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Grassroots Groups and Local Retailers Work to Cut Down on Food Waste

Ross Chambless
Matt Delporto and other members of the BOING! House collective 'dumpster dive' outside a grocery store in Salt Lake City.

By Ross Chambless

Salt Lake City – On a recent summer night, a group of young guys in their early twenties roll up on bicycles behind a salt lake city grocery store. Dumpster diving isn't illegal here. But they're worried about being cited for trespassing. And getting caught by store staff could lead to locked bins the next time. So it's a stealthy operation.

This dumpster diving expedition, as it's called, is organized through a local anarchist collective called the BOING! House. One of the guys, Matt Delporto, who leads the escapade, crouches in the bin with a flashlight in his teeth. He pulls out cantaloupe melons, daikon radishes, carrots, and heads of lettuce, all appear perfectly edible. Another bin nearby is full of French bread, still soft, plus some packaged pre-made salads. Delporto says he finds half the food he eats this way, and he says he eats well.

"I wouldn't prefer to buy stuff from the store, even if I had money, because I figure I'm taking stuff out of the waste stream. Because, I don't know if you know this but 50 percent of the food in America that goes out on the shelves, is wasted, which I think is ridiculous," said Delporto.

So, it's not quite 50 percent. Actually the last time the U.S. department of agriculture studied the food waste problem, back in 1997, they found roughly 27 percent of America's food gets tossed. The environmental protection agency reports that food scraps make up 14 percent of all the waste going to landfills.

To stop this squandering, the BOING! House also runs a program called food-not-bombs that collects donations from a local whole foods store. They distribute the aged or expired foods to people at a local park, four days a week. Roughly one in four Utah households with children suffer from food hardship, meaning they often don't have enough money to buy food, according to the nonprofit Utahans against hunger. Yet, even those far from famished say they can usually find nourishment straight from the trash.

James is another self-described dumpster diver.

"When you say you've gotten food from the dumpster, people picture half-eaten food, or what if people spit in it?' that's the biggest thing I hear, but the reality is a lot of it is very clean. It's the same you would find in the store. It was thrown out not that long before you got there," said James.

But small grassroots groups aren't the only ones interested in reducing the amount of food waste. Now many of the stores themselves are trying to achieve this goal.

It's early morning at this Sam's club store, and Mike Wasum, a driver for the Utah food bank, carries donated foods from the loading dock into his refrigerated truck.

"We keep it above freezing so we don't damage the produce. But we're still able to maintain things like frozen meat, ice cream, whatever we might get. Today we've got a bunch of bread, tortillas, English muffins. Yesterday I had a half-pound of frozen pizza. It varies from day-to-day. It could be anything," said Wassum.

"I remember when it rolled out. It was pretty exciting not to throw food down a dumpster. It's been real efficient. They've came with their trucks. Some load with carts, some load with pallets. It's been a good relationship, but yeah, before way back, it was just in the trash," said Kara Fower, a general manager at this Sam's club

But way back wasn't that long ago. In 2006, the food bank began doing these pickups as part of its grocery rescue program. Nate call, who manages the program, says stores have responded mostly to customer demands that they be socially and environmentally responsible.

"To be quite honest, retail stores are a mirror of the consumers, of society. They're a business. They are in it to make money. And they're going to operate their stores according to what the public wants," said Call.

The program now collects food from nearly 200 stores around Utah, which supplies over 25 percent of the food bank's total inventory. This past year they diverted almost 9 million pounds of food from the landfills. It went to local food pantries instead.

"it's our goal to have it distributed, and in someone's home within 24 hours of being picked up and during our current economic climate, it's been a great help to those who have really needed it," said Call.

Other stores have also turned to composting programs to cut their waste numbers. Even still, those like Delporto, who check the back alley bins say plenty of stores and restaurants are tossing edible food.

"It is a good thing to just work with people so you don't have to dig through the trash, and you don't have to worry about liability and stuff, because there can be a weird feeling when you have a plentiful score. Like when you find a ton of food, you don't want to celebrate wastefulness," said Delporto.

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