Cross Country Checkup

Unimpressed by grocery prices, this student ate well — from the dumpster

Making ends meet as a student in Toronto, Edith Wilson avoided grocery stores for her daily meals. The sociology student turned to 'good food' she found in dumpsters — and only spent $20 a month at the supermarket.

By dumpster diving, the University of Guelph student spent only $20 per month on food

With grocery prices expected to rise next year, callers told Cross Country Checkup on Sunday that they're looking at the ways they eat. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Edith Wilson would advise against eating meat found in a dumpster, but fruits and veggies are probably fine.

When the University of Guelph student lived in Toronto, she says she fed herself largely by collecting rejected food from trash and organics bins at small businesses in the city's Kensington Market neighbourhood.

"If you just flip open the lid and ... it's a produce market, or something like that, you'll most likely see just the day-old fruits and vegetables that have, maybe, a little spot on it," Wilson told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

"Making ends meet was difficult for me because I was in school."

Over a period of two years, the sociology student, 30, says she lived off food she found dumpster diving, and only spent about $15-20 per month on groceries.

If someone throws away meat, you probably shouldn't eat it- Edith Wilson

On the heels of a report last week suggesting grocery prices could rise by 3.5 per cent next year — with fresh vegetables the hardest hit with an expected 6 per cent jump — Wilson along with many Checkup callers expressed concern over the growing price of food on Sunday.

For Wilson, dumpster diving was a logical way to save money and divert food that would otherwise be wasted.

"It doesn't make any sense to waste the food that we have," she said.

Too much waste

Canada is among the worst offenders globally when it comes to food waste, according to a report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation published in April.

That study found that 396 kilograms of food per capita is wasted in Canada each year.

"When you walk out of a grocery store, if you've got four bags of groceries you may as well just drop one in the parking lot — consumers waste up to 40 per cent," Tamara Shulman, a co-author of the study, told CBC Radio's The Current.

Often, Wilson would pull fresh produce from organic recycling bins. 'You don't even have to climb into it,' she told Cross Country Checkup. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The wasted food, the report found, isn't just spoiled leftovers forgotten in the fridge. It encompasses food throughout the food chain — from production to consumption — which is tossed due to overproduction, imperfections or grading specifications.

That excess waste is what drives Wilson's desire to check the bins out back for food that's still in good shape.

"The methods that we have for distributing food in this country, and also like the rest of the global north, are not very efficient," Wilson told Checkup.

"I just didn't really think that was very logical especially in an era where crops are being so affected by climate change."

Locked-down dumpsters

Among her finds, Wilson says that she would frequently pick up kale, zucchini, potatoes and tomatoes from bins. Sometimes she would score expensive fruit like pomegranate, and even premade samosas.

"I ended up just filling a big backpack every week with all of this food that was still good," she said.

While Wilson says she got some pushback from business owners who were unhappy with her rummaging, many were OK with it.

Edith Wilson is a sociology master's student at the University of Guelph. (Submitted by Edith Wilson)

Some even handed her the soon-to-be binned goods when they saw her come by.

Now that she lives in Guelph, Ont., Wilson buys most of her groceries because it's harder to dumpster dive at supermarkets. 

"A lot of big box stores lock their dumpsters or compact the food before it goes into the dumpster," she said.

Though some might balk at the quality — and safety — of trashed food, Wilson says she didn't once get sick. But, if she had one word of advice, it would be to stay away from the meat.

"If someone throws away meat, you probably shouldn't eat it," she said.

"That's my little PSA."