By Michael E. Miller
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Little Debbie Cosmic Snacks: two boxes. Won ton wrappers: a couple of packages. Herbed Italian deli turkey breasts, jumbo bags of potato chips, marshmallows, cartons of nonfat half-and-half, lactose-reduced cottage cheese, gourmet white chocolate chips, refrigerated buttermilk biscuits, sugar cookie dough. All of it stacked in Sharon Diener's blue plastic shopping cart on top of the cereal boxes (several brands), children's "adventure packs" of Yoplait yogurt, bags of dried fruit, jars of pickles, cans of corned beef, six-packs of fruit juice. The day is young, but it's already proven to be a productive morning of grocery shopping in the spotless fluorescent friendliness of Albertson's on Bird Road at the Palmetto. And for Diener, another big haul of free food.
Diener's boyfriend Richard Confino wheels his own piled-high cart around the Goya Frijoles Negros display and starts down the frozen-food aisle. "Uh oh, this is a good find!" Confino exclaims, reaching into the case and pulling out a $4.99-per-pound cut of sirloin. "Someone must have picked it up and decided they didn't want it and stuck it in the freezer. But look: It went out July 18."
In the highly evolved Confino-Diener shopping lingo, "went out" means "expired" -- no longer fresh as noted by the expiration date stamped in one form or another on almost every item sold in a supermarket. The beef is past its prime, so to speak, and that means Confino can exchange it for a nonexpired steak of the same value -- for free. In fact, neither he nor Diener will pay a cent for anything in their bulging carts. All of it is out-of-date, and under Albertson's "Fresh or Free" program, shoppers can exchange the expired for the current, whether it's food or over-the-counter medicine -- no cash involved, simple as that. So simple that the twenty-state chain is discontinuing the whole thing as of tomorrow (Friday, August 1).
"The Fresh or Free program has caused some problems," admits Albertson's spokeswoman Jenny Enochson, speaking by phone from the chain's corporate headquarters in Boise, Idaho. "A number of individuals unfortunately were regularly abusing the program -- switching labels or altering code dates, hiding items that were about to expire, coming in with no intention to purchase anything, just looking for something out of date." During the twenty months or so that Albertson's ran the Fresh or Free gimmick, several stores actually kicked out certain people for cheating or causing disturbances among employees or customers, Enochson says. "Our legal department is dealing with several complaints from people who complained because they were banned," Enochson adds. "But they weren't banned because they were finding expired items."
Diener and Confino have found so many expired items in the five Albertson's stores they frequent in South Florida (there are ten in Dade and Broward) that they claim they haven't paid for groceries in a year. (They give some credit for that amazing feat to a similar, now-discontinued program at Winn-Dixie.) They spend their days off from work methodically hunting and gathering. And they have learned where to find the expiration date on any given item, how to quickly inspect dozens and dozens of items, and which products have coded dates that are indecipherable.
"The volume of things that we have found is astounding," Diener acknowledges. "A lot of times I'll find expired things, [exchange them], and I'll go back a day or two later and they're back on the shelf." Often she is also surprised to discover that the store has not cleared out all expired items in a food section where she and Confino had scored big.
Moving past the neat shelves of salad dressings, she motions expansively: "That section was a gold mine a few weeks ago, but they've done a good job of updating it. I don't look there too much now." She quickly inspects the mayonnaise shelves, which mainly involves checking behind the in-date jars for older ones that haven't been rotated to the front. Sure enough, she fishes around and finds a jar with "5/11/97" stamped on the cap.
After a full year of watching Diener and Confino (and occasionally a few of their friends and relatives) walk out with thousands of dollars in goods, surely Albertson's store managers would have become extravigilant. And perhaps they have. Confino and Diener say it became more and more difficult to find out-of-date items, especially in the meat departments. Still, they have no trouble finding things like bags of rice more than a year out of date or several expired quart cartons of nonfat half and half, some of them oozing a whitish goo. Diener spends so much fruitful time in freezer sections that she always carries a pair of work gloves to fend off the cold.
All Albertson's personnel contacted in Miami say they aren't allowed to talk to reporters and refer questions to the corporate headquarters. "It would be false to say we're perfect," Enochson says candidly, "but it is our policy to rotate items and make sure there are fresh items in our stores. Our priority is to provide our customers with the freshest, highest-quality products. We don't want our customers to think we're backing down on that commitment by discontinuing this program, because we're not."
When their carts are full, Diener and Confino meet near the canned tuna for a consultation. They make sure they have one item of its kind per person per shopping trip (a Fresh or Free rule) and that each has picked up a replacement for the expired item. Diener hasn't been able to find a current tube of Caladryl for the one on the shelf dated April 1996, so she'll have to ask the manager for a credit slip, which could be for the price of the tube or for an identical replacement, depending on the customer-service representative's judgment. By now Diener has accumulated about $180 and Confino about $450 in store credits, which are practically the same as cash.
They roll their carts to a checkout lane, where one of the managers, accustomed to the ritual he must perform at least once a week with the couple, tosses each expired item into a separate shopping cart while Confino stuffs its fresh replacement into a plastic bag. After a hearty "See you in a few days" from the manager, Confino and Diener repair to the parking lot and pack everything into the trunk of her Beretta (perishables in a cooler).
Then comes the tactical maneuvering for space in their kitchens and pantries. Diener and Confino, both of whom work in the service industry but don't want the names of their employers mentioned, live in the same Southwest Dade apartment complex. Confino, the more organized of the two, proudly opens the kitchen cabinets to reveal boxes of Life, Cinnamon Life, and Banana Nut Crunch neatly arranged like a set of encyclopedia. Other cabinets are brimming with Dinty Moore canned dinners, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and several varieties of Little Debbie cakes and snacks ("Always Little Debbie products," Confino says with a grin). His refrigerator, like any good deli section, features nine-dollar-per-pound gourmet cheeses, turkeys, and hams. He freezes cartons of milk and orange juice.
Both he and Diener sell a lot of their booty to friends for half price -- 35 percent off on the meat. In exceptional circumstances, they'll sell to strangers, as when they wound up with 22 Thanksgiving turkeys last year. This past Easter the gregarious Confino threw a dozen hams into the bed of his red Chevy pickup, drove out to a busy intersection by a Catholic church, and propped up a big poster-board sign that said "HAM." The meat was gone in half an hour.