A Dumpster Diving Tally

We went dumpster diving by bicycle again and came home with $200 worth of Trader Joe’s fare.

Trash transformed

I’ve itemized the food we got, with actual or estimated costs below.

  • Carne Asada $13
  • Assorted Cheeses x6 $35
  • Fresh Basil x8 $16
  • Breaded Pork Chops x3 $22
  • Chicken Sausages $4
  • Breaded Chicken Tenders x3 $15
  • Fresh Blackberries x4 $20
  • Cubed butternut squash x3 $5
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies x4 $16
  • Chicken and Cous Cous $5
  • Cinnamon Raisin Bread $3
  • Sliced Whole Wheat Bread x2 $6
  • Bag of Lemons $3
  • Bananas $2
  • Sun Dried Tomato Pesto $3
  • Cranberry Walnut Torte $5
  • Cornbread $3
  • Eggs x30 $6
  • Mini-Baguettes 2 bags $4
  • Mushrooms x2 $4
  • Peaches x2 $1
  • Baby Spinach (bag) $3
  • Assorted sushi rolls $6
  • Handmade tortillas $2

Most of the fruit was in great shape. It’s been frozen for smoothies. I sliced up the breaded chicken tenders, and sauteed the mushrooms and baby spinach, grated two blocks of the $11/lb Italian sheep’s milk cheese, and mixed it all with our copious leftover brusccheta toppings from the garden, baked it for 45 minutes, and called it Chicken Parm. Froze most of the meat for later. Separated the good from the bad basil, and ended up keeping about half of it. Plenty for a batch of pesto, using the parmesean cheese we also rescued. Took the chocolate chip cookies in to work to supply the department with snacks at coffee hour for the week.

I think one might run the risk of gaining weight living this way…

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

17 thoughts on “A Dumpster Diving Tally”

  1. If your part was $200, collectively we must have rescued at least $700 worth of food. I was sorting out the non-cracked eggs which totaled 20 dozen. It’s amazing how much food is wasted in just one day at one market. Most days of the week large quantities of food can be found.

    1. Although, I’d probably never buy cheese that cost $11/lb, or a $13 package of pre-marinated tri-tip steak, or breaded stuffed pork chops, so the value of the food to me is somewhat less than the retail prices. In terms of food that I would actually buy (like the eggs, basil, tortillas, cheddar, or blackberries) I would guess it was more like $100. Still no small contribution to the household budget for the week.

  2. Good for you! I’m hungry just looking (and I’ve eaten well today).
    Any advice on timing, getting the group together, scouting the location, etc (not necessarily specific to Trader Joes or California)? Is the dumpster enclosure seen in the photo normally closed/locked/etc?
    Just to open the topic, not because I think you are (due to the excess of thrown away food, and because you do donate), but do you have any methods for making sure that hungrier people aren’t crowded out of the action?

  3. Well, this group goes an hour after the store closes, which means that the employees have pretty much finished putting out what they’re going to dispose of for the night, but it hasn’t been out and exposed for long, and you don’t interact with the employees too much. The enclosure was open and well lit both last time and this time. The security guard did come by, but didn’t say anything at all. I have to imagine that having 12 people, and doing it irregularly, has to make it a little less worth his while to do anything about it. I definitely think anyone doing this has a responsibility to make sure they clean up after themselves though. That’s certainly a legitimate reason for complaint from the business.

    The Meetup Group seems to be a great way to organize and schedule people, and advertise (to those who are interested) that the group exists. So far it just seems to be all-you-can-eat. Very little organization as to who gets what. There’s no shortage of dumpsters out there though (and the food is out there every night… not just once a month), so barring a Depression, I doubt there’s going to be real scarcity. Don’t take more than you can actually use seems like a good limit. We split this food with the other household on our property, and froze a bunch of it, so I think we’re okay on that front.

  4. OK, so here’s my thing about TJ’s as opposed to the other markets I regularly shop at. I have NEVER seen anything on “sale” or “reduced for quick sale” at TJ’s. Seems like if they were to take notice in advance of what food was going to be on its way to the dumpster they could reduce it and sell it and not waste as much. The Save Marts in Fresno actually take older produce and package it up and sell it cheap, which is really good if you’re looking for brown bananas for banana bread 🙂 And Karen was telling me that the produce they don’t sell gets composted. You can actually buy small bags of their fruit and vegetable compost at the store. When Winco has meat and packaged goods getting close to their “sell by” date they put big red stickers for dollars off. Or they pile the products in a shopping basket by the front of the store at half off. So I disagree that this is something all big chains do. I find it particularly disappointing that TJ’s, home of the pre-packaged plastic wrapped apricots, is so wateful 🙁 But I am certainly happy you are having yummy smoothies and salmon!

