July 08, 2010 News » Cover Story

One man's trash 

Dumpster-diving filmmaker Jeremy Seifert shares back-alley secrets of grocery stores

'The problem is ... they just threw, like, one thousand things in the dumpster," declares Jeremy Seifert's young son Finn, as he pulls a toy wagon stuffed with food through a YouTube video.

"They were going to put it in the landfill," explains Dad from behind the camera.

"Nooooo!" comes a cry. Seifert turns the camera on Scout, his blond-haired preschooler, whose mouth is a purple smear of freshly eaten blackberries plucked from the same bounty.

The video is a supplement of sorts to Seifert's film Dive! Living Off America's Waste, about the "art and culture of dumpster diving." The 45-minute documentary has been making the festival rounds, whetting appetites with shots of gourmet menus made from rescued food, and chalking up multiple wins, including one for "Best Call 2 Action Film" at the 2010 Boulder International Film Fest in February.

What started out as a lighthearted look at a daring way to "steal" food — dumpster diving is considered trespassing — became much more as Seifert dove deeper. With his "free-gan" friends, the 37-year-old, who spent much of his adolescence in Colorado Springs, discovered dumpsters overflowing with Pacific salmon, organic beef, free-range chicken, imported fruits, fresh vegetables and grade A eggs behind Los Angeles specialty grocers like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's. Along the way, they also learned how society encourages unimaginable waste even as people go hungry.

As a result, Seifert and colleagues will soon introduce a school-based campaign to encourage zero waste called "Eat Trash." They've also been persuading grocery stores to donate food headed for dumpsters to organizations that feed the hungry, with surprisingly mixed results.

The film, and its message of back-alley empowerment, will arrive here next week for four special screenings at Colorado College. After each, Denver-based associate producer Joshua Kunau will talk about progress the Dive! team has been making with Colorado Whole Foods stores, as well as a meeting it had last week with Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, who's pushing legislation that would encourage private-public partnerships to address child hunger.

Though he won't make it to CC, Seifert generously agreed to talk via phone last month about his brainchild, even as he waited at home in Los Angeles County, expecting the birth of a daughter. (It turned out to be a false alarm; Pearl would actually be born Tuesday, July 6.)

Indy: So, it's an interesting idea to crawl into a dumpster for a movie. ... What was it like to climb in for the first time, knowing you were going to come out with a meal?

JS: It's extremely exhilarating. It's like Christmas morning. I don't know any other way to describe it. It feels that way, especially when you start to notice your grocery bills — and you really notice it with children — and then you go to a dumpster and pull out hundreds of dollars of food. ... In five minutes, the back of your car is filled with enough food for you, your family and probably a lot of your friends. That's amazing.

The first time I went, I was a bit paranoid, not only for cops and for store employees, but just for regular people who might be staring out their car window at you like you're some kind of subhuman rat or trash-person or something. I wanted to say, "Hey, I'm an upstanding citizen. I have a family. I have a master's degree."

So there is that shame. In our society, it's not really spoken about but it's really understood that it's abnormal and not that acceptable to scrounge around in trash cans. Maybe it's somewhat acceptable to pull out a piece of furniture or a television or something, and people will think that's pretty cool, but food is something altogether different.

Indy: You talk about the shame, but I think your film actually makes it look tempting to go dumpster diving. Do other people react that way?

JS: Yeah, it's amazing. I had no idea. This is the first film I made, and I wasn't even going to submit it to festivals at first, but I sent it to a couple. And it won the first one. And now it's won 13.

But that aside, [there are] the e-mails that come in almost every day from people around the country saying, "Hey, my wife and I saw your film and there's this bakery out behind our house and we checked out the dumpster last night and we got all this amazing bread. It's so cool."

This church in Denver that Josh Kunau is a part of, they saw the film — or the pastor did, and he was like, "I want everyone to see this" — so they showed it to the whole congregation and the church started a Dive! Ministry. They pick up food from Whole Foods and I think are developing relationships with Sysco [Food Services] and a couple of others.

Indy: Has anybody been arrested as a result of the film?

JS: I don't know anybody who's been arrested. You do run into the cops every once in a while, so I hear some of those stories. But they're usually very friendly. Luckily, Josh, who is a lawyer, helped me with a little statement that comes at the end of the film that hopefully will protect me from being sued: "I'm not telling you to go dumpster diving, but ..."

Indy: I know there are bigger issues, but people are curious: What's the best meal you've ever had out of a dumpster?

JS: One of the best dumpster meals I've had was just about a week and a half ago; it was utterly amazing. There was fresh ahi tuna, and I seared it — I seared it pretty well, but it still had a strip of raw tuna in the middle — with a nice little sauce that I'd marinated it in. And then in that same dumpster dive there was some baby broccoli, and that was on the side. Then, there was this amazing sourdough bread. Really great bread. And... there was a 12-pack of stout beer. This amazing stout beer. I can't think of the name ... it's got this monk on the front. But there was one broken bottle in the pack, so there were 11 good beers.

