One's trash is another's takeout

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Cynthia Powell and Stephen Vajda are unabashed Dumpster divers who get much of their weekly food from garbage cans.

The two educated Berkeley, Calif., professionals -- who are not hungry or otherwise in need -- say they are motivated by a growing movement with a mantra that wasting resources, especially food, is shameful.


Powell and Vajda estimate that they can save up to $100 a week by dining on day-old bread, vegetables and sometimes chocolate from commercial garbage cans.

The two estimated that they know at least a half-dozen like-minded people in Berkeley who regularly dine out -- way out.


"I'm not hungry," Powell said. "I do it because it's good food; it's free and it's conservation."

Powell said she has been getting into trash at Berkeley grocery stores and bakeries ever since she moved to town about four years ago. She draws the line at meat or dairy products.

"I like to eat it because it's perfectly good food thrown away," said Powell. "It's a big waste. There are really amazing, perfectly good things like strawberries, onions, sweet potatoes, bananas, cantaloupes, watermelon and always good day-old breads."

Brian Mathews, a senior program manager at, a voter-mandated special district that promotes "environmentally sound solid waste management and resource conservation," said Berkeley businesses threw away 8.8 million pounds of food in 2000, the latest year for which data are available.

Mathews was stunned to hear that people would go as far as fishing food out of the trash.

"This is totally new to me," said Mathews, who has a background in food science. "We advocate for reuse as a highest priority if the food is edible to reuse it through food banks or donations. I applaud their motivation for doing this, but I would caution them that they could be putting themselves in a situation where they could get contaminated or spoiled food. I think it's a little risky, Dumpster diving for dinner."

Vajda, who sometimes retrieves eggs to eat, said the risk of bad food is overblown.

"There is so much food thrown away, and there are so many starving people in the world, it's shameful to let it go to waste when it's just as easy for me to eat it. It's really disgusting when you have an apple [from a grocery] with a blemish on it and people won't buy it."


Vajda said he has some friends who eat entirely out of Dumpsters. "I wouldn't recommend that," he said. "It's not an ideal diet."