Food Bills Getting You Down? Try Dumpster Diving
sumptuous feast for free, dumpster diving
By Nicole McClelland, AlterNet
Posted on April 1, 2008, Printed on April 10, 2008

It's dark outside, as it tends to be past midnight, and unseasonably warm but raining. Though it was my idea to be parked behind Trader Joe's, scoping out the dumpster, I didn't really want to come; I'm kind of lazy in general, and specifically nervous right now, and it's so much easier to just make a list and go buy groceries in a sheltered, well lit shopping facility where you are guaranteed to both find what you want and avoid police harassment. (We also have TRADER JOE's the ultimate BON MARCHE Yuppie  L.A. FOOD EMPORIUM 30 stores across AMERICA! NO COP goes within a mile of their parking lots or dumpsters because the parking lots surrounding TRADER JOE dumpsters are very small yet are packed densely with cars, so that no UNIT could drive inside and cops don't walk across parking lots to look at the dumpster area, ever.)

The writer Nicole continues: "My nerdiness is showing: Before we get out of the car, I turn to my partner in crime and ask, "What's the plan?"

Dan looks at me. I've heard about dumpster diving, and read about dumpster diving, but in
conversations and articles that seemed to identify it as the pursuit of anarchists and gutter
punks --nothing that served as a guide for upwardly mobile middle-class squares. A few
weeks ago, though, some hippie Dan went to high school with mentioned she was going to
Trader Joe's to score for free the very same foodstuffs we paid good money for. It was
just as good, just as edible and sanitarily packaged, and it didn't cost $100 a week if it just
came out of the trash, she said. We felt like suckers.

"You're gonna get in there and grab the shit," Dan says. He starts laughing at me, like, what
do I mean what's the plan? When I still don't make a move, he says, "Now ... break!"

We walk to the dumpster across the parking lot, but no one's around, and no one
suddenly appears and starts yelling, as I'm for some reason expecting. We're in the kind of
upscale outdoor mall complex where dumpsters are surrounded by gates, but the kind of
gates that serve cosmetic rather than security purposes and give way easily when pushed.
So just like that, I'm standing in front of a giant metal trash receptacle, one taller than me,
with a chest-high opening in it. I quickly and incorrectly assess it, deciding that I can
approach my objective from the outside and just reach in to gingerly lift the goods out.

My dreams of clean and easy die quickly; the dumpster is less than a quarter full, and I
can't get hold of anything but piles of discarded shrink-wrap. "I don't think there's any food
in here, pal," I say, disappointed, but maybe a bit relieved. I'm about to advocate giving up
and going home when I pull out a cardboard box containing three sealed bags of perfectly
comestible banana chips. "Except how there's food right here."

Picking up that first handful of free groceries is a bit like Christmas, exciting, enchanting. I
hadn't known what I was going to get, so I hold the goods out in front of me for
inspection. And here it is, my favorite kind of present: something I want and can actually
use. I feel satisfied and, absurdly, a little proud. I planted some initiative, and it is bearing
fruit, sliced, deep-fried, hermetically sealed pieces of fruit. I grab the sides of the window
into the dumpster and climb in.

It wasn't an especially big throw-away day at the store, but I stand shin-deep amid the
waste with a snake light wrapped around my neck, tearing open huge clear plastic garbage
bags and examining their contents for salvageable eats. A sweet pepper, a dented tub of
chocolate chip cookies, yes. A package of precooked sausages leaking juice out of a hole
in the package, no. Half-pound hunks of somewhat moldy Monterey Jack cheese, sure. I
sink my cotton-gloved hands into some items wet and unsavory-busted salsa containers,
broken eggs, smashed bananas, while rain drips through the crack in the two-piece lid
above my head. Liquid soaks into my socks: milk, I think, from the layer of discarded
half-gallon cartons lining the bottom of the dumpster.

"This is actually a little grosser than I thought it was going to be," I say, as, even though I
earlier pictured myself standing in a giant trash bin, I never actually considered the tactile
details. I work out a system, sifting thoroughly through one corner first and then tossing
bags into it after I clear it for items I want, which I hand to Dan. Nobody comes by.
Nobody asks us what the hell we think we're doing. Half an hour after we parked the car,
we walk back to it with seven plastic bags full of food. We go home, unload our groceries,
just like we would after any other trip, and take showers, unlike we would after any other
trip. We eat some garbage cookies, and go to bed.

