Who knew dumpster diving — where one salvages edible food from those large metal bins waiting for the garbage truck outside of supermarkets and restaurants — had rules?
In “Dive!,” a documentary directed by Jeremy Seifert, we not only learn the rules but find out the ramifications of a societal view where food that is still “good” is thrown out by the billions of pounds a year in this country alone.
With humor and a passel of facts, Mr. Seifert and his merry band scrounge southern California’s land of milk and honey and “purplish chicken” at night, climbing over fences, dealing with locked dumpsters, and regularly hauling out complete bags of, say, roaster chickens just about to expire — again. Or beef, or cartons of eggs where one egg is cracked, or bags of fruit where one is rotten. With a simple glee, these divers convey a dual amazement at their luck in finding enough food for many meals, and the willingness of supermarkets to consider this worthless.
One chain, Trader Joe’s, headquartered in California, is singled out first for the inexplicable quality of its refuse, but then Mr. Seifert gives the chain credit for its participation in the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, encourages food donations to nonprofits by allowing donor liability to come into play only in instances of gross negligence.
So after chastising the executives of Trader Joe’s for their unwillingness to talk on camera about their trash (the throwaway is never referred to as garbage), Mr. Seifert has to eat a little crow — with a side of squashed squash? — when he finds out how much nearly-expired food of theirs goes to the God Provides food bank. And when New Year’s Eve rolls around, since Trader Joe’s would be closed for an extra day, the food is even less close to its expiration and plenty of it gets given to the Salvation Army shelter.
Notwithstanding these isolated charitable acts, the numbers presented by Mr. Seifert are staggering, in more ways than one. Every year in America, for instance, 96 billions pounds of food are thrown away. One-half of all the food prepared in the U.S. and Europe is uneaten.
And the factoids roll on and on, albeit presented in some attractive animation at times. For example, wasted food is converted into 453,257 full boxcars that stretch forever; or Haitian meals that would last five years. Some of these jury-rigged extrapolations serve to bring world hunger issues into the table conversation, but they also numb the brain like too much fugu fish, a poisonous delicacy that is supposed to only give your lips a danger-loving tingle.
Through the narrative, Mr. Seifert maintains his messianic zeal not to have food go to waste. But it is an odd lens for the viewer to look through to gain Mr. Seifert’s perspective when, on the one hand, he says that a pound of beef requires seven pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water to raise, and, on the other, he says of his family, “I am feeding a small child trash.”
Dr. Timothy Jones of the University of Arizona echoes the layers of waste when he notes the fertilizer (and feed for animals) used to raise the food, the land degradation, the labor, etc., all lost.
The film has more than its share of moralizing, even turning to images of patriotism and nostalgia: grandparents’ sense of “waste no, want not” and the efforts during World War II to exhort Americans to “clean their plates” and plant Victory Gardens of vegetables. We have lost our way, Mr. Seifert says, and now risk turning the planet into one more consumable to throw away early.
The scenes of the human rats, if you will, diving at night into bins for food are leavened by the group’s rules, cheerfully adhered to: Never take more than you need — unless you find it a good home. Leave it cleaner than you found it. And the first one to the dumpster has first dibs, but you always have to share.
Now there are some maxims one’s grandparents could live with.
“Dive!,” Friday, June 15, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Co-hosted by M.V. Film Society, Vineyard Conservation Society, and M.V. Permanent Endowment. NR. $8; $5 members. 508-696-9369; mvfilmsociety.com.
Wayne K. Greenwell is a playwright and director of the Island Theatre Workshop Playwrights’ Studio that meets twice a month in West Tisbury.