Diving for Dinner

In a dumpster behind a Prince Frederick supermarket, Tom Siehl, 19, left, and Bryan Meadows, 17, search for salvageable foodstuffs.
In a dumpster behind a Prince Frederick supermarket, Tom Siehl, 19, left, and Bryan Meadows, 17, search for salvageable foodstuffs. (Photos By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bryan Meadows's backpack lay open on the ground, bulging with bags of peanuts, a tub of chocolate-covered ginger and two loaves of bread. He tossed aside a few moldy pastries and was on his way back for more when he suddenly realized the jig was up.

"Can I ask what you're doing?" asked the Trader Joe's employee in a Hawaiian shirt.

Meadows was caught dumpster diving, though he is neither homeless nor destitute. He considers himself a "freegan" -- a melding of the words "free" and "vegan" -- meaning he tries not to contribute to what he sees as the exploitation of land, resources and animals wrought by commercial production.

The employee at the Trader Joe's in Falls Church was polite at first, but within 30 seconds the conversation turned antagonistic. Meadows insisted he had done nothing wrong, and the employee grew impatient with the 18-year-old college student's refusal to cooperate.

"Put all of it back in the trash and get off the property now," the employee ordered.

As Meadows saw it, that chocolate-covered ginger had a one-way ticket from the Falls Church store to the Fairfax County landfill, so he was liberating it, not stealing it. The employee saw it differently: The garbage was on his company's property, so the teenager had no claim to it. He also didn't relish the idea of someone getting sick from something carrying the Trader Joe's label.

The number of freegans in the D.C. region is anybody's guess, but the ranks appear to be growing. Spokesmen from several groceries said the sight of people behind their stores has become more common, and stores are citing trespassing laws, food-safety concerns and the fear of being sued to discourage dumpster divers.

"It's certainly something you hear about more and more," said Sarah Kenney, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market's mid-Atlantic region. "It seems like people tell their friends, and then there's an article about it and it grows."

A half-dozen longtime divers said such Web sites as Meetup.com, which connects people looking for activity partners, have seen a huge increase in the number of curious first-timers seeking fellow divers. And disillusionment with the Bush administration's environmental policies has pushed some young people to everyday forms of protest.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 96 billion pounds of food are thrown away each year, making up 12 percent of the trash produced in the United States. Because of federal and state regulations for restaurants and grocery stores, expiration dates often come before the food actually spoils. Much of it ends up in bags separate from the rest of a store's garbage, providing easy access for divers.

"I'm trying to limit my participation in some of the corporate farming practices that are terrible for the environment and aren't healthy," said Columbia Heights resident Ryan Beiler, citing pesticides, animal cruelty and pollution. "I'm struck by the absurdity of how the American economy works."

Beiler, Web editor for Sojourners magazine, estimated that 95 percent of the food he eats comes from his every-other-week dumpster runs.

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