It was a lucrative score: two bananas, one half-gallon of organic 2 percent milk, two
prepared and packaged Asian-style noodle salads with ginger cilantro lime dressing, one
red pepper, one orange pepper, one package prewashed salad, one package Asian
stir-fry mix, one package organic mini chocolate chip cookies, one prepared and
packaged chef salad, one prepared and packaged Greek salad, one prepared and
packaged chicken Caesar salad, one sausage and roasted tomato pizza, one package
sliced white mushrooms, six apricots, two bags cocktail tomatoes, three carrot and ranch
dip snack packs, a half a pound of ginger, 1.5 pounds petite Yukon gold potatoes, 1
pound green olives, 1.5 pounds eggs, 1.5 pounds Monterey Jack cheese, 3 pounds
California minneolas, 5 pounds clementines, 2 pounds  carrots, three packages
banana chips, one package fresh basil, 24 roma tomatoes, one package fat-free crumbled
feta, one prepared and packaged fresh mozzarella and focaccia sandwich, two mixed
flower bouquets, one bouquet Gerber daisies, and one dozen rainbow roses.
(About one hundred bucks worth of booty at current prices. This article was written
before the crash in April 2008. Easily this would be 400$ today)

The next morning, Dan is already making cheese omelets and fried potatoes with our
booty when I saunter out of bed. At lunch, we split the focaccia sandwich (after we
scraped the mold off the mozzarella), and I invent a banana, apricot, and clementine
smoothie. As I walk around our apartment, abloom with fresh flowers, I feel unusually
fulfilled by the glass of dairy and pulp in my hand. It's not like I grew the fruit. Still, I've
come by it by slightly more industrious means than grocery shopping, and I can't wait for
the impending week of garbage dinner.

The USDA says Dan and I each eat almost 5 pounds of food every day, but more than
enough food gets tossed in the United States for us to scavenge from: about 100 billion
pounds annually, in fact, enough to also feed the entire great states of California and New
York, more than a sixth of the entire population of the country. Retailers are responsible
for some 70 percent of that waste, $30 billion worth. Even recovering just 5 percent of
American food waste would feed the whole of New Zealand for a day. And if
heartbreaking resource squandering isn't a compelling enough reason to dumpster dive,
there's thriftiness. If you're like most Americans, you spend about 13 percent of your
income on eating -- and environmental impact. In 2006, more than 12 percent of total
municipal solid waste was food. And if you have neither hippie sensibilities, nor
pocketbook constraints, nor a soul, how about good old-fashioned economic sense:
putting said food into landfills costs taxpayers $50 million a year.

All things considered, the arguments for dumpster diving seem stronger than any against it.
Though some cities and states have passed laws criminalizing it (it's not a federal offense,
as the Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that searching and seizing garbage isn't prohibited),
and the fact that our particular dumpster lives inside a fence means accessing it probably
requires trespassing, cops don't generally patrol my grocery store parking lot at night, and
I'd be surprised if I couldn't sweet-talk or run my way out of an incident with any officer
bored enough to instigate one. There's also the concern, voiced by many of my friends,
that food from a dumpster could be bad for you. Indeed, Dan has to drink half a glass of
the milk and exhibit no signs of disaster for 20 minutes before I'm convinced it's safe. And
all week, for about an hour after I eat, a small portion of my consciousness inadvertently
waits for regrets. But we've got bright bouquets and a huge vat of homemade salsa and a
mushroom, tomato, and cheese quiche and crazy smoothies and stir-fried vegetables over
noodles, and it was all made possible, free of charge, by trash picking. I have only one
concern at the end of the first week of eating garbage, and it's that I didn't take as much as
I should have.

When we return the next week, we're like cool, regular shoppers, except that we're
freezing -- 150 miles north of us, the sky is dumping a foot of snow on Cleveland. Still,
we're not just grabbing madly, enthusiastic but directionless rookies. We have a running
conversation about what I've picked up and how we can use it before we take it or I
chuck it behind me. I'm neither hurried nor worried, and we score fruits and vegetables
and already-mashed potatoes and a potted purple orchid and waffles and chai spice
cookies and frozen chicken masala, among other things. We're thoughtful and thorough,
and it's 45 minutes before I start to climb back out, tired and accomplished. Not that it's all
glamorous. When Dan says, "Watch out for rats," I yell at him for freaking me out, but I
am most certainly immersed in the habitat of disease-prone rodents. When I do jump out,
it's right onto the ground, right onto my ass when my feet slide out from under me because
the pavement is covered in ice. Like last time, we can't find a parking space in our
complex when we get back to our apartment because we live in a busy downtown district
and it's club-going time on a Friday night. We run the garbage groceries, which for some
reason are coated in the smell of trash this time, a block to our building and then up four
flights of fire escape to our door. My fingers are that obnoxious biting pain that just
precedes numbness, since I buried them in several unidentified stinky wet stuffs, and the
wind is cutting across them now as they grip the plastic bags. Everything needs to be
washed -- the cellophane on the cheese, the box of waffles -- to get the reek off, and we
crack open a box of baking soda and put it in the back of the fridge, hoping it'll help
restore appetizing-ness to our food. It's 2 a.m. by the time we've put everything away,
mopped the kitchen floor, rolled my malodorous tomato-and-roasted-red-pepper-
soup-splattered clothes into a ball before reluctantly throwing them in with
the rest of our laundry, and cleaned ourselves up. I soaked in the
bathtub for half an hour to get the cold -- which seeped in during the 40 minutes we had to
kill wandering around the shopping center while waiting for the employees to finally leave,
the time I spent wallowing in trash, and the additional carry back to the apartment -- out of
my system. Lying there, my wrist throbbing from having used it to break my fall on the ice,
I felt exhausted and dirty and not a little discouraged.

