Deborah Willis had no idea that the dumpsters behind grocery stores would hold a treasure trove of fresh food.
When Willis, 65, first went dumpster diving, it was out of curiosity. She soon realized that most grocery or general stores threw out an abundance of fresh, unexpired food. Thinking it a waste for all the food to go to the landfill, Willis decided to take matters into her own hands.
In September, she started dumpster diving.
Willis said she scanned for large amounts of food to give to families in her community who are in need.
And she looked everywhere she saw big blue bins – in the dumpsters behind grocery stores, convenience stores and general stores – timing it so she could grab the best selections right after store employees throw the “trash” away.
“When I find food, the first thing I do is look at the dates,” Willis said. “Like with milk, I only take it if it’s cool to the touch with a good date on it. I never take anything past expiration.”
She brings tools, like a stepladder and a grabber, to aid her during her dives. She usually goes diving a couple of hours after the store closes, so any food recovered isn’t out for long.
Willis said she packs as much food as she can fit into her car and takes it home. Then she hoses it down and sanitizes it. Only then does she give the food away to people in her community.
Willis’s dumpster diving has prompted her to create a Facebook group called Small Town Blessings, where she can reach out to a wider range of people to offer what she finds.
She said she hopes to expand her mission by obtaining a warehouse with freezers to store the food she recovers for longer periods of time.
“With things like meat and produce, I’m not going to be able to keep it cool,” she said. “I’m really looking to get a warehouse, and I was hoping to run it off of any donations we can get.”
Willis has started to hold food giveaway events when she invites families in need of food to her house to select the food they can take. Her giveaways attract about 20 to 30 people at a time – mostly families who are in immediate need of food and have little to no means of obtaining it.
Giveaways can include frozen lunch meats, whole frozen chickens, sealed packets of chips and candy, produce, and boxes of canned or jarred food that were thrown away due to packaging issues. Nothing she gives away has been opened or is kept past the expiration date.
Matisha Darling, a 41-year-old Newberry resident, came to one of the giveaways Willis recently hosted to get some food for her family, including her 11-year-old son.
“It’s going to help me because right now I have absolutely nothing. So, this is going to help me pull through at least a week if I utilize it right.”
Darling is enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and receives electronic benefits to aid with food costs every month. But the money is usually not enough to sustain her family.
“I get about $300 a month for three people, and I usually have to go into my bill money to get extra food,” she said. “So, what Deborah is doing here really helps.”
Tanesha Darling, a 47-year-old Newberry resident, also attended a giveaway after reading about it on Facebook.
“Giveaways like these help out a lot because once you use up your benefits, then you have to come out of your pocket to spend money. A lot of times you might not have that,” Darling said.
Darling said she will use the food for herself and her daughter, and she is relieved to have a place to go to if she needs food again.
Amanda Boissonnault, a Trenton resident, also benefitted from Willis’ giveaways. The Florida Department of Children and Families denied her family food stamps this past summer, which has made it difficult for them to afford day-to-day living expenses, she said.
“It’s been nothing but a massive struggle. DCF denied our food stamps because we were working a few extra hours trying to get our car fixed over the summer, not caring about the expenses coming out,” she said. “We barely make it by. If it wasn’t for people like Deborah, we wouldn’t make it