How to Spend Only $200 on Groceries in 6 Months (It’s a Little Extreme)
“My question is, if that much food is being wasted, how much of it is still good, and can I eat it?” Grant Baldwin asks at the start of food waste documentary “Just Eat It.”
The film, which he made with producer Jen Rustemeyer in Vancouver, British Columbia, documents the couple’s six-month challenge to eat only food that would otherwise be wasted -- whether expired, thrown away or donated.
“I don’t think we’re foodies. We’re more like food fans,” explains Rustemeyer, who’s been passionate about reducing food waste for years.
They didn’t intend to run a frugality experiment, as you might expect, but eating found food turns out to be an incredible way to save money on groceries.
Throughout the challenge, the couple rescued over $20,000 worth of food and spent less than $200 on groceries.
These were the challenge’s only rules:
- Eat only discarded food (anything expired, about to be thrown away or already in the trash).
- It’s OK to eat what friends and family serve. That is, if a friend invited them to dinner, they wouldn’t turn it down to avoid eating not-yet-wasted food.
Where They Found Food
The first score came early. Baldwin’s brother was moving and cleaning out his very full refrigerator, so the challenge was off to a strong start.
Throughout the next six months, a few supportive friends offered their refrigerators for clean-outs as well. The couple also relied on just a bit of good luck when they could.
“Oh my god, it’s a motherlode!” Baldwin exclaimed after getting a call from a friend who was working on a photo shoot for a pizza chain, letting the couple know about loads of photographed food being thrown away -- more chicken and bacon bits than they could possibly eat.
But mostly, the couple relied on finding their own food.
Though they were willing to pay for food that was destined for the trash, they found out most places wouldn’t sell it to them. They had to resort to dumpster-diving instead.
“We found 18-foot dumpsters all the time filled with food,” Rustemeyer told NPR. “and the majority of that was because it was near the date label, but rarely past it.”
Causes of Food Waste
Where is all this waste coming from? In making the film, the couple learned of two major sources:
- Sell-by dates for freshness cause grocery stores and households to waste -- literally -- tons of good food.
- So-called ugly vegetables rarely even make it to shelves, because we’ve come to expect the same kind of standardization in grown foods as in manufactured foods.
Because most of the couple’s dumpster-found foods were dated out of their spots on grocery or warehouse shelves, the quantities were shocking.
“I thought we would really be scrounging for foods,” Rustemeyer explains. “But it’s more like (we’re finding) mass quantities of certain foods.”
For example, there’s the swimming-pool-sized dumpster filled with near-expired -- note, not yet expired -- hummus.
Or $13,000 worth of organic chocolate bars, which they gave out at Halloween. The kids weren’t privy to the source of the candy -- they were just excited to get a full-size bar!
Common dumpster finds included dried goods like rice, plus frozen meats, bread and dairy.
They had little luck finding food behind grocery stores in the city because bins were usually locked, or the food was in a compactor. So they’d venture further out of the city, where these are less common.
Rustemeyer pointed out the quality and amount of food surprised skeptics.
“I’m pretty sure people think we’re eating food scraps, (but) we’ve been eating pretty well,” she explains.
In fact, they were finding far more in wasted food than they could eat alone. They could only take home a fraction of what they discovered in dumpsters.
To keep from re-wasting their rescued food, they even invited friends to “shop” in their kitchen when they were overstocked.
More Ways to Rescue Discarded Food
Besides rescuing food from dumpsters, where can you find discarded food?
Here are some of the tricks the film suggests:
Barter with sellers. Many places wouldn’t sell them “expired” food, but Rustemeyer rescued produce in one store when she saw it in a box about to be discarded.
The couple also bartered with sellers at farmers markets to buy the fruits and veggies no one else wanted. It usually came at a steep discount or free, since the seller would otherwise have thrown it out.
Go gleaning for wasted crops. You can join a gleaning outing to gather crops that would otherwise be left in fields to rot or be plowed under because it doesn’t meet buyers’ standards.
Shop in friends’ pantries. Develop a network among your friends and family, so when someone has excess food -- say, after a holiday or before a move -- you can take it off their hands before it hits the trash.
While they didn’t encounter food safety issues, Baldwin did raise one health concern.
After about four months, he discovered he’d gained 10 pounds since beginning the challenge, which he attributed partly to consuming more processed foods.
Cans and boxes of food tend to be the ones discarded because of sell-by dates, so you could wind up with a lot of them when you’re eating out of dumpsters.
Baldwin admitted, though, that the main issue was probably eating too much during the challenge.
He found himself rescuing more than he needed from dumpsters, sad to imagine it going to a landfill the next day. Once the food was in the house, he’d eat more than he needed, just to avoid wasting it again.
Who would have thought you’d risk overeating on a freegan diet?
After the challenge, Rustemeyer said she’d continue to buy food that’s destined to be wasted -- but was happy to end her dumpster-diving adventures.
You can learn more about the film and find or host a screening near you, at foodwastemovie.com.
Your Turn: Have you ever gone dumpster diving for food?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).