My socioeconomic surroundings are showing: When my father calls and asks me what I
was doing last night and I say, "Dumpster diving," he says, "For what?" And when I say,
"For food," there's nothing but silence. Then, as if he hasn't heard me: "What?" My best
friend came over a few days earlier and complained that she was hungry. "Do you have
any delicious food?" she asked, then reconsidered. "That you haven't gotten out of the
garbage?" And yeah, some of the food in our fridge has to be picked free of mold before it
can be eaten, and the Jack cheese has a stink that (a) makes me uncomfortable and (b)
doesn't want to come off my hands. (Ultimately, we decide to re-toss it.) Yeah, we could
have been arrested. Yeah, we could get food poisoning, or rabies. But when we roll out of
bed late the morning after our second dive, the apartment smells fine, and we fix a
breakfast of trash waffles and bananas before sitting down to make a list of groceries we
still need. We consider our loot. We can make havarti, rice, and broccoli casserole.
Spinach quesadillas with cheddar, mushrooms, and sauteed sweet peppers, with
homemade salsa. Mashed sweet potatoes or sweet potato chowder. Warm green bean
and tomato salad. Stir fry. Banana smoothies. We've recovered an entire apple pie. We
figure our meal plan four different ways, and have so much food left over that we freeze
some. When we finish the list of groceries we have to buy for two people for a whole
week, it contains exactly five items.

Before we started dumpster diving, Dan pointed out that it would probably change our
eating habits. I like to make enchiladas, for example, but it's unlikely that beans, rice,
cheese, tomatoes, onions, and tortillas are all going to happen into the dumpster at the
same time. I wouldn't normally eat carrots and ranch dip for breakfast, or salad for
dessert, but the organizing principle of our diet has changed from "What do I want to eat?"
to "What do I have? What can I make with it?" -- a much more traditional (and at the
same time ultramodern, as eating local has come back into fashion) type of interaction with
food. Once, when we were working on an organic farm in the South Pacific, the owner
told us that if we were true ecologists, we would during the feijoa season eat only feijoas,
the little green fruits that his orchard was showering us with. Like then, I won't now make
such extreme compromises -- I refuse, for example, to live without milk or olive oil, so we
spend $20 at the grocery store that week.

Still. We could be spending $0 on food by harvesting waste, and even with my
unwillingness to make stir fry instead of cereal for breakfast, in just two trips we saved
hundreds of dollars. We ate things we never would have, got creative with our menus,
kept 60 pounds of edible "garbage" out of a landfill.

Dumpster diving is another one of those things that I should do for both money and the
environment's sake, like buying only used clothes or not taking long, hot showers. It's kind
of like going to the gym: You never want to, but after you have, you feel like you've really
achieved something. The next week, though, the snow comes south and hard. Then soon
after that, I get a new job and move, and the dumpsters in my neighborhood are inside
garages I can't get into, and I work a lot of overtime, and I have a litany of other excuses
for not salvaging groceries anymore (as I do for not taking short, cold showers). It's
another way that I'm part of the culture of waste, wasting resources, wasting money.

Standing at the sink one day in my trash-eating time, I had a moment of characteristic
grace in which I somehow tossed the quiche I was holding down the garbage disposal. I
cursed, then threw down my dish towel, and then my shoulders. Dan, sensing a tantrum,
rushed into the kitchen from the other room. "It's OK, pal," he said. "It was from the
garbage anyway." True. But I couldn't believe I'd done it, just like I can't believe
restaurants and grocery stores around the country so recklessly and wildly dump whole
analogous quiches down the metaphorical drain every second. Like I feel a little ridiculous
shopping at Trader Joe's when I know that for every four tomatoes I once took out of the
dumpster, I left four dozen.

That one time, there were more than 100 pounds of discarded bananas in the parking lot,
that I could entirely subsistent on trash without even making a dent in it, that for every bag
of salad that made it from the garbage to my fridge, there were five more that someone
else could've eaten. For the grocers and restaurateurs, throwing the food in dumpsters is,
however exorbitantly wasteful, a matter of convenience. As leaving it there is for me. "I
don't know," one of my friends says when I try to talk her into just getting her food out of
the garbage. "That's a really good idea. But it sounds like a lot of work."

NOTE: If you think fresh, wholesome, good food that smells fine can hurt you, read what

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In California, it's different. I roll my hatchback up within ten feet of the target dumpster.
No way would I ever try to get INTO the dumpster. Usually it's filled to the brim anyway.
I  use a broomstick converted into a weapon, with a 2" nail in its tip for hooking bread or
plastic wrapped vegies. I take all the bread that's wrapped as I go home and share it with
other single mothes, or soak it in milