Kate Richards gets a taste of dump­ster div­ing and a vegie feast.

Kate Richards gets a taste of dump­ster div­ing – and a food-res­cue veg­e­tar­ian feast. Kate Richards is North & South’s food writer. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Rebekah Robin­son.

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The first time I go to Dive N Dine, a col­lab­o­ra­tive fort­nightly din­ner where food is saved from su­per­mar­ket bins and made into a three- course veg­e­tar­ian feast, the or­gan­is­ers have been busted on their Mon­day night scav­enge.

A mes­sage posted on the event’s Face­book page reads “Tough night in the dump­ster, we got busted, so this week we need a lit­tle help. We need: rice, three onions and three cans of co­conut milk, ’erbs ( basil, co­rian­der and rose­mary). If you can’t bring these, please bring koha. Thanks, Dive N Dine ex­ec­u­tive chef, Tom.”

The of­fers quickly pour in: “I can bring some rice.” “I have rose­mary.” “I’ll bring co­conut milk but I’ve only got two cans…” “No wor­ries, I’ve got the other!” When we ar­rive in a two-car con­voy at 6pm to or­gan­iser Tom’s Auck­land flat, there’s a car­damom- and gin­ger­laced vegetable curry bub­bling away on the stove, pineap­ple juice be­ing passed round, and pineap­ple sor­bet – made us­ing the flesh dis­carded af­ter juic­ing – about to go into the freezer.

In the flat’s cramped, 70s-style kitchen, var­i­ous bearded, sec­ond­hand clothes-wear­ing hip­ster types are pitch­ing in with the en­tree, grab­bing veg­eta­bles and ex­pen­sive bread out of two com­mer­cial-look­ing plas­tic bas­kets in the cen­tre of the room to make “dump­ster br­uschetta”. Tom later ex­plains the event at­tracts

peo­ple on the fringe of nor­mal­ity. “The dis­en­chanted, the artists...” he says.

There’s fruit, too, moun­tains of it: some 15 pineap­ple halves, bags of un­opened man­darins (each with only a sin­gle squashed one), ba­nanas, ap­ples – all of it im­per­fect-look­ing but en­tirely ed­i­ble. Through­out the night, those who don’t cook help with other tasks: hand­ing out plates of food, wash­ing up, dry­ing. Tom burns a sage stick as we all par­tic­i­pate in a guided group med­i­ta­tion, while sit­ting in a cir­cle on the lounge floor, our eyes closed and hold­ing hands. On an­other visit, strangers trade hugs like cur­rency, and there’s an im­promptu clothes swap fol­lowed by a talk on sus­tain­able liv­ing. The sense of com­mune-ish com­mu­nity is pal­pa­ble.

This isn’t even a par­tic­u­larly sub­stan­tial haul of dis­carded food, Tom tells me as we eat. “We used to take way too much and end up wast­ing things our­selves, so now we take less,” he says.

But faced with the amount of food that’s come from just one bin out­side one su­per­mar­ket in one city, it’s sober­ing to think about what the divers left be­hind – in­evitably des­tined for land­fill.

Tom and his part­ner in crime, Janie, never take meat, for ex­am­ple, de­spite of­ten find­ing it. At a spe­cial­ist food mar­ket, they once found a whole box of in- date An­gus beef pat­ties, which they reck­oned was worth about $500, but their strict veg­e­tar­i­an­ism

dic­tated they leave it there.

“I eat lots of dairy and things that I wouldn’t usu­ally eat, but never meat,” says Tom. “I have no de­sire to eat it. Plus there’s a risk of get­ting sick and you don’t get that with [scav­enged] veg.”

Food-waste char­ity Love Food Hate Waste, which launched in the UK in 2007, says a third of food pro­duced glob­ally is wasted ev­ery year; at the same time, UN re­search says one in nine peo­ple doesn’t have enough to eat.

Tom and his two fel­low “divers” don’t need to eat out of su­per­mar­ket bins. Two are stu­dents and one a cafe worker; they have reg­u­lar in­comes, be that salary or stu­dent al­lowance, and they come from mid­dle-class fam­i­lies. When div­ing, they wear plain clothes (not the shady black out­fits I was ex­pect­ing) and aren’t em­bar­rassed about what they’re do­ing or scared of be­ing caught. In le­gal terms, dump­ster div­ing is con­sid­ered tres­pass and theft. Tom’s re­sponse: “It’s crim­i­nal throw­ing away all this food.”

While he’s the first to ad­mit he’s stingy – say­ing he’s spent al­most noth­ing on gro­ceries since start­ing to dive in Fe­bru­ary this year – Dive N Dine is as much a so­cial-jus­tice mis­sion as it is a money-sav­ing ex­er­cise. How­ever, watch­ing Tom and Janie el­bow- deep in bins at a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket re­cov­er­ing fist­fuls of med­jool dates, loose macadamias and av­o­ca­dos with ob­vi­ous de­light, it’s clear to me that

the thrill of find­ing more ex­pen­sive items cer­tainly isn’t lost on them, ei­ther. They tell me the best haul they’ve had in­cluded an en­tire car­ton of pre­mium co­conut yo­ghurt, which re­tails at around $7 a jar.

For some­one liv­ing off $120 a week af­ter rent and who barely spends a cent on any­thing other than gigs and petrol, Tom is sur­pris­ingly in touch with what things cost. When I ask how much he thinks the group has saved from bins since they started Dive N Dine, he says: “I think $5000 would be a nice clean fig­ure. Some­times when we were get­ting a shit-load of stuff be­cause it was fun and we liked get­ting it, we’d save around $500 worth of food in one night.”

Tom and fel­low stu­dent Janie are study­ing so­cial work. He’s in his fi­nal se­mes­ter at Unitec; she’s in her first year of a master’s at the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land. Both see these din­ners, and dump­ster div­ing, as an ex­ten­sion of their stud­ies.

“It started be­cause winter is a time when peo­ple find it hard to get out and be so­cial,” ex­plains Tom. “A few of my friends have moved away and my girl­friend is spend­ing some time over­seas, so I wanted to cre­ate a com­mu­nity of friends that had a rea­son to get to­gether reg­u­larly.” For him, Dive N Dine con­sti­tutes com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment, a sec­tor of so­cial work he’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in, be­cause the

event is about bring­ing peo­ple to­gether, as well as pre­vent­ing food waste.

It’s sur­pris­ing to hear the din­ners ex­plained like this. An awk­ward host, Tom is shy when peo­ple ini­tially ar­rive at his house, dart­ing in and out of the kitchen to check on things, de­spite all the prep be­ing done and the meal cook­ing it­self. He says he’d strug­gle to at­tend a din­ner like Dive N Dine if he wasn’t host­ing it, and it’s ob­vi­ous the in­vi­tees are part of his in­ner cir­cle.

I wanted to go div­ing with Tom and Janie, to see first-hand what’s in the bins at their lo­cal hot-spots. So on a par­tic­u­larly cold Mon­day evening, we ar­range to meet at 11pm, down the road from an Auck­land su­per­mar­ket. In typ­i­cally re­laxed fash­ion, they show up at 11.30pm, al­most amused I’m on time. But things quickly turn se­ri­ous as pho­tog­ra­pher Rebekah and I take a seat in the back of Janie’s sta­tion­wagon for a pre- dive brief­ing. “Don’t get any pho­tos of the signs,” Tom says, “and we need to be quiet when we’re in there.” Rebekah is keen for them to take things slower than usual so we can cap­ture the ac­tion, but they can’t prom­ise they will, clearly wor­ried about los­ing the spoils.

The gates to the back of the su­per­mar­ket used to be open, so the pair were able to walk in and take what they wanted. Tonight, they’re locked – Tom as­sumes as a re­sponse to him be­ing caught twice at this lo­ca­tion – and we have to roll un­der­neath low wire bars on the cold tar­mac to get in, then pass plas­tic bins and cam­eras over the fence. Once inside, they quickly get to work on the green pro­duce bins. “You ain’t work­ing with no ama­teurs, lady,” says Janie, as she wades through a sur­face layer of cab­bage leaves and cau­li­flower trim­mings to un­cover the good stuff.

The faint shuf­fles of late-shift work­ers can be heard from be­hind the metal roller- door right next to where we’re scav­eng­ing. I feel un­nerved by both the sounds and over­head se­cu­rity cam­eras,

but Tom and Janie are un­per­turbed. As the empty boxes we came in with be­gin to fill with food, I can’t help but feel Tom has a point – it seems crim­i­nal that this much food should be thrown away. I want to know why. “Macadamias, sweet!” yells Janie, who can hardly be­lieve her luck. The bin thieves gather their fi­nal items and we head to an­other nearby food store where we’re told there will be plenty of bread and pas­tries.

Much has been made lately of food­bank and food-res­cue groups such as Auck­land, Dunedin, Hawke’s Bay and soon-to-be Queen­stown’s Ki­wi­har­vest, and Welling­ton’s Kai­bosh, which part­ner with su­per­mar­kets to di­vert food from land­fill and re­dis­tribute it to those in need. Food­stuffs and Pro­gres­sive su­per­mar­kets also work with char­i­ties such as the Sal­va­tion Army and Fair Food NZ to give non-per­ish­able food parcels to the needy. In 2017, Count­down do­nated more than $2 mil­lion worth of food scraps to farm­ers. While there are sys­tems in place to min­imise the amount of food thrown away, Tom and Janie still find a lot that’s ed­i­ble. Tom as­sumes the rea­son for this is is­sues around hy­giene and com­pany li­a­bil­ity.

A state­ment from An­toinette Laird, head of ex­ter­nal re­la­tions at Food­stuffs New Zealand (Pak’nsave, New World and Four Square) con­firms this. “We ap­pre­ci­ate some peo­ple see dump­ster div­ing as a way of ac­cess­ing free food,” she writes. “While we ac­knowl­edge some items may still be ed­i­ble, there are sig­nif­i­cant health risks as­so­ci­ated with such an ac­tiv­ity and we strongly rec­om­mend against it.”

Pro­gres­sive spokesper­son Kate Porter (Count­down) takes a sim­i­lar stance. “There are many rea­sons why food has to be thrown out,” she says. “The first is food safety; if a prod­uct has ac­ci­den­tally ended up on the floor, or if it’s been re­called for any rea­son, we can­not do­nate this. While a prod­uct may look okay on the sur­face, food safety may have been com­pro­mised.”

Tom is mild-man­nered, but it’s ob­vi­ous the wastage up­sets him. He of­ten finds com­post, rub­bish and re­cy­cling all mixed up. “The epit­ome of it all was find­ing a com­post bin filled with plas­tic-wrapped bread,” he says, “The su­per­mar­kets have been quick to jump on the plas­tic-free thing, but if you look in their bins, you do won­der if they ac­tu­ally care about the en­vi­ron­ment. I’ve put stuff in the right bins for them.”

Porter wants to know if any of those of­fend­ing stores are theirs. She says they pub­licly re­port their waste and re­cy­cling vol­umes on their web­site. “If a store isn’t fol­low­ing our com­pre­hen­sive pro­cesses, we’d like to be able to in­ves­ti­gate so we can fix it.”

Waste is ev­ery­one’s prob­lem, of course. Porter makes the point that the best way for cus­tomers to re­duce food waste is to use and con­sume every­thing they buy. Most of us are guilty of throw­ing away wilt­ing veg­eta­bles, odd ends of cheese, stale bread and more, but there are ways to re­pur­pose these to en­sure that – like the dump­ster divers’ – our en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print is a light one.

Freeze veg­eta­bles as they start to brown or go soft – when you have enough, boil with wa­ter and plenty of salt to make stock. Parme­san rinds are great for adding flavour to pasta sauces, and stale bread can be used in myr­iad ways: for the Ital­ian to­mato-and-bread salad pan­zanella, as bread­crumbs, or crou­tons on soup.

Take a leaf out of eco warrior Tom’s book and just think of it as dump­ster div­ing in your own fridge.

Dump­ster divers Tom and Janie hunt for spoils in a su­per­mar­ket bin, un­per­turbed by over­head se­cu­rity cam­eras.

The gates used to be open here, so the pair could walk in and take what they wanted. Tonight, they’re locked – Tom as­sumes as a re­sponse to him be­ing caught twice at this lo­ca­tion (dump­ster div­ing is con­sid­ered tres­pass and theft).

Pick­ings from the bin raid in­clude pineap­ples, ba­nanas, ap­ples and un­opened bags of man­darins with a sin­gle piece of squashed fruit in each one – all of it im­per­fect-look­ing but en­tirely ed­i­ble.

“You ain’t work­ing with no ama­teurs, lady,” says Janie, as she wades through a sur­face layer of cab­bage leaves and cau­li­flower trim­mings to un­cover the good stuff.

Op­po­site and top: A spe­cial­ist food store’s bins nearly al­ways sup­ply still-wrapped bread and pas­tries. Above: The not so-spoiled spoils of one su­per­mar­ket scav­enge.

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