On offer at the D-Mart recently, there were packets of biscuits, bags of rice and dried beans, prosciutto, and fruits and vegetables. Paddy Sullivan, who runs the pop-up mini-mart out of the back of his truck in a Vancouver-area parking lot, promotes his wares as “outstanding food products at unbeatable prices.”
The D in D-Mart, however, stands for dumpster and all the food is free. Mr. Sullivan, who refers to himself as Metro, along with his four children between ages 16 and 22, have scavenged the unopened, untouched food from the trash. The food is well past its expiration dates, but Mr. Sullivan maintains it’s still safe to eat.
As the cost of food has soared with inflation, Mr. Sullivan, who installs medical equipment during the week, goes looking for discarded food on the weekends. His family is among several small groups who have gotten beyond the ick factor to save money while also making a dent in food waste.
“It wasn’t altruism in the beginning,” Mr. Sullivan said in an interview. “We started as a whim and discovered that we could actually find food that we could use. Then we realized the quantities were so large, we wanted to find a way for others to benefit.”
According to a report from the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), one in 10 households in Vancouver struggles with food security, a situation worsened by the pandemic. The yearly price for food from stores rose by 11.4 per cent, the fastest pace in 42 years, according to Statistics Canada figures from September, 2022.
Mr. Sullivan runs a Facebook group called Dumpster Diving in Metro Vancouver that has more than 2,000 followers and holds regular in-person meet-ups. On average, about 15 to 20 people show up. He said people are frequently appalled that they’re able to find usable food in the trash.
“For one woman, it was a 25-pound sack of chickpeas. The look of shock on her face, fading into indignation, was priceless,” he wrote on the Facebook site.
Mr. Sullivan and his family collect much of their food outside mid-size distribution and importing companies that usually cater to smaller niche markets. Trash is considered public domain in Canada, so dumpster diving is entirely legal as long as trespassing isn’t involved.
But Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) takes a dim view of resorting to discarded food, noting the potential for physical, bacterial and chemical dangers that can be found with garbage and other refuse.
“The food products may have come in contact with chemical contaminants; and there is the high risk of bacterial contamination. The reason food is discarded cannot always be confirmed and even though food might look okay to eat, it may not be safe to eat,” VCH said in a response to questions from The Globe and Mail.
According to the agency, people in need should rely on safe sources such as food banks, soup kitchens, and other charitable organizations and restaurants that may offer food to those in need.
Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food-rescue charity organization, notes that the Canadian food industry – not including households – wastes 8.79 million tonnes of avoidable and potentially edible food every year. Households, on the other hand, produce about 2.38 million tonnes of food waste every year, or $1,766 per household.
The BC Centre for Disease Control says in its food-donation guidelines that food companies apply a best-before date (BBD) that is approximately 20-per-cent shorter than the true date of expected food-quality deterioration.
Most food banks and other charities accept certain foods past the BBD, the guidelines say, because it just means the product is not at peak freshness. However, a lot of factors are considered before charities can accept donations, including the size of the donation and their capacity to handle it.
Cody Brooks, a researcher at the BC Environment Ministry, makes the trip from North Vancouver to Vancouver every two weeks to drop in at D-Mart, located at the Superstore parking lot at Grandview and Rupert.
“We take transit to and from the meet-up, but it’s so incredibly worth it,” Mr. Brooks said.
After one meet-up, Mr. Brooks logged in all the food he picked up on a spreadsheet and calculated that he saved about $210 on groceries.
Mr. Brooks, a food-foraging enthusiast, says a lot of food waste happens during the distribution process. This means that it never makes it to the grocery store, or even out of the packing box. If, for example, a label is incorrect, or a box is damaged, a distributor might throw out the unopened box, or even an entire pallet.
“I think that we have a moral obligation to eat the food that we create for our consumption,” Mr. Brooks said. “This food already exists. The fact that good, safe food goes through the entire production process without ever seeing a grocery store or someone’s home is something we should all be bothered by.”