot of Kellogg’s Froot Loops: Follow your nose, it always knows. “You can really trust your sense of smell. I’ve never been sick from eating dumpster food, and no one I know has ever gotten sick,” he says, before noting that one of his friends did get food poisoning—from a restaurant—during a period when he was routinely getting his meals from dumpsters.

If the critical response to Dive! is any indication, many more Americans will soon be following Seifert’s crew into dumpsters all over the country. Completed in August 2009 (Budget: $200), Dive! has already won five “best of” film festival awards, including the Boulder International Film Festival’s “Best Call 2 Action Film.”

Even more encouraging is the fact that nonprofits like Feeding America—one of the nation’s largest charitable hunger-relief organizations—have been making significant headway in the fight against hunger. In November 2008, Feeding America partnered with Walmart, which is now donating leftover produce, deli meat, beef, chicken, dairy and other groceries from Sam’s Clubs, Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets nationwide. “If Walmart—of all places—will get involved at the corporate level, we can use that to shame companies like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s,” suggests Seifert.

Ironically, after completing Dive!, Seifert says he felt compelled to cut back on his dumpster diving, and also developed an aversion to food. “When I finished the film [in August 2009] I was so sick of food that I didn’t even want to think about it. I just wanted a bowl of oatmeal twice a day,” he says, a hint of disgust still lingering in his voice.

But in the months since, Seifert has begun to “connect with the earth,” having planted a garden with his son Finn, where he is growing cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, and watermelons. At the same time, he continues to work towards wasting as little food as humanly possible. “I’m hypersensitive about food waste, but I’m also a product of my culture and place,” he acknowledges. “I know I still waste food at times and it pains me deeply.”

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