For some people, dumpster diving is borne of necessity. For a few others it turns a small profit, and for yet others it's an occasional hobby that can reap interesting rewards. Colorado College junior Colin McCarey falls into the final category.
"If I happen to be near a dumpster," he says, "I'll look in it because people throw good stuff away."
Without hesitation, McCarey has climbed into dozens of dumpsters and gained a peek into people's lifestyles in the process. His best find to date? A fully working refrigerator that now resides in his apartment.
After sizing up the contents of dumpsters on campus, McCarey once bet a few fellow students that he could feed them for a week using food he found there. Though some friends considered it an impure form of diving — he knew much more about the contents of the on-campus dumpsters than he would know about others — he still won the bet. And McCarey says his buddies have had even better luck in retrieving tasty food from the trash.
"A friend of mine found a 25-pound bag of walnuts in Mountain Mama's dumpster," he says.
According to McCarey, getting free food in town can be tricky. A number of serious scavengers — known as "sport" divers because of their competitiveness — track disposal schedules and know just when to visit restaurant and grocery stores to retrieve the best finds.
For novices, McCarey recommends Goodwill's dumpsters. (Not that he's promoting the act of trespassing, of course.) As for those looking for food, he warns them to exercise common sense in determining what's good and what's gone.
"I'm skeptical about taking meat or vegetables out of the dumpster," he explains, "unless it's bagged and clearly not spoiled."
While McCarey has gotten comfortable even in the somewhat unforgiving world of dumpster diving, he's also become well-acquainted with more conventional methods of sharing excess food. In fact, he recently received CC's Outstanding Commitment to Social Change award for his work as the student manager at the school's Community Kitchen.
At 2 p.m. each Sunday at Shove Memorial Chapel, volunteers work together to feed Colorado Springs' poor and hungry. But their day actually starts early in the morning, with pickup of the donated items (and maybe a purchased staple or two) that will make the meal possible.
"We get things that are expired, near expiring, don't sell well," says McCarey. "Basically, anything that would otherwise get thrown out."
The kitchen typically feeds about 150 people each day, but one manager, Steve Bass, believes it actually could nourish even more. As it stands now, diners can get second and third helpings as well as food to go, and volunteers may take leftovers.
When a couple students started the kitchen more than 15 years ago, says Bass, they were inspired by a shared concern about the amount of food being tossed by campus cafeterias. Still today, campus foodservice provider Bon Appétit (which calls itself a model for what's possible in sustainable food service) is among the Community Kitchen's contributors. But the kitchen also uses donations from La Baguette and Miller Farms. And its primary donor is Whole Foods Market.
When you check the donor lists at soup kitchens and food pantries, it's no surprise to see grocery stores represented. Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, by far the area's largest food-assistance organization, lists Safeway, King Soopers, Wal-Mart and Sunflower Farmers Market among its "food partners," local organizations that "rescue healthy, nutritious, safe food from going into dumpsters and landfills."
Yet while they're some of the biggest food donors, grocery retailers can still be some of the biggest sources of waste.
When President Bill Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act into law nearly 15 years ago, the goal was to help protect those who donate food. But many organizations still cite fears about liability and safety. Consequently, they decline to give away much beyond day-old bread and dented cans.
Most local grocers appear to do more than that, but our attempts to reach people authorized to discuss practices at Safeway, King Soopers and Albertsons all failed. We had better luck, as it turned out, with the natural food stores.
Angie Preciado, marketing specialist for the Whole Foods at 7635 N. Academy Blvd., says the market will donate excess inventory as long as it's not beyond its expiration date.
Locally owned Mountain Mama Natural Foods mostly donates produce, often organic, several times a week to the Bijou House, which provides support for local homeless people. Their donations also sometimes include "a few newly expired grocery items," says store manager Jeff Fuller.
Meanwhile, marketing director Nancy Flynn says Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage prides itself on having virtually nothing in its stores go to waste. Its decision to eliminate all paper and plastic bags has earned some media attention, but fewer people are aware of how that philosophy impacts what Natural Grocers does with its food. Not only does the Lakewood-based chain make damaged, excess and certain expired goods available to food banks like Care and Share, it also sets aside produce that's past its prime for a totally different type of nonprofit.
"Sometimes animal sanctuaries will contact us and say, 'Can we have your culled produce every morning?'" explains Flynn. "And we'll put it in a separate box so it doesn't go into the trash, and they will feed it to wildlife."
Taking it to go
And then there are the restaurants. Lisa Amend, director of marketing and communications for Care and Share, notes that the nonprofit (unlike some other food banks) will accept some prepared food, as long as it hasn't been left open on a serving line. And it has created "food partnerships" with Chipotle Mexican Grill, Old Chicago, Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, Rock Bottom Brewery and Red Lobster, among others.
Other restaurants choose to deal directly with smaller organizations. As part of Panera Bread's national "Day-End Dough-Nation" program, which gave $50 million worth of bread and baked goods to community charities in 2008, the Southgate Panera gives food to seven different organizations.
"At the end of the night we donate all of our leftover bread, bagels and pastries," explains a store manager, who chose to withhold her name. "It has to be to a nonprofit organization, and it can't be to anyone that's going to resell it."
And it's within these groups that you find many of the real heroes. Generally, if they want it, the donating stores and restaurants will get rewarded with good PR. But the people who back their cars up to the warehouse doors and create the unseen link between excess and need, says Flynn, are the ones who make the system succeed.
"There's a lot of good people out there that are working really hard, trying to help themselves and other people through this economy right now," she says. "Those people are to be applauded for all their hard work. I mean, they don't get paid for it, they don't get accolades, they don't get acknowledgment, they don't get recognition, they just get the bill for the gas."