CYNTHIA POWELL of Berkeley bags some free food from aDumpster in Emeryville. Powell, a professional devoted toconservation efforts, is part of an East Bay
CYNTHIA POWELL of Berkeley bags some free food from a Dumpster in Emeryville. Powell, a professional devoted to conservation efforts, is part of an East Bay subculture that retrieves food from commercial Dumpsters because it is free. She feels it is wasteful to let the food go unused. (Doug Oakley - MediaNews Staff)
Cynthia Powell and Stephen Vajda are unabashed Dumpster divers who get much of their weekly food from garbage cans.

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

Powell and Vajda estimate 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 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 in Berkeley Dumpsters at grocery stores and bakeries ever since she moved to town about four years ago. She draws the line at eating meat or dairy products.

"I like to eat it because it'sperfectly 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 StopWaste.org in Alameda County, a voter-mandated special district that promotes "environmentally sound solid waste management and resource conservation," said businesses in Berkeley threw away 8.8 million pounds of food in 2000, the latest year for which numbers are available. In Alameda County, that figure was 114 million pounds.

Mathews was shocked to hear that people committed to stopping waste would go as far as fishing food out of Dumpsters.

"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, on the other hand, said the risk of getting bad food is overblown.

"Some of the fear that's around presumably spoiled food; it's a little bit ridiculous. It's gotten out of hand," said Vajda, who sometimes retrieves eggs to eat. "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 store) with a blemish on it and people won't buy it."

Grocery stores, he said, "are the best sources and the worst offenders." Vajda said he does make a point of cooking most everything he pulls out of a Dumpster. And he has some friends who eat entirely out of Dumpsters.

"I wouldn't recommend that," said Vajda. "It's not an ideal diet."

Both Vajda and Powell said they never have been chased by the police, but they have been admonished by store owners.

Berkeley police spokesman Ed Galvan said the department has never arrested anyone for Dumpster diving.

"The biggest problem we have with people Dumpster diving is they make a mess," said Galvan. "But it's not a big issue."