So yeah, just about a week ago, I had ahi tuna, baby broccoli, sourdough bread and a fine stout. That was a pretty good meal.

Indy: But the goal is not to teach people how to get a free meal, but to eliminate waste?

JS: And to eliminate waste in a way that reduces it first, but then redirects it to the hungry — so that hungry people, or people who are hurting, don't have to jump into a dumpster. ...

I've gotten just a few hate mail things that say, "You are ruining dumpster diving for everyone." And I say, very politely, "I'm not trying to help dumpster divers. I am trying to expose this terrible problem, which goes much deeper than dumpster diving, and eradicate food waste in our society. That's what I'm trying to do."

Indy: You say at one point in the film that we are so rich here in America that even our dumpsters are full of food. Why do you think we've come to that?

JS: Oh, man. Well, that's what was so hard about making the film. Two things were hard about it. One was answering that question and understanding the context of it. It's not so easy that you can point the finger at the grocery stores and say, "These terrible, terrible people and corporations ..." and demonize them.

Also, it was hard making the film because when you look into the issue of food waste, the connections to so many issues just flourish. ... But in answer to your question, "Why do we waste all this food?" One simple answer is that we waste that much food because we have almost twice the amount of food we need as a country. We grow or import almost two times the caloric intake we need. ...

So why do we have twice the amount we need? Well, you've probably never gone into a grocery store and seen half-empty shelves. Why? I don't know if it's manufactured desire ... or that the grocery stores are trying to meet our expectations. But grocery stores, if you take an apple out of the bin, a guy scurries out of the back and replaces it. They want this image of abundance, that we have all that you could need and would ever want ...

And another reason for the waste is our highly processed foods. If you have a salad, in that salad you've chopped up all the vegetables ... and once you've chopped all that up, it goes bad at about five times the rate. A head of lettuce might stay good for a couple of weeks. One of those salads is really only good for a few days.

And instead of the grocery stores being conscious and being involved in their community and giving that to food banks and shelters and halfway homes, it's easier for them to throw it away. ...

Wal-Mart has now discovered it's going to be more profitable for them, better for their bottom line, and probably garner more customers to go green. So Feeding America, one of the largest food banks in the country, put pressure on them for a long time, and last year Wal-Mart said, "OK, we will give all of our food waste away." Isn't that insane?

Indy: So Wal-Mart is one of the first to do this?

JS: Yeah. Albertsons was one of the first, it was a real leader. And now Wal-Mart has done this, before Whole Foods. Think about that. That is crazy. ...

I mean, you have to question motivations. Why did Wal-Mart do this? They're obviously going to do this as a business decision. If it hurts them, they're not going to do it. But if they're throwing the food away anyway and Feeding America says, "Please do this. We will help you do this. We can make this happen." Then Wal-Mart can publish articles that say, "Hey, we're giving $100 million or $200 million in food away."

Indy: But we don't expect them to be a leader in this.

JS: No, we don't. We're in conversation with Whole Foods and Trader Joe's right now, and we're asking them to go "zero waste." And I was asking them way back when I made the film, and they wouldn't talk to me.

After I made the film ... there was an NPR story, and after that story I called up Trader Joe's and I said, "Hey I want to talk to this guy, Matt Sloan, who was interviewed. I made this film, Dive!" And they put me right through to him.

Indy: How did that go?

JS: It went really well. But it's been a couple of months now, almost, and really nothing has happened yet and we're just sort of waiting. We put them in conversation with Feeding America, hoping that they could establish a relationship and kind of work it out through them, but I've been talking with the Feeding America guy, Eric Davis, and he says, "I'm not sure. Give us a couple more weeks ..."

You can quote me on this: I hope that they resist enough so that I can cover my entire body — except I'll wear Speedos — but I'll cover my entire body in those Smart Dog wieners that they sell, and I'm going to go to their headquarters and start screaming, "Stop wasting food!" until I get arrested. That's really my dream. That's why I'm really doing this.

Indy: Just so you can have that moment on film: "The Weiner Man."

JS: Yeah. The Weiner Man strikes again. I want to do that for my children.

Indy: Were you an activist before you started dumpster diving, or did you become one because of it?

JS: Because of it. I was in the environmental club in high school. But I think I just wanted to have an extra picture in the yearbook. I wanted another opportunity to make some crazy face. ...

You know, at first I was excited about all this free food. Then, I was really upset by all the food in the dumpsters and wondering, "Why is this not going to people who need it?" And at the same time as that, I worked as an assistant on a film and traveled to Uganda, Africa, three different times. I went to the worst places there — the most beautiful people in the worst possible conditions — and I encountered children with severe malnutrition, about the same size as my son but years older, stunted in their growth, with their swollen bellies.

And I came home and drove down the street and there were hundreds of dollars worth of groceries in the trash can.

Indy: Will you teach your kids to dumpster dive?

JS: Little Pearl, when she finally comes out? Um, I don't think I'll have to. I hope they'll just know what to do. But I hope, sincerely hope, that when my kids are old enough to dumpster dive — which will be when they can ride their bikes on their own to the local dumpster — that there will be nothing in it.



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