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Living Off America’s Food Waste

“Every year in America we throw away 96 billion pounds of food. That’s 263 million pounds a day. Eleven million pounds an hour. Three thousand pounds a second.”

Those staggering statistics open Jeremy Seifert’s recent documentary “DIVE!,” a film featuring a group of individuals, including Seifert himself, who live off the food most would consider trash. 

The film exposes a hidden world of people, commonly referred to as “Dumpster divers,” who nourish their bodies with the enormous volumes of food found in grocery store Dumpsters throughout the country. 

However, a recent NPR interview described Seifert and other self-proclaimed trash-can scavengers not just as individuals in search of their next meal, but as social activists in search of justice and change. 

The film raises serious issues that arise from food waste, namely, its toll on the environment as a result of greenhouse gas production in landfills, the waste of billions of barrels of oil each year used to produce, process, and transport food products that will ultimately end up in the garbage, and the expenditure of thousands of consumer dollars on food that will never be eaten. 

Most importantly, the film examines global hunger and poverty in a world that wastes billions of pounds of food each year.  With 850 million people suffering from hunger every day, Seifert asks why our trash cans are brimming with food.  In response to his own question, Seifert lamented, “there is a problem, the system is broken.” 

In a telephone interview with Food Safety News, Seifert explained that he was first introduced to the concept of Dumpster diving about 4 years ago by friends who arrived at his apartment with bags of gourmet food that had been disposed of in the trash bins behind a local Trader Joe’s market.  Seifert noted that the sell-by dates listed on the food packages were for the following day.  

Intrigued and simultaneously shocked by the idea, Seifert ventured to the Dumpster one evening ad returned home with a supply of produce, meat, eggs, and cheese that would last several days.  All of it having been thrown away the day before its sell-by date.  With this food he was able to feed not only himself, but his pregnant wife and young son, Finn, also featured in the documentary.  “My son was raised and nurtured on Dumpster food,” Seifert remarked.

The film asked the question: how can one be sure that food retrieved from the Dumpster is safe for consumption? Seifert explained that by relying on his senses, eating safely could be achieved easier than most would think. 

By visually inspecting, touching, and smelling with great care the food he found discarded in grocery store dumpsters and cleaning the items thoroughly, Seifert said he was able to feel confident that it was safe. He explained that the biggest hurdle to overcome was the gross factor. Yet, after a few excursions, he learned to not be afraid of discarded food just because it came from a Dumpster.

This notion of depending on the senses to ascertain the safety of food is not such a foreign concept.  Beginning in the early 1900s, the “poke and sniff” method was implemented as the primary meat-inspection system employed in slaughterhouses around the country. Under the auspices of USDA, inspectors would touch, smell, and prod meat to test its wholesomeness as it moved down the slaughter line.

A major shortfall of the “poke and sniff” method, though, was the inability of the system to detect invisible pathogens and microbes. After the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, there was a strong public opinion that the “poke and sniff” system was neither stringent nor scientific enough to ensure the safety of the nation’s meat supply. 

Ultimately, USDA adopted a science-based approach to food inspection, known as the HACCP system, in which individual plants designate “critical control points” where pathogens could enter processed meat and monitor them for contamination.

With the exception of cross-contamination, most opportunities for contamination exist during the processing stage of food production and prior to distribution to retail outlets. As a result, Seifert argues that he is not unlike average grocery store shoppers who use their senses when determining whether to purchase a particular food item. Whether food is found on a supermarket shelf or in a Dumpster, Seifert contends that consumers and Dumpster divers alike take the same risk that their food has been contaminated by an invisible pathogen while being processed. 

The film points out also that the dates on food packages are not necessarily an indication of the safety of the product.  In fact, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of USDA has reported that the “sell-by,” “best if used by,” and “use by” dates displayed on the labels of many food items in the grocery store are not safety dates. 

Instead, the date is used primarily to help retail stores determine how long to display the product for sale.  FSIS provides that even after the date on the product label passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe for consumption if properly handled. For this reason, Seifert thinks more people should overcome the fear and perhaps indignity of Dumpster food. 

The impetus for the film did not come until after Seifert had made several trips to Uganda while working for a non-profit organization raising awareness about global poverty. On these trips, Seifert witnessed firsthand the effects of hunger and severe malnutrition.  In particular, he noted the stunted growth and swollen bellies of children, often the same age as his own son, living with their families in displaced persons camps and receiving only one meal a day. 

While making the film, Seifert admitted that he did not necessarily intend to become part of the movement to end hunger and raise awareness about food waste.  He recalled certain times during the making of the film when he was, as he put it, “tired of food, tired of Dumpsters, tired of thinking about it, tired of talking about it.” 

Yet, despite his original intentions, after the film was first screened in October 2009 he realized he had become too deeply entrenched in the issues surrounding food waste and hunger to forget about them. 

Now, Seifert has taken further action with the Eat Trash Campaign for Zero Waste, which is part of a growing movement that challenges people to reexamine the role of food in society. In addition, the campaign aims to educate schools, corporations, hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets on how to effectively reduce waste. 

Seifert hopes the film, which has been screened more than 100 times both domestically and internationally, will continue to gain acclaim. After winning awards for Best Documentary at several film festivals around the country, Seifert feels confident that his audience will continue to grow. 

He also hopes his film will cause more grocery store chains to reexamine their policies regarding food donations to local charities and food banks to ensure that food goes to hungry people rather than into Dumpsters.

© Food Safety News
  • diane

    In addition to the food waste in land fills, consider the tremendous amount of food being dumped in the ocean each week by cruise ships. A ship with 4000 passengers plus crew goes through about 50,000 lbs. of chicken in one week and that is just one item. All of the food waste goes into the ocean.

  • Kathryn

    This article is so provocative and raises a plethora of interesting issues. Thank you for sharing. I hope to have an opportunity to this Dive very soon.

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