Whole Foods is the Least Sustainable Food Source

When I was a kid, pineapple came in cans. The canning factories were near the pineapple fields. The cans went by ship to Los Angeles, and then by train and truck around the country. The cans could sit on a shelf for years. The pineapple skins and waste went to nearby hog farms. Nothing was wasted.

Then supermarkets started selling fresh pineapples, flown in from Hawaii. The pineapples were thrown out after a week if no one bought them, and jets use more fuel than ships.

Now Whole Foods sells pineapple spears in plastic deli containers. The employees cut up the pineapples in the morning and throw out what customers don’t buy at the end of the day.

Our “on demand” food culture is hugely wasteful. We walk into Whole Foods and expect to find fresh foods, from around the world, prepared for us at any time between 7am and 10pm. If you want to reduce your food waste, buy canned goods at Costco.

We dumpster dived Whole Foods for two years. Here are some pictures I took:

Magic elves refilled our refrigerator every night.

Every morning we’d wake up and see what the magic elves had filled our refrigerator with. I can’t count how many strange, and sometimes wonderful, new foods we tried.

I love seafood.

Food safety wasn’t an issue. I microwaved everything. Whole Foods’ deli containers are bullet proof. In Colorado at night the dumpsters are as cold as refrigerators nine months of the year. Some Whole Foods employees went out of their way to double or triple bag food for the dumpster divers. Whole Foods throws out deli items before their pull dates. For example, breakfast burritos are made fresh each morning and thrown out at closing, but have a three-day expiration date, so we’d get them with two days left.

Oysters Rockefeller, Maryland crab cakes, smoked salmon, steak, apple juice, cheese.

Expensive foods are thrown out, because few people buy them. We got seven pounds of $35/pound artisanal Vermont cheese individually packaged in handmade birchbark containers. We got boxes of $40/pound French cookies. We rarely found inexpensive foods such as peanut butter. Beans and rice were a special treat that we had to go to the store and buy.

Few American AirBnB guests would touch dumpster-dived food, but European graduate students loved it. A Swiss chemical engineering post-doc stayed with us two months and never bought groceries. A Japanese quantum computing undergraduate was staying with us at the same time. It was the Japanese student’s first time away from home, and his English wasn’t great. Every night we’d make a big dinner (i.e., microwave everything the Whole Foods deli had thrown out the night before) and the Japanese student would happily try new American foods and listen as the Swiss student talked about politics with us. Comparing Swiss and American gun culture particularly interested the Japanese student. Food brings people together and makes guests feel they’re part of the family.

A Latvian guest arrived the day we got a case of blueberry pork sausages. Every day he drove home for lunch and grilled five sausages, then grilled five more for dinner. “Best sausages I’ve ever tasted!” he’d say. He also liked the $800 Italian capuchino maker rescued from another dumpster.

Desserts by the bag.

Everyone who came to our house left with a bag of food. People would politely say that they didn’t need anything, or would just take a few items, but when they saw what we had in our refrigerator they stopped resisting. In an economy of abundance, we had to work hard to give away all this food.

Night of the cheese.

One night we found 450 pounds of European cheeses, worth over $7000. During a transfer between stores, this cheese was left unrefrigerated for too long. Like loading docks aren’t refrigerated enough in February in Colorado. We also got two ounces of caviar, which we traded with several wheels of cheese to a Masonic lodge for a big refrigerator for us to store the cheese. The refrigerator was dropped on me while we were moving it and I was lucky that my leg wasn’t broken. Too much of a good thing!

We ate a lot of meat. My dog ate grass-fed organic steaks every night. One night we got twenty pound steaks, vacuum packed and frozen, two to a box, four boxes, labeled “Use or freeze by September 1.” It was September 2. You and I might disagree whether animals should be slaughtered for food, but I think we agree that animals shouldn’t be slaughtered to fill dumpsters.

If one egg is broken, they throw out the dozen. If the broken egg leaked onto other egg boxes in the crate, they throw out six dozen eggs. Surely they could use the other 71 eggs for breakfast burritos?

