The large bag of Chex Mix and protein bar William Reid, 28, purchased while working on a film shoot in Maryland, is the only food he has purchased in the last two years.
“It ended up ringing up at exactly $5.50 with tax,” Reid said in an interview with Global Citizen. “The irony here is Chex Mix and a protein bar — you might not even call it real food. But the food I’m getting, you could build a nutritious meal from. And it’s free.”
Since August 2014, the American University graduate student has peered into dumpsters behind pharmacies, grocery stores, and bakeries in Washington, D.C., for the free provisions to stock his home pantry and fridge. He regularly finds fresh leafy greens, including bagged lettuce still in its cellophane, loaves of bread, bananas, individual-sized yogurts, and apples. Most of what he finds is wrapped in its original packaging. (His bathroom is currently stocked with 30 rolls of toilet paper he found in the original packaging in the dumpster behind a drugstore.) This includes fruits and vegetables still in cardboard boxes from the distributor. They’ve been tossed for no other discernible reason than lack of shelf space, he said.
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Amount lost to the grocery store: $15 billion in unsold fruits and vegetables each year. Annual grocery expenditure for Reid: $2.25.
At first blush, eating from the dumpster sounds kind of gross. But Reid wants to be clear: He is not feasting on leftovers, table scraps, or rotting and expired food. Dumpster diving is not a wet, el grosso trash-rummage à la the movie Parenthood.
“I usually sort of lean into the dumpsters and pull things out,” Reid said. “Occasionally, I’ll get in one if there’s something really good inside.” A particular brand of packaged cheese and spinach ravioli may inspire a climb in, followed by requisite “pigging out.”
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More so, his food experiment asks us to reconsider a food culture of rapid consumption and disposal.
“It is accurate to say that technically I’m eating trash,” Reid said. “But what is trash? This perfectly good food is only getting the label of ‘trash’ because someone arbitrarily decided to put it in the dumpster.”
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This is the question driving Reid’s efforts to highlight the issue of food waste and is at the heart of a global food waste problem.
According to the National Resource Defense Council, a whopping 40% of food is wasted each year in the US. That means we’re blowing $165 billion of our grocery budget each year. We’re gobbling up 50% of U.S. land, and 80 percent of all consumed freshwater to grow food that ends goes to rot in landfill piles that release methane — a gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Part of the waste is due to our cultural demand for picture-perfect food, but that’s shifting. Both Whole Foods and Wal-Mart now sell discounted “ugly” produce, California has proposed a bill to standardize “sell-by” dates, and the lines for a “food waste” grocery store in Denmark are out the door.
Learn More: What You Need to Know More About Food & Hunger
While it’s easy to see that food waste is a problem, doing something about it in your everyday life is another thing. And this makes Reid an inspiration.
To Reid, the social divide that cuts through food — dividing haves and have nots, whole foods from processed — is the most upsetting.
“A lot of the food that gets in the hands of urban poor and homeless — it leaves people fed but not nourished,” he said. “We can’t expect communities to be empowered if they’re hungry.”
Volunteering with D.C.’s chapter of Food Not Bombs and the Food Recovery Working Group, Reid works to collect food from businesses so it can wind up with those who need it. Food recovery networks could have huge impacts. Studies have found that as little as a 15 percent reduction in food waste would be enough to feed 25 million Americans every year — more than half of those currently suffering from food insecurity.
As long as food waste is a problem, Reid doesn’t foresee an end to what he thinks of as his living art project. He does plan to soon start loosening his restrictions, though, and he says his wife is eager to be taken out for dinner.
“She’s been talking about Ethiopian food,” he said. “She says that you can get a big vegetarian platter for two for $15.” Sounds like a bargain date night for most people.
“I hear $15, and I think, ‘That’s six years worth of food.’”
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