Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Grub in the garbage: Dumpster divers eat discarded food and scoff at society's wasteful ways

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Quincy Brandt adjusts his headlamp as he prepares to climb into the dumpster. A moment later, his hand pokes out above the two-metre wall holding a single, unblemished yellow apple.

"I think you're going to be shocked," says his companion, Riley McMurray, who's perched on the side of the bin, waiting to receive the cardboard box Brandt is about to hoist out of the nearby grocery store's trash.

When he does, it looks like he's just been to the farmer's market. The box is laden with zucchini, tomatoes, leeks, carrots, a net bag of lemons, and several bunches of lettuce and spinach.

"This is why I bought a juicer," McMurray remarks when he notices that the greens are a little frost-bitten. It is, after all, a spring night still cool enough for tuques and gloves. Nature's refrigeration.

By the time they're kneeling on the ground, ready to divide up the bounty, four boxes have been filled. One contains packages of cream cheese, plastic tubs of margarine and sour cream -- the latter are a day past their expiry date -- single-serving bags of a five-grain mix and a sealed box of frozen hamburger patties.

"There was more meat in there, but it didn't look acceptable," says Brandt. He loads up the crate attached to the back of his bike while McMurray stuffs his backpack.

The Winnipeggers, ages 28 and 20, respectively, are dumpster divers. They scour the refuse bins of about 10 supermarkets and other retailers across the city looking for discarded food that appears edible. They take it home, wash it, and if it passes inspection, they dine.

One man's trash is another man's sustenance for a small, but growing subculture of environmentally and socially conscious people who combat society's food waste by eating it. Some, known as "freegans," strive for a lifestyle with limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Others just enjoy the rush of a treasure hunt -- and free food.

Brandt, who recently graduated from university with a degree in international development, has been "diving" -- the practice is also known as "urban foraging" -- for the past four years. He usually goes out once a week to get groceries for himself and his three roommates. His monthly food bill has been as low as $4.

One of the main reasons he can take home hundreds of dollars of food in a night, much of it still in sealed packages and with no visible defects, he says, is because of the "very wasteful practices" imposed on food retailers by government regulation.

Brandt refers to best-before, sell-by and expiry dates printed on food items that obligate retailers to discard them when their time is up. Rigid adherence to such dates, he says, is "fear-mongering."

"Consumers are trained to see best-by dates," Brandt says. "It strikes fear into them if they don't see an expiry date on their food, and this in an era where we're using more preservatives than ever."

McMurray, who is a freegan-vegan -- he'll only eat animal products that would otherwise be wasted -- says expiration dates not only keep people shopping, they impair common sense and judgment. Where freegans will rely on their senses to tell them which foods are safe, or could be after cleaning and cooking, he says, those senses become dulled in supermarket shoppers who are used to unblemished produce and perfectly stacked and labelled cans and packages.

"You lose faith in your own senses to smell it, taste it and throw it out if it's unacceptable," says McMurray, who's pursuing a degree in urban studies. He's been diving about a year. "It's instinctive to know if something is bad or not."

Richard Holley, a food science professor at the University of Manitoba, heartily disagrees. You can tell if food is spoiled by using your senses, he says, but not if it's contaminated.

"Many of the pathogens that can cause you to become ill don't spoil the food," Holley says.

Foods with intact packaging might pose a lower risk, but there's still the possibility of cross-contamination, even in a relatively clean dumpster, he adds. "It's just such an unsanitary practice."

No one, Holley included, disputes that our society wastes too much food.

How much? Canadians throw out an estimated $27 billion in food -- 40 per cent of what we produce -- annually, according to a recent study by the Value Chain Management Centre, which releases a yearly report on food waste.

More than half (51 per cent) of the food waste originates in our homes. "The food waste that occurs in Canada is largely a symptom of current processes and attitudes, primarily of abundance and affluence," the report says.

The solution is to find more and better ways to divert food from the "waste stream," to food banks and building other support systems around people who are "food insecure," says U of M environmental studies professor Stephane McLachlan.

And part of that means supporting people like freegans, whether they're dumpster diving as a political gesture or out of pure need, says McLachlan, one of the researchers with the Manitoba Alternative Food Research Alliance (MAFRA).

A crew from MAFRA posted a podcast last year where they accompanied local freegans on a dive at a mid-size grocery store, he says, where they got yelled at by an employee.

"From what I could see, for him it wasn't a safety issue, it was just the optics of having ostensibly poor people picking through his dumpster," McLachlan says. (A Free Press reporter and photographer accompanied Brandt on a dive to that same location, where we were driven away by an irate resident who lived across the alley from the dumpster.)

Sometime-freegan and environmental studies student Stephen Kurz, 19, lives in the suburbs with his parents. He's always been frugal, he says, and dumpster diving just takes it to another level.

"It was totally an eye-opener," he says. "But for me, it is more of a social thing. I've gotten friends into it and once in a while we'll go on our bikes and see what we can find, kind of like a treasure hunt. And just knowing there's all this completely edible food out here, waiting for whoever wants to take it... why not?"

Munther Zeid, who runs five FoodFare stores in Winnipeg, concedes it's "shameful" how much useable food ends up in the landfill and he agrees that Canada needs to re-examine some of its guidelines that contribute to waste.

But his stores go to great lengths to make sure everything that ends up in the dumpster belongs there, he says. "Everything we throw out is not fit for human consumption."

While he understands why people dumpster dive, he says, Zeid also makes it clear his bins are not open for business.

We don't want to be responsible for anything that can happen," he says. "I don't want anyone getting hurt or sick."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 D11

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