Regularly we’d open the Whole Foods dumpster and find the food covered with bags of cannabis. I mean garbage bags, not baggies. 40 pounds is considerably over the 1 ounce Colorado allows. Unlicensed grow operations have to throw out their leaves and stems somewhere other than their own dumpsters, to avoid discovery. Whole Foods was their preferred dumpster.

We lived next door to a food rescue organization that redistributed hundreds of tons of produce and packaged goods from the supermarkets to the homeless shelters and food banks. They didn’t take meat, seafood, deli, cheese, or bakery items. There are a couple issues here. One is refrigeration. The food rescue organization uses bikes with huge trailers. They’d need to use refrigerated trucks to take perishable foods, for at least part of the year. Second, the food rescue volunteers did their pickups around 10am, because the homeless shelters and food banks want the deliveries before noon. But 10am is when supermarkets are receiving deliveries. They throw out food at closing. The food rescue organizations redistribute only a fraction of the food supermarkets discard.

We’d share our dumpster dived food with the food rescue neighbors. One day we gave them boxes of mini chocolate chip cannoli. I got to say, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

The root of the food waste problem is the FDA’s food safety rules, which were written by the food industry to maximize the food that gets thrown out. Those eggs in your refrigerator are safe to eat well past their sell-by date. Let’s rethink these rules, perhaps with two dates for sell-by and use-by. And instead of making these dates almost impossible to read on packages let’s print them as clearly as the ingredients label.

Next, ask your favorite supermarket to not throw out food before the sell-by dates. Ask for markdown bins for food that’s isn’t fresh that day, but has time left on its sell-by date. Then ask for free bins for food that’s past its sell-by date but not past its use-by date. Lastly, ask for open dumpsters. Instead of locking their dumpsters ask supermarkets to leave them unlocked for poor people to get food.

A local food co-op might listen to your requests, if you’re lucky to have one. The big supermarket chains will never listen to you. I’ve tried. Go to your city council and ask them to pass laws.

If you’re curious, here are my favorites from the cheese haul:

Locatelli Pecorino Romano

Locatelli Pecorino Romano ($19.99/pound, Italy). This hard Italian sheep cheese has more umami than anything I’ve tasted. If you’re a parmesan fan you’ll love this.

Cromwell Double Gloucester Cheese with Chives and Onion

Cromwell Double Gloucester Cheese with Chives and Onion ($16.99/pound, United Kingdom). When I was a kid, this was the favorite cheese of my best friend’s father, who was British. On his birthday we’d go to the supermarket and ask for this cheese, which the store never had. I gave this wheel to my friend in remembrance of his father. If you’re a cheddar fan, you’ll love this.

Somerdale Red Dragon with Mustard Seed and Ale

Somerdale Red Dragon with Mustard Seed and Ale ($18.99/pound, United Kingdom). I don’t like eating this cheddar but cooking with it is a dream. Cheese omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches are sharply flavored.

Ford Farm Seaside Cheddar

Ford Farm Seaside Cheddar ($9.99/pound, United Kingdom). This is an excellent sharp cheddar and reasonably priced. We got 40 pounds of the regular and 20 pounds of the smoked.

Emmi Gerber Traditional Emmentaler Single Source

Emmi Gerber Traditional Emmentaler Single Source ($19.99/pound, Switzerland). An excellent Swiss cheese, with the holes.

Cypress Chevre Midnight Moon

Cypress Chevre Midnight Moon ($19.99/pound, Netherlands). I’m not a goat cheese fan but people who are loved this one. Pretty packaging.

Emmi Cave Aged Gruyere ($22.99/pound, Switzerland). I’ll take Gruyere over Gouda any day.

Igor Gorgonzola Dolce

Igor Gorgonzola Dolce ($14.99/pound, Italy). Whole Foods throws out a lot of blue cheeses. If you’re a blue fan this is a good one, and reasonably priced.

And that $35/pound Vermont artisanal cheese? It tasted like a blue with the texture of a brie. I’m not a brie fan so we gave most of it to the dog.

I make technology for speech clinics to treat stuttering and other disorders. I like backpacking with my dog, running competitively, and Russian jokes.

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