Dumpster, Guarded

When 12 police officers are guarding a food-laden Dumpster, it’s worth reassessing the chain of events.

Here goes: Portland store loses power due to snow and ice storm. Store throws away lots of food. Word spreads in city where 300,000 lack power. People come to grab food from dumpster. Store employees prevent dumpster diving and call police when people refuse to leave. Police guard trash, but eventually leave. People snag discarded food for themselves and the many free fridges around the city.

First, what a sad saga, in an especially hard time for so many Portlanders and Americans. Second, there are no real winners here.

Edible food should never end up in the trash; it should be donated via non-profits to those in need or, at worst, composted. The conflict here stems from the words “edible” and “non-profits.” With the latter, supermarkets are free from liability–as outlined in the Good Samaritan Act–only if excess food is donated to a 501(c)(3) hunger relief org. Stores also don’t want people digging through their trash, which is technically trespassing (if food is in a Dumpster). Yet, the edibility of the tossed food gets at the heart of the matter.

The Fred Meyer, like any chain, would have strict food safety guidelines. Their power outage (no backup generator??) meant that refrigerator and freezer temperatures inched above the allowed temperature. At that point, the store sees that food as inedible and a potential food safety hazard. Even though it was freezing outside, it wasn’t in the store. Yet, those food safety rules contain, to borrow a phrase the store used, an “abundance of caution.” It is likely that the food was fine, and would remain so after being discarded, given the winter freeze that had prompted this entire saga. Yet, that common sense, five-second-rule-ish approach to edibility will never trump the bureaucratic, “time and temperature” rules of a grocery chain.

Meanwhile, the pandemic-induced hunger and the powerlessness (literal and figurative) of many Portlanders only made the saga worse. Juxtaposed against that need, the edible abundance being dumped was incredibly galling, especially for those looking to feed hungry families, friends, and neighbors. Hence the frustration outside the store, which led to the police being called.

There’s so much legitimate debate these days on the role of the police. But protecting the contents of a dumpster would seem to be pretty widely accepted as a subpar use of police officers. What I mean to say is–come on!! Twelve police officers guarding a store’s trash!?! Not a great use of civic resources to have a dozen cops ensure that a store’s trash doesn’t become any citizens’ treasure.

Once it became clear that the power outage would threaten so much food, the store management could have been more proactive. For example, they could have called their local food recovery organization for an emergency pickup or even brought food outside to keep it at temperature. The store may say that moving that food from the cases would have required too much labor. But they reportedly had nine employees guarding the dumpster before the police arrived. How much food could nine employees have prevented from reaching that end?

Procedural failings like this one are even harder to stomach in this time of great need. Especially when the alternative is chucking boxloads of beef, seafood, and produce. While stores regularly donate some foods, they could improve by preventing perishable, nutritious goods from being dumped. Instead of guarding gourmet trash, supermarkets should devote that time, energy, and resources into preventing that food from reaching it.

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Note: The Oregonian article mentioned that one person referenced the date on a carton of juice found in the Dumpster. The date label on a food item ceases to be relevant if it’s not kept at the right temperature.

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