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Some find big rewards in dumpster diving

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image A dumpster near a South County grocery store shows signs of less than conscientious dumpster divers. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Ron and Margie Anderson's grocery bill has declined significantly.

By Mitch Traphagen

Ron Anderson, retired military and a well-known member of his current profession, was visiting his local grocery store one day last month when he remembered he had to ship a package. On his way out, he took a peek inside the store’s dumpster to see if he could find some packing material. Instead, he found something entirely different.

Ron’s wife Margie is a retired law enforcement officer and a current professional with a college degree. Ron was worried his wife would not approve of his discovery. He needn’t have worried, she was ecstatic.

In peeking into the grocery store dumpster, lying on top of the day’s trash were five pounds of organic cherries, five pounds of strawberries, four pounds of packaged tomatoes, two large flat iron steaks with $15 price tags, several cartons of fruit juice and seven packages of turkey kielbasa. All still cold and none past their expiration dates. Ron collected it all up and took it home where they froze the meat, boiled the tomatoes for spaghetti sauce base and washed the fruit. They drank the fruit juice.

Feeling good about his find, Ron went back the next day at the same time. He found a five-pound bag of potatoes, two frozen Sara Lee coffee cakes, three packages of Toll House peanut butter / chocolate chip cookie dough and a package of rolls.

Since then, the Anderson’s grocery bill has declined significantly. The one thing they have spent money on, however, is a new freezer purchased from Craigslist. They needed it to store what they see as perfectly good food, but what their local grocery store sees as trash.

In less than two weeks, the new freezer has been filled with everything from London Broil steaks to frozen chickens and packaged pork and beef ribs. The haul has been so large that they’ve become picky in taking only the better cuts of meat and the leanest hamburger. On one day alone, they left behind 20 pounds of still-frozen 80 percent lean hamburger, choosing to only take the hamburger that was 97 percent lean. They also left behind more than a dozen packages of hotdogs, all still cold.

“Something new surprises us each day,” Margie said of their discovery. “At first it was the immense wastefulness. Think about it. It took time and money and effort for farmers to raise the livestock. It costs money to butcher animals. It cost money to package meat and deliver [it] to stores and stock the shelves. And then it gets dumped.”

Ron and Margie Anderson are not what anyone would consider run-of-the-mill dumpster divers. In fact, they aren’t even diving into a dumpster, they are merely taking the products from the top — products that are still cold and haven’t been contaminated by other trash. They are educated, professional and well known in their community. While they are appalled by the wastefulness of what they are seeing, they are also thankful for the abundance they’ve been given. They are trying to come up with a way to share what they have reclaimed with others, at least those who may be willing to eat food that was once considered trash.

“We want to just be quiet and discreet and behind the scenes,” Margie said. “We’re not looking to become activists and confront grocery stores on their wastefulness or join other dumpster diver groups; we just want to quietly do our part to share our abundance.”

Ron and Margie have shared their story on the condition that their real names are not used, nor should the city they live in be identified, nor should their grocery store be named. It is, however, part of a national chain of grocery stores.

In one day, the Andersons took home seven frozen chickens and a rack of packaged ribs.“We have our own code [of honor],” Margie said. “We don’t leave a mess, and if there is a mess, we clean it up. We close the dumpster door. We only take what we eat and can use. And we set stuff aside for easy reach for the homeless people that live in the woods — there are several micro-communities that we know about.”

Except for construction sites primarily, there are typically no laws against climbing into a dumpster, apart from, possibly, trespassing. Even that, however, is somewhat murky as trash may be considered abandoned property. It is no different than the trashcan you leave for pickup in your driveway. By and large, law enforcement agencies don’t need to obtain a search warrant to go through your trash, even though it is your trashcan, sitting on your boulevard.

Grocery stores have every right to request that people stay out of their dumpsters. In the absence of a “No Trespassing” sign, however, that may require an employee to make the request. Upon reading Internet message boards dedicated to dumpster diving, most of those who do it say that law enforcement officers will at most ask a person to leave. For a variety of reasons, from the potential liability should someone get injured by a dumpster, to someone getting sick from eating discarded food, to simply losing a few customers, grocery stores are not fond of the practice and some have taken steps to eliminate it. Several South County grocery stores have also taken steps to eliminate the waste involved.

Publix Super Markets use a trash compacting system rather than dumpsters. Trash compactors are always closed and secured unless they are being emptied. According to Shannon Patten of Publix, secured and locked compactors are in use at 95 percent of their stores, including all South Hillsborough stores. Publix has also taken steps to address wasting food that simply may no longer meet their standards as products for sale.

“As far as our products that have reached (or are near) their expiration date, we have partnerships with the local food banks and donate many of our perishable items to those in need within our communities,” Patten said. “Last year, Publix began a partnership with Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity. As the economy slowed over the last few years, donations to food banks also slowed just when the need was greatest. After assessing the situation, many food banks began to consider other strategies for how they could increase donations. Feeding America, and its affiliated food banks, realized they could increase what they offer to the hungry by transporting and storing refrigerated food. Instead of disposing of certain items, like luncheon meats, cheese, ground beef, dairy items, and produce that have reached their sell-by dates, Publix can now donate them to certain food banks.”

Patten went on to say that due to Publix safety standards, not all perishable food is eligible for donation, but the partnerships they have with food banks have greatly increased the amount of food that is donated.

Sweetbay Supermarkets also have corporate policies regarding both dumpster diving and donating food.

“Dumpster diving at our stores is prohibited,” said Nicole LeBeau Gavin of Sweetbay. “As far as our food donations, we work exclusively with Feeding America and its affiliates because of its food safety standards in regards to salvaged food. We have an entire policy regarding salvaged food donations which food pantries must follow.”

Like Publix, many Sweetbay stores, including the MiraBay location, use trash compacting systems.

The corporation that owns the store that Ron and Margie visit states that they are committed to donating both food and money to various food banks and world hunger organizations. It is unknown if the food they are finding in the dumpster is deemed outside the realm of a donation program or if that specific store is stepping outside of corporate policy in discarding food that can no longer be on the shelves.

This dumpster near a South County grocery store isn’t as neat as Ron and Margie Anderson prefer to leave the dumpster at their store. Above, bread and soft drink bottles are scattered into the parking lot outside the dumpster.But for Ron and Margie Anderson, they are simply reclaiming what would otherwise have gone to waste. And they have noticed that other people are coming by, including one man in a pickup truck, to join in the bounty. In one day alone, they took home seven whole chickens and two slabs of pork ribs, all still cold and none past their expiration dates. The value from that one day based on the price tags? $75. They rinse everything they bring home in bleach water and repackage much of it for freezing. The total value of the food their grocery store considered trash is well into the hundreds of dollars.

“This has totally changed our lives,” Margie said. “We’re now looking into buying a canning system and learning how to can meat.”

And they continue to be surprised by what they find.

“Another big surprise is how much better we’re eating because of this,” Margie continued. “Normally we wouldn’t feel as though we could afford organic cherries but we pulled out five pounds of them. We’ve had bananas, lopes, radishes, portabella mushrooms, bags of red potatoes, onions, and an imported gourmet block of cheese!”

In this case, one person’s trash is most certainly another’s treasure.

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