The Only Thing Between You and Your Next Meal

“Hold up, folks, the employees saw us and are calling the cops.”

The message came in only 15 minutes after my roommate and I left, flush with almost a dozen bags stuffed with yogurt, cheese, and frozen meals.

You might think we were doing a heist at a grocery store with a bunch of other dairy enthusiasts, but you’d be wrong. It was barely above zero degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills much below that, and we had just vaulted ourselves from a dumpster containing a small mountain of discarded food.

Late last week, amid temperatures that motivated many to rethink their decision to live in New England, several refrigeration systems across a series of big-chain grocery stores in Vermont decided to rethink…well, living at all. Although the cause remains unclear, some grocery employees posting on Reddit pointed to the cold temperatures causing the refrigerant to freeze over and subsequent mechanical issues.

The irony does not stop there.

According to one dumpster diver defrosting their hands inside the Shaw’s on Shelburne Road who asked an exasperated manager, the grocery chain had over $100,000-worth of food affected by this. Each item was painstakingly scanned for the insurance write off and then tossed into the dumpster.

You know, the dumpster that’s… outside in nature’s freezer, which was getting to colder temperatures than even their industrial freezers and fridges could hit when they were working.

I’ll let you laugh-cry at that for a second. Shakespeare could truly do no better.

This particular Shaw’s was not the only one to suffer the fate of an Elizabethan tragi-comedy.  A local dumpster diving chat revealed that two more locations had met a similar fate, and were also throwing out everything behind those shiny glass freezer doors.

Diver perusing the contents of a Shaw’s dumpster on February 4, 2023.

Through these tears, you might have some questions remaining about the situation, starting with: Why couldn’t Shaw’s donate the food? Some of it had to be good, right?

You can’t donate food that may be (though is very-likely-probably not) spoiled. Shaw’s chooses not to take any chances with litigation, even under the Good Samaritan Act, which would protect them from any sort of prosecution after giving away food that is “apparently fit for human consumption.” 

For context, the Shaw’s manager said that the freezers and fridges had been off for some two hours before they started moving the food to the dumpsters. The hottest these vessels reached was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. So it took two hours to get to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, not two hours at that temperature.

The frozen food being at an ambient temperature of about half that (or even colder) likely wouldn’t have thawed enough to become an issue in that short window, especially the non-animal product foods that were also being tossed. 

I personally can verify this as someone who spent a few minutes washing frozen egg whites off of bags containing shredded vegan cheese.

Photo courtesy of anonymous diver. This is an hour after the previous photo was taken. They managed to dump yet more food. Eggs are currently at $6/dozen, often more expensive at places like City Market.

Indeed, according to Bon Appetit, “Most frozen food will require several hours to thaw at room temperature…” Seasoned Vermonters know that 60 degrees Fahrenheit is on the lower end of tolerable room temperature, especially in the winter.

However, despite this common sense, the manager interviewed cited a clause of the Good Samaritan Act stating that donors cannot donate food if “…the donor has actual or constructive knowledge that the food is adulterated, tainted, contaminated, or harmful to the health or well-being of the person consuming the food.”

Unless the manager was actively adding rat poison to the food being tossed, or was thinking of the long-term health effects of consuming foods with way too many preservatives, this seems like an extreme exaggeration. 

As a cynical resident of a late-capitalist nation state, I believe this shows that the food wasn’t donated because it was unsafe; it wasn’t donated because of optics.

The monumental amount of food could’ve fed hundreds of families for weeks, for free. Profitable businesses can’t get an insurance write off, nor can they generally be seen donating that much food without getting something in return. It’d reflect badly on the store’s bottom line and call into question their entire business model.

We talk about tragedies and, in corporate America’s book, taking a small cut on that hard-earned salary is one of them.

Besides, they can’t let people get food for free from these establishments, or it would encourage employees or local residents to deliberately sabotage their refrigeration equipment in order for the food to be given out for free. The basic blueprints of such a system are just… freely available online! The hooligans and criminals will take advantage of their weakness to get free food to people who are starving! What a travesty of justice!

What’s more of a travesty? The next question likely on your mind: 

Why the hell were the cops called?

It’s important to note that the Shaw’s employees called the cops multiple times throughout the day while they were tossing perfectly edible food.

When my roommate and I brought our treasure to a donation center, we ran into two people who’d gone earlier in the day and had been intercepted by cops and employees alike.

“We were even filmed,” one of them said through their scarf as they were picking up yogurt from our haul, “It was wild.”

The dumpster diving happening was a good-faith, organized effort among participants in a mutual aid network. Dumpster diving is legal on public property in Vermont, but the application of the law around it has always been somewhat nebulous, since even Seven Days managed to cover diving in one of their articles. The Burlington Free Press has also covered dumpster diving. Both articles took place on property that is technically not considered public, but didn’t involve any law enforcement.

There had been no fighting or unsafe practices while the food was retrieved the night my roommate and I went, nor any of the subsequent nights as reported by those in the diving network. By far the most dangerous thing we did was go into a dumpster, which goes along with the territory.

Truly, it seems bonkers that something this benign can still draw the cops to the situation like flies to shit. But as a participant in Food Not Cops, I know well that cops are the only thing between a hungry person and a free meal. Or, in this case, hundreds of free meals.

Of course, it’s not just our state either.

In Texas, where a similar version of this event happened due to extreme weather, the dumpsters were patrolled by cops. The local constable was even quoted saying that the contents of the dumpsters (which contained perfectly packaged, unspoiled goods) were “not free food.”

You can’t get any clearer of a connection between the lack of food and the presence of cops than that. The state would rather its constituents starve and call it a crime than have it be known that their system doesn’t actually provide for everyone.

The issue with that logic is that it isn’t just the hungry who’ve caught onto the ruse. If the numbers of strangers I ran into at the Shaw’s dumpster showed me anything, it’s that even those who aren’t directly involved with mutual aid projects are getting fed up rather than getting fed.

So what’s the solution? If these cases have proven anything, all we need to do is wait for another extreme weather event to rock our crumbling infrastructure.

Except this time, we can be ready by having larger teams head to the dumpsters to outnumber the law enforcement that inevitably will show up. It’d be bad PR for them to have to cite twenty people for “trying to feed their neighbors.”

Or, you know, we could take a page from Texas’s book and show up with 250 people. They say everything is bigger in Texas, but I think we Vermonters can give them a run for their money.

What am I saying? There’d be no money involved. That’s a big part of the problem in the first place.

End Note: Jasper is a pseudonym of a Food Not Cops participant. Food Not Cops serves free lunch daily at the Cherry Street Parking Garage in downtown Burlington, Vermont. If you want to get involved, show up at 1 p.m. to get fed and learn more! Don’t have time, but have the funds? Feel free to donate here.

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