  5. Yes, Trader Joe’s has made a very explicit decision not to have sales, or to reduce prices to clear stock. They’ve made this decision to differentiate themselves from the chain supermarkets, which use sales and specials mostly as marketing gimmicks to get you into the store. They publicize the few products that are on sale widely (they’re called “loss leaders”, because they sell these items at a sometimes significant loss), and once they’ve got you in the store, assume that you’ll also do your other shopping there, and buy a bunch of other things that are overpriced. It turns out this is a good assumption in general, and a profitable way to do business. It’s also kind of dishonest, and Trader Joe’s is trying to project a “plain dealing” image.

    Trader Joe’s business model also involves selling absolutely everything by the piece, or by bar-code. There are no bulk or by-weight items, and it’s not (financially) worth paying for the labor that would be required to re-package the apricots, when only one is going bad (they all get tossed) or to sort and re-package the eggs when just one is tossed (they all get tossed… tens of dozens every day, at every store: and this at least, I suspect is true of virtually all supermarkets). There’s a terrible thing to realize here, which is that what we consider a barely “living wage” in the US, (i.e. the $11/hr plus modest benefits of a Trader Joe’s employee, which translates to something like $20k/yr after taxes) is at some level economically incompatible with the kind of material resource conservation that we environmentalists say we’d like to see. For it to make sense to sort the apricots and eggs, they either need to cost much more (increasing the food portion of the cost of living), or the labor has to be cheaper (as it likely is at a low-end chain grocery store or Super WalMart: minimum wage with absolutely no benefits whatsoever, where they do more sorting.) At least, under the current economic arrangement we have. Maybe there’s some other way to arrange things, but it’s not clear to me what that arrangement would look like.

    I suspect that there are at least 2 tiers of grocery stores. In the upper (fancier) tier, it’s not acceptable to have cosmetically imperfect, or otherwise borderline produce laying around, but in the lower tiers, it is. When we do shop, we shop in lower tier stores (small ethnic groceries) and a lot of why things are cheaper there is because they’re often cosmetically imperfect. They certainly do lower prices to clear excess stock. This is how one imagines capitalism is supposed to work, no?

    I’d also be very skeptical about Save Mart’s claim that they compost their excess produce. Skeptical enough to go take a late-night look in their bins. It would be absolutely great if they’re doing it, but I suspect it’s greenwashing BS. Watch this news clip from Australia if you haven’t already to see a couple of examples of outright lies from supermarket chains about throwing out good food (let alone what they do with actually spoiled food). The basic problem (as laid out by one of the interviewees) is that the actual cost of the produce is a relatively small proportion of their cost of doing business, disposal is nearly free, and there isn’t a well developed market, or supply chain, in place for dealing with collecting all that organic matter and turning it into valuable compost at a scale that makes commercial sense.

    The Growing Power urban farm is another wonderful example of someone diverting this waste stream and making something valuable out of it. But even at the considerable scale that they’re operating at, it’s still not really a profit-making venture. It’s self sufficient, and they get a lot of quasi-volunteer labor, and free nutrient inputs, and their mission is more about bringing high-quality fresh foods to the inner city than it is about being a successful commercial venture.

  6. It’s one thing to advertise chicken thighs for .88/lb. and cantaloupes for .33 each to get people in the stores but I don’t see anything dishonest about putting a half price sticker on packages of salmon that are on their way to the dumpster. It probably takes less labor to slap a sticker on them than it does to haul them into the alley.

    And here in Fresno not everything is sold by barcode…they sell individual apples and bananas :/

    If we’re talking dishonesty I think TJs throwing out food is even more dishonest then advertising cantaloupes for .33 because they do so many things so well, like paying a “living wage”, having lots of organics, encouraging reusable bags with their weekly $25 drawings, NOT advertising, carrying fair trade chocolate and coffee, as well as catering to people with special dietary needs like dairy and gluten free without the price gouging like Whole Foods. To me it feels like more of a betrayal. I dunno, could easily become another cause to join in an effort to save the world 😛

  7. We’ll have to make a point of visiting some more mainstream grocery stores just to test whether Trader Joe’s behavior is really unusual. I really suspect it’s not, but let’s see if we can get some evidence.

  8. At TJ’s, 10pm seems to be a good time. Really what you want to avoid is unnecessary interaction with the employees. TJ’s closes at 9pm, and by 10pm, they’ve generally cleared the stock that’s going to be cleared for the night. A lot of it is still cold, or even frozen, by the time we get our hands on it.

    Regarding donation, yes, it’s legal issues (or so I’m told), although some chains, including Whole Foods, have reportedly made some arrangements to productively divert their surplus.

  9. I know a church in Fresno that gets Trader Joe’s near expiration date stuff and distributes it. Someone I know well gets some of the stuff from them and freezes it (fish, bread, etc.) Maybe it’s a regional thing? I also think it is disgusting and just plain silly that they throw all that stuff out when there are hungry people in this country.

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