Avocados are amazing. The possibilities are endless: guacamole, sushi, sandwiches and more. So when my friend Greg told me a story of how he once salvaged 40 ripe avocados from a dumpster, I was dumbfounded. I needed to see this wanton waste with my own eyes. I asked Greg to take me along on one of his late-night scavenging missions.
“Whatever grinds your gears,” my boyfriend said, cringing. “Be careful for rats and snakes,” my mom cautioned.
On the night of the outing, Greg sent me a text with the details. “How about we meet at my place at 10 p.m.? Dress in clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Bring gloves, bags and a headlamp. If we’re prompt, maybe we can get back by 2.”
My friend invited an acquaintance, Steve, to serve as our guide in this odd adventure. Steve was a rugged man in his mid-30s with wild blonde hair past his shoulders. A father of five and a coin trader by profession, Steve claimed to dumpster dive 100 percent of his food, adding that he hadn’t been to a store in more than six months.
In the dimly lit parking lot of a suburban co-op, we sorted through the trash, ripping open bag by bag with eager anticipation. Steve grabbed a loose piece of pepperoni pizza out from a mountain of cilantro. He took a bite.
“I’ve been on a slippery slope of what’s acceptable to eat,” he commented casually.
With our headlamps glowing, every new bag was a mystery, revealing the grocer’s remains of the day and my dinner menu for the coming week. I felt a certain sense of wonder merged with disgust, as if Christmas Day and Halloween had suddenly collided.
Steve started to orchestrate a relay race to get the goods to the car efficiently. He shuttled crates of produce, baked goods and snacks back and forth between the dumpsters and the car. There was a sort of kinetic energy, an unexpected rhythm and order to dumpster diving.
After gathering food from three dumpsters, we could no longer fit all of the findings into the car. Back at Greg’s house, we divvied up the loot. I took home a package of crackers, fresh strawberries, a sealed bag of arugula, a potted plant, nondairy cheese, potatoes and more. Over the course of the next week, I wasn’t able to eat everything I had taken. The volume of the findings from our brief outing baffled me.
The source of this abundant waste is complex. Many grocers claim that consumers are more likely to buy from fully stocked displays, which leads to overstocking and surplus goods. Other foods are thrown out for cosmetic reasons or when they are approaching their “sell by” date. Unpopular items that take up space in the store may also be thrown away.
According to Business Insider, the U.S. throws away about one-third of the food we produce. Grocery stores toss approximately 10 percent of that waste. As my experience suggests, the Twin Cities area is no exception to this problem. Driving home that night, I expressed my utter confusion to my friends. “As a society, we have these very solvable problems,” Greg responded. “And we just don’t prioritize solving them.”
The harsh realities generated by food waste are both literally and figuratively kept in the dark. According to Second Harvest Heartland, 1 in 10 households in Minnesota is affected by hunger. Many more are affected by a lack of access to healthy foods, either due to distance or income barriers. Last year, the Star Tribune reported that Minnesota ranked among the 10 worst states for access to fresh, healthy foods.
It is time to put pressure on our grocers to more responsibly dispose of their safe surplus foods. Meanwhile, we need to assist local food shelves and homeless shelters in developing partnerships with food suppliers. We must also support grocers who choose to sell safe, cosmetically imperfect produce. Issues of food waste do not exist in a vacuum. As we solve this problem, we address issues of health and inequality for all Minnesotans.
At the end of the night, Greg confessed that he hopes for a day when he can no longer dumpster dive. He put it simply: “No good food should end up in a dumpster.”
Julie Knopp lives in Minneapolis.