When I saw my friend Jackie post about going dumpster diving, aka the practice of obtaining food from trash dumpsters, my first thought was: What new hell are we going through in this country where regular moms are dumpster-diving to feed their kids?
But then I saw: Jackie wrote in her post that her food bill for the month of February, for her family of three, had been a mere $14.28. That’s a far cry from the $350-plus monthly that my household of four spends on food. So SheKnows spoke with Jackie to learn more.
“When we began dumpster diving, the goal wasn’t financial; we simply couldn’t bear the thought of perfectly good food going to waste,” Jackie explains. “Given the amount of energy it takes to grow, harvest, process, package, and ship the products we consume, having them end up in landfill — especially when so many people are food insecure — feels criminal.”
She’s right about the waste. According to USDA estimates, roughly 31 percent of the food supply — that’s 133 billion pounds, equalling $162 billion dollars — gets wasted annually. There’s really no reason anyone in this country should go hungry. And yet, far too many do — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, who wouldn’t want to fight hunger, reduce waste, and save money all at the same time? Plenty of people, it turns out; Jackie admits that many are hesitant to dumpster-dive because of the “ick” factor.
After all, how does she know that dumpster food is safe to eat? Jackie tells us that, like with anything, you just have to “use your judgement.”
“If a banana is split or a tomato is smooshed, we just use it for compost,” she explains. “Sometimes a whole carton of eggs will get thrown out because one egg is broken and they can’t sell it.”
Everything Jackie brings home from a dumpster (that doesn’t have a plastic covering) gets cleaned in vinegar and water; she and her family have never gotten sick from anything they’ve picked up in a dumpster. In fact, diving has changed the way they eat and cook in many ways. For instance, Jackie says that she wasn’t a big cooker before, but now she finds it fun.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” Jackie says of her dumpster expeditions. “I’ve made some great dishes with foods like steak, shrimp and bacon that we wouldn’t normally buy.”
And while dumpster-diving had been on her radar for a long time, it was the dumpster-diving documentary Dive! that really inspired her and her husband to take the plunge. Now, many months later, they seem to be real pros — though it’s her husband who usually goes twice per week, heading into the dumpsters with his gloves and his grab stick, while she stays home with their 10-year-old daughter.
It’s not just Jackie’s family that benefits from their diving expeditions; they often end up giving food away to friends because there’s just so much. And yes, Jackie emphasizes, the recipients do know that the food comes from dumpsters. I ask if she’s ever felt judged or received any negative feedback from friends.
“If I have, I don’t know about it,” Jackie says, adding that even her daughter is on board: “She loves that we have enough to share with others. It gives her a sense of pride.” Hey, that’s a pretty great outcome considering how embarrassed plenty of tweens we know are of their parents.
While Jackie and her family are not trying to convert anyone to this lifestyle, she has been surprised by some friends who have been inspired to give it a try because of them. And during this past Lent, she and her husband spearheaded a “fasting from food waste” group with their church; some members who picked up dumpster-diving during Lent have continued ever since.
Corey, a mom of two, has a dumpster-diving story that’s different from Jackie’s; she started diving about 10 years ago as a “broke” newlywed. She would be watching DIY projects on YouTube, and dumpster-diving videos would pop up. Eventually, she gave it a shot.
“I was mostly struck by the minivans and suburban moms on the trail,” says Corey, of her first few dives. It didn’t take her long to come up with a system. She kept a “kit” in the car, which included a pair of gloves and a stick to grab things, and she and her husband would pack up the kids and make their rounds. She’s been amazed at some of the things she’s gotten over the years, including patio furniture, a floor-to-ceiling mirror, and her favorite Kirkland items. But there are also practical finds like paperclips, medicine and baskets from craft store Michaels, which seasonally dumps a lot of inventory.
Though she doesn’t go diving as much now that her kids are older, she does drop by at least once a month, and suggests that anyone interested in giving it a try should go at night, when the stores are closed. You may also want to take a buddy. Though it’s not illegal to dumpster-dive, avoid places that have a “No Trespassing” sign. There’s also an etiquette: If someone is there first, wait your turn.
Like Jackie, Corey has sourced enough from dumpster-diving to give to others. She helped furnish her aunt’s home, donated lots of toys for Christmas, and once found her husband the perfect polo jacket.
“There’s always something to be found,” Corey tells SheKnows. “You know, we’re such consumers that I think we just want to buy things, when we don’t have to. I actually find a sense of pride with dumpster-diving. I feel resourceful.”
If, after reading these moms’ stories, you’re seeing dumpster-diving in a new light and thinking about trying it, an excellent resource is Frugal Mommy, who takes you on her diving expeditions via YouTube. And there are tons of dumpster diving groups on Facebook, where women are always looking for a dive buddy. Good luck!
To reduce your own waste, try these products that help food last longer.