Tag Archives: poverty

Dive! Living Off America’s Waste

A unique film whose time has finally arrived, Dive! focuses upon people who “dumpster dive” in Los Angeles, in search of recently discarded food from grocery stores. Divers salvage safe, quality food from the dumpsters and use it to prepare meals with. While salvaging or gleaning is an old practice (probably thousands of years old, dating back to the earliest farms), as applied to the supermarket era, this is a relatively new phenomenon.

The film’s characters are people who have a social critique of wasteful consumerism and are not squeamish about picking through trash to find things they believe should not be classified as trash. Many are hipster-looking, all are white, and mostly male. Many, including the film director, are comfortable salvaging meat—at least when it’s been recently frozen or cooled—which suggests they are omnivores or at least freegans (willing to eat meat if they don’t pay for it). While the film presents an analysis of meat’s wastefulness (i.e., translating calories of grain into animal meat) there is little concern with reversing this tide of bad eating, or encouraging there to be less meat production. This illustrates one of the main problems with the film: there is a superficial critique of the problem of distribution, but no structural analysis of why the problematic food system is as it is.

The documentary does give an admirable analysis of food inequality in the US and why salvaging is needed to better use food surplus. Here, Dive! discusses poverty, especially in a big city like LA, where hundreds of thousands are poor and face food insecurity daily (meaning individuals are unsure of where their next meal is coming from). This stark poverty is contrasted with an analysis of all the ways in which food is wasted, from the field to shipping to the grocery store aisle to consumer’s plates. In the US, half of all food grown is ultimately wasted and not consumed. While the divers’ intervention (at the point of commerce) is one of the less “lossy” parts (compared to fields and from consumers), it is clear that an incredible amount of perfectly good food is thrown-out all the time when it could be better consumed by many of the poor people who live in close vicinity to these sources of loss.

The director focuses upon a “good Samaritan” law that allows people to glean food from dumpsters—although the divers themselves are shown debating with each other whether or not it’s acceptable to go into a locked dumpster (most think it’s okay, given the value of salvaging food). He focuses a lot of attention on the Trader Joe’s corporation, often seen as an eco-friendly supermarket, but whose dumpsters are often full of perfectly good produce. Divers simply toss-out any rotting food and save the good food; in many bags, there’s only a few items that are going bad, but consumers will pass-over the entire bag. and, thus it is never sold, although the rest of the contents are acceptable.

Food charities—who for decades have been serving in a greater capacities as stand-ins for government assistance during right-wing regression of the social safety nets—are also featured prominently. Most charity providers would like access to more food—especially fresh produce to prepare meals with—but do not have enough access or resources. The film reveals that some supermarkets are providing food items to these charities, but not all. The most commonly donated item is bread, which rots slower, but is less needed due to its oversupply. Grocers seem very concerned with avoiding liability from possible lawsuits due to food poisoning experienced by those who salvage food. The director makes it his personal mission (almost a la Michael Moore) to get Trader Joe’s to explain their dumpsters full of ripe produce, but he gets consistently shrugged off. He finally discovers that managers and PR agents are less open to the conversation that are rank-and-file grocery store employees, who are more willing to dialogue and sometimes set aside food.

One nice aspect of Dive! is that it normalizes dumpster diving—at least to the extent that people can identify with the characters it features—who seem nice, principled, and sometimes funny. They use the salvaged food to make delicious meals for themselves and others. The community of divers is made up of counter-cultural people who have values critical of the industrial food system. They even have three admirable “rules” to diving that they enforce upon themselves, including taking only what you need, first one in gets to pick first (but has to share), and leaving the dumpster cleaner than when they found it.

As someone who worked for years with Food Not Bombs (FNB)—an organization that does very similar salvaging efforts—I was both encouraged and disappointed by Dive!. It is nice to see this practice being promoted and explained to wider audiences, and the critique of poverty and waste is welcome. But, most of the food was being consumed by the divers themselves, who many admitted they didn’t actually need it, economically-speaking. (The film does note that the divers began to see people who likely couldn’t actually afford to buy food eventually going in dumpsters, too.) While toward the end of the film the diver community engineers a large pick-up to deliver to a charity, there seemed to be a reformist attitude that I thought was only scratching the surface of the issues at hand.

Even FNB—which is in fact a radically-oriented, anti-capitalist activist and mutual aid project—does not completely work “outside the system”, as it relies upon the excesses and waste of capitalism. As such, FNB and charities both need waste in order to function. Of course, part of FNB’s work is to illustrate this waste and to prefigure (or suggest through demonstration) better ways of behaving in the world. But, diving is still dependent upon the system’s dysfunctions to persist. If supermarkets get less wasteful or farms produce less food, all that does is just rein in waste, but does not address the inequality of the system itself.

The director admirably cites a Noam Chomsky quote about activism—that it is important to act in order to create progressive change, since those in power rarely do it themselves. But, the film ultimately recommends a reformist solution: better salvaging for the poor, as opposed to ending the institution that both produces the waste and creates poverty: capitalism. All the same, Dive! is a good conversation-starter about this issue of food waste and poverty, and does a great job of humanizing people who are principled and concerned about these issues. I imagine that many people who see this film will not pass by dumpsters with the same indifference again!

Topics: food, poverty, environmental, social movements