Summer road trips are usually the stuff of cozy hotels, counting the number of VW Beetles on the road, and adventurous meals at local restaurants. But for entrepreneur and environmental activist Rob Greenfield, traveling cross-country has turned into a chance to turn the spotlight on a dirty little secret lurking in the Dumpsters behind America’s grocery and convenience stores: food waste.
Greenfield is riding his bicycle across America—which to most of us would seem adventurous enough. He started his coast-to-coast ride in San Diego on June 2 and plans to finish in New York City on Sept. 26. Halfway through his journey, Greenfield decided to see if he could eat solely out of Dumpsters located behind grocery stores and convenience stores.
Over the past decade, Dumpster divers have made headlines for the ability to use the things (food, furniture, clothing) the rest of us throw away. There’s even a new Dumpster dining restaurant in Brooklyn. But despite the movement to reduce consumption and eliminate waste, Americans still trash nearly half their food. Grocery stores chuck plenty more—produce that’s not pretty enough or boxes of cereal that are slightly crumpled. At the same time, nearly 50 million Americans are food insecure, and one in four children goes to bed hungry.
Greenfield first became aware of the food-waste issue in 2013. He set out on a 4,700-mile trip he called “Off the Grid Across America.” He simply wanted to see if he could travel without all the comforts we take for granted.
“I stripped myself of the luxuries that we overlook on a daily basis, including water and electricity from the grid, the ability to throw away garbage, the usage of fossil fuels, and food that wasn’t local, organic, and unpackaged,” he says.
He initially survived on food from farmers markets, but because hubs of locally grown fruits and veggies are often scarce, he turned to Dumpsters. His diet ended up being 70 percent Dumpster food—he ate more than 280 pounds of food from the trash receptacles. “That’s where I got the firsthand knowledge of the food waste problem in America,” Greenfield says.
This year Greenfield planned his trip route so that he could take advantage of major media markets. When he arrives in a city he holds what he calls “Food Waste Fiascoes.” He’ll grab a friend with a car, and they’ll hit up some Dumpsters.
The following day, Greenfield spreads out his finds on the grass at a local park. He uses social media to invite television stations, news outlets, and regular people to come check out his formerly trashed food and get educated about the food-waste problem.
“The stats are enormous—$165 billion worth of food thrown out each year, or about half of all the food we produce—but it’s hard for people to wrap their head around numbers,” he says. “Seeing a beautiful display of a couple thousand dollars’ worth of perfectly good food pulled from Dumpsters near them does the trick, though.”
Greenfield is financing his trip through money he earned from the marketing company he runs. He left home with just $2,000 in cash—that’s right, no credit cards—and all of his money is gone. But that’s not because he splurged at some fancy restaurant. He donated his last $421 to Food Shift, a nonprofit that works to solve America’s food-waste problem.
As for what the rest of America can do about it, Greenfield recommends that people become patrollers of their grocery store’s trash.
“Take out your smartphones, walk behind your grocery store, and open up the Dumpster,” he says. “If you see food inside, take a picture or video and tweet it at the store, telling them to #DonateNotDump.”
Greenfield also suggests that people ask store managers if they’re donating the tossed food to shelters or food banks. “Tell them they are protected by the Good Samaritan Food Act, and not a single grocery store has ever been sued after donating food to a nonprofit,” he says.
Greenfield says it’s been amazing to see how many Americans care about food waste. Once they’re aware of the problem, they’re eager to solve it.
“Nine out of 10 people I talk to are appalled by the amount of food being tossed out by grocery stores and think it should be distributed to people in need,” he says. “I’ve never found a cause that is agreed upon so unanimously.”