Human Racoons: Dumpster Diving for a Cause

By Emily Hunter 

bike_raccoonOut of plain sight, a small group of Toronto activists trailed back alley routes in the Annex until they hit their target – a dumpster. At 10pm on a cold October night, a small group of men and women in their 20’s sifted through garbage bags, empty wooden crates and cut-up cardboard boxes, like human raccoons.  Flashlights beamed through the smelly pits, as pairs of legs dangled out. It was the urban version of finding some buried treasure.

The haul included peppers of every colour in perfect form, a slightly browned bunch of bananas, an overly ripened squash, scrumptious looking eggplant and even a chocolate bar in its original wrapping. By the end, it was a bountiful harvest of mostly fruits and veggies – all from the inside of a grocery store garbage bin.

This was a typical Friday night dumpster dive for the activists of Food Not Bombs Toronto. The group is only a year old and has a core team of eight who “dive” every two weeks. Searching through the trash of a downtown grocery store, the group claims that perfectly edible and safe food is being wasted — food that could help feed the hungry in the city.

“What we found here tonight was just a small, little haul from some small, little market grocers; throughout the city there are truckloads of food we could use every day,” said Jay Wydra, 38, one of the divers.

Food Not Bombs Toronto is part of a global underground movement that feeds the food insecure, such as homeless and low-income people. The FNB movement started nearly 30 years ago as an anti-war group in the United States, but has expanded to feeding the hungry using food waste in over 1,000 cities around the world. In Canada, there are over 30 FNB chapters and plenty of food waste to be reclaimed.

As of 2007, nearly 40 per cent of food produced is never eaten, but thrown into the trash, according to Statistics Canada. In Toronto, two-thirds of the city’s food waste comes from manufacturers, grocery store chains and restaurants, say officials at the City of Toronto.

“We find exorbitant amounts of wasted food in this city,” said Sammy Knight (name changed for anonymity), a FNB member. “We find enough food to feed 60 people every time.”

While FNB targets small-scale grocery store dumpsters, larger grocery stores and food business waste even more. “Grocery stores throw out over $10,000 worth of food every month,” admitted a former employee at Highland Farms, Charles Hitchings (pseudonym).

The reasons grocery stores trash the food are multiple: overstocking, items nearing the end of their shelf life, damaged packaging, even just incorrect labeling. But for the FNB activists, those aren’t good enough reasons to not use the food to feed the hungry.

“Food isn’t necessarily thrown out because its gone bad – it has more to do with how wasteful our society is,” said FNB member Alex Charlton (pseudonym). “Instead of just wasting all this food, that waste can be given to someone else.”

With over 50 per cent of the working poor in Toronto unable to purchase food and over 30,000 homeless, according to the city, these young activists have taken it upon themselves to feed some of the hungry from trash.

That Friday night, as the group scanned over their recovered items, another activist arrived with a shopping cart welded to his bike. He was one of the veterans of the group, dumpster diving for decades, and the group cheered his arrival. Soon after the activists quickly filled his shopping cart to the brim with apples, cucumbers, even guava and the collection of eatables they’d procured that night. Then, the cyclist took off into the night to begin preparing the food at an activist hangout.

Perhaps it was a quick retreat for fear of getting caught. The group’s activities are illegal after all, as they trespass on private property, steal from private dumpsters and serve food without a permit.  But the group says none of this matters since morals trump law.

Not everyone agrees. There are legal ramifications for diving for food that implicate the small business grocer, said Taslim Jamal, an owner of the small grocery store, the Wholesome Market. Despite her store’s dumpster never targeted by divers, she said: “There is a lot of regulations surrounding food and if people were to take food from a dumpster, the grocery store itself could still be liable if people got sick from that food, even if someone stole it,” Jamal said.

Toronto Public Health says the health risks associated with dumpster diving outweigh the benefits. “There’s no guarantees with what’s put in a dumpster, of what’s healthy and what’s not, it all gets mixed in,” said Wolf Saxler, manager of food safety, reminding that rodents, insects and worms fester in dumpsters.

But Charlton says the city is demonizing the group. He argues that FNB takes special precautions for the safety of the food they procure. For example, the group targets fruit and vegetables markets and only collects raw foods, he said.

That still doesn’t satisfy everyone. “Food out of a dumpster is still food out of a dumpster,” said Aileen Shannon, program director for Saint Stephens Community House, a homeless shelter. Beyond health issues, there are social issues to consider. “Quite frankly it’s demeaning to feed homeless people from a dumpster,” Shannon said.

Charlton disagrees. He says food out of dumpster is good enough for anyone to eat. “I myself eat out of a dumpster and I’m not homeless,” he said. “We ourselves eat the food and feed it to anyone who might want it.”

However, critics point out that there are alternatives to dumpster diving. The organization Second Harvest makes legal arrangements with large grocery chains, manufacturers and restaurants to collect food for the hungry before it hits the dumpster. “The food we collect turns into 16,000 meals a day in the city,” said Stephen Faul, executive director of Second Harvest. “A lot of this food would otherwise be put to landfills.”

Second Harvest feeds nearly 250 social service agencies, including shelters for the homeless, refugees, women who face abuse, children’s aid programs and so on. Last year, the group collected 6.4 million pounds of food, twice as much as eight years ago. “This is only the tipping of the iceberg of what’s out there,” lamented Blayne Walker, an employee of Second Harvest.

Which is why for the FNB activists, as long as food waste still exists, they will continue to dumpster dive.

The following Sunday, the dumpster food — after being cleaned, chopped and cooked —was served to homeless people in Christie Pits Park. A small but steady line of people surrounded the food, as the activists doled out their culinary creations — either wrapping the food in tinfoil for later or serving it on a plate to eat right there and then.

There was a rice and veggie stir-fry, some warm and toasty bread, pumpkin lasagna, fruit salad and banana bread, just to name a few of the dishes offered. Feeding over 40 people that day, the dumpster dive was considered a victory by the FNB activists.

Maybe the victory was only realized when one man being served said: “This will feed me all night.” For that’s what it was all about from the first pick of the trash that Friday night.

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