Over the last two years, William Reid has spent just $5.50 on food.
Reid is a committed dumpster diver: He dredges unsold grub from supermarket dumpsters and collects food scraps wherever he finds them. And he feasts.
A graduate student in film and electronic media at American University in Washington, D.C., Reid forswore store-bought food in August 2014. Since then, he’s been munching on found meals of green vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, milk and candy ― really, “anything you can imagine,” he said, adding that he’s never gotten sick from food he’s scavenged, nor has he ever lacked access to healthy meals.
“My life isn’t tremendously different from other people’s,” Reid told The Huffington Post.
“Other people go shopping for their food; I’ll go around back and see what’s available,” he said. “I’m getting to make the same decisions about what I’m eating as another person would.”
Dumpster diving is legal in the U.S., though some cities have outlawed the practice. In some cases, dumpster diving requires poking around on private property, which can amount to illegal trespassing. Reid said he’s never been ticketed or hassled for picking unsold food out of dumpsters. Store employees have even handed him food they were about to toss so he wouldn’t have to rummage through trash bins.
You can watch Reid’s interview with HuffPost here:
That Reid is able to easily find good food in supermarket dumpsters is evidence of just how widespread the country’s food waste problem is. Roughly 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten, and yet one in seven American households doesn’t have a regular supply of good food.
While food is wasted at every step along the supply chain, nearly half of the country’s wasted food is lost at supermarkets and restaurants, creating a vast supply of uneaten food sitting in dumpsters and trash cans ― ripe for the taking by people who know how to find it.
“I think people would be surprised about the level of quality of food” in dumpsters, Reid said. It’s “tremendously disturbing,” he added, given how many people don’t have enough quality food to eat.
“It actually kind of sends me chills,” Reid said. “We have tremendous want and need in this country for healthy food, and we have tremendous waste.”
Reid began casually dumpster diving in early 2014, while volunteering at Food Not Bombs, an organization that collects unsold food from stores and donates it to food pantries. After several months of scrounging for food, he realized that he could eat pretty well without spending any money.
“It occurred to me that it might be possible for somebody to survive that way,” Reid said.
In August of that year, Reid began dining exclusively on discarded and donated food. He has since limited himself to food waste and, earlier this year, decided to eat only vegan food ― not because he’s vegan, but because finding free food had become “too easy,” he said. He needed an added challenge.
Going vegan was “difficult,” Reid said, noting he’s lost weight in recent months. Finding vegan food requires rummaging through lots of dumpsters. “I don’t always have time to cast my net that wide,” he told HuffPost.
Despite the challenges of finding vegan offerings, Reid said he doesn’t actually spend that much time scavenging for food. One of the biggest misconceptions about dumpster diving is that it takes hours to scrape together enough food for a meal, he noted. In reality, it usually doesn’t take any longer than it would to shop for groceries at a supermarket.
“It’s not like I have to go any more often than others,” Reid said. “I think people have this idea that there must be a big time commitment, but I go to some dumpsters that are in my neighborhood and, in 15 minutes, get some food and I’m out.”
Even so, not everyone can do what Reid does. It takes a certain amount of privilege to spend even 15 minutes a day rifling through trash cans for food. If you have a family, inflexible work hours or concerns about how you’ll be perceived, dumpster diving might not work for you.
Reid recognizes that he’s in a relatively unique position. His goal isn’t to encourage others to adopt his eating habits, but to shine a light on the absurd of amount of food waste in the U.S. He’s making a documentary about the issue that he hopes to finish in December and release in early 2017.
So, you’re probably wondering: If Reid is so good at dumpster diving, what caused him to crack and go on a $5.50 spending spree? A scheduling conflict forced Reid to spend an extra night on Deal Island, in Maryland, where he was shooting a film. He didn’t have extra food with him and had to eat what he could find.
“I was sort of stranded in a situation, and I needed something to eat and really didn’t have any options,” Reid said.
So he shelled out for a bag of Chex Mix and a protein bar.
“I was weak,” he added jokingly. “It wasn’t even real food.”
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