It was about 20 minutes past midnight. The last three employees finally left Trader Joe’s, and their cars cleared the parking lot.
Joanna Wheaton, a fourth-year political science student at UCLA, let out a rallying cry: “Emerge!”
She and six other students ran to the dumpster stashed in the alley behind a Trader Joe’s location about 10 minutes from UCLA. One of them leapt onto the dumpster and lifted the lid without hesitating. They started pulling out plastic bags methodically, one after another.
Inside was a big bag of Cuties oranges. A package of premium Black Angus beef. More than a hundred bananas. Dozens and dozens of eggs. Apples, blueberries, strawberries. Lemon tarts, orange cranberry scones, triple-chocolate Bundt cakes. In total, 17 double-bagged, jumbo-sized sacks of packaged food and produce.
“This is easily $1,000 (worth of food),” said Steven Eggert, a second-year undeclared student, as the group sifted through the hundreds of food products laid out on the asphalt. “I can’t even look at all of this. Jesus.”
Almost every Friday, a small group of UCLA students meet at Wheaton’s apartment to “dumpster dive” for discarded food. Last year, Wheaton, the co-chair of the student group E3: Ecology, Economy, Equity, and a few other students jumped onto the dumpster-diving bandwagon that has trended over the past couple years in the “freegan” – or “free” and “vegan” – community. Many of them do it for free food or to save food waste from going to the landfill, leaving aside the health and legal risks involved.
“The amount of resources that are wasted – all the energy that goes into producing the food, and time, labor … I don’t want those to be wasted,” said Alyssa Curran, a fourth-year geography and environmental studies student and an E3 officer.
Some UCLA students join Wheaton on her dives regularly, while others are brought for the first time by friends. At midnight, they pack into a couple of cars and drive past North Village apartments blasting music to dig in to a dumpster behind a Trader Joe’s, wearing jeans and sneakers. The students agree it is not a typical way to spend a Friday night, but they don’t mind.
“It is pretty weird, but I think that’s what makes it entertaining,” said James Francis O’Claire, a fourth-year East Asian studies student. “It’s more interesting than just watching TV, as I probably should be doing.”
A few students tag along for the perk of free food, while many of them – green devotees who ride bikes to class and cite environmental statistics by heart – say they do it to “rescue” the food from a landfill.
Food waste comes in part from the pressure to provide customers with optimal products every day, said Andres Diaz, a Westwood Trader Joe’s employee.
According to employees, stores sometimes donate bruised, dented products or those nearing expiration to food banks in the L.A. area. But many food items are left on the shelf and do not look as appealing, so employees end up throwing them away, Diaz said. The Trader Joe’s in Westwood gets two deliveries per day to constantly provide the freshest food, so the turnover rate is relatively high, he said.
“It does hurt,” he said. “If (the food) is not perfect, (customers) are not going to buy it.”
However, some say dumpster diving is an unsanitary and hazardous activity, even if divers are trying to save food from going to waste.
“There’s no way someone can be smart enough to get into UCLA and stupid enough to (dumpster dive),” said Ryan Gardner, a Westwood Trader Joe’s employee.
Dumpster divers risk eating food that has been sitting at temperatures prone to pathogenic bacteria, mixed with chemicals from the dumpster, contaminated by vermin or spoiled, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. But Wheaton said the divers have never gotten sick from eating food they picked from the dumpster, since many products they take are wrapped and don’t require refrigeration.
Still, dumpster diving has yet to make significant headway into the Westwood area. Whole Foods Market fences its dumpsters in a back area to prevent homeless individuals from coming by, said Richard Duran, a store manager, though Wheaton said she has never seen homeless individuals digging in dumpsters. The Westwood Trader Joe’s locked its dumpsters after people tried to return food from the trash for money, Diaz said.
Employees at the Trader Joe’s where Wheaton dives said they trust their customers will not tamper with the trash, which is why they don’t lock the dumpsters. A number of employees at the students’ dumpster diving location said they had no idea it was a prime spot for divers.
“I’ve never seen anyone because the trash can smell so awful,” said Zach Lange, a Trader Joe’s employee. “It would probably be unsanitary.” But he and other employees share the same regrets divers have about wasting food.
“There’s so much hunger in our country and other parts of the world,” Lange said. “I’m sure that kids in other parts would kill for (this food).”
In addition to the health risk posed by eating potentially damaged food, the divers also wade into slightly risky waters by entering private property.
“As far as actually taking the items out of the dumpster, that’s a very difficult charge,” said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. “There would need to be other factors such as ‘no trespassing’ notices, prior (criminal) history or going to a recycling container for the likelihood of a criminal case to be filed.”
Still, none of the risks have fazed the UCLA dumpster divers. They’ve run into security guards and employees in the past, but they just leave when asked to do so, Wheaton said. She added that some employees who saw them foraging in the dumpsters even encouraged them to stay.
Wheaton said she has no fear of telling others about her midnight excursions. “I’m not really concerned with the world knowing I’m doing this (potentially) illegal activity,” she said. “I actually do feel like I am rescuing food when I’m dumpster diving – I just think that that’s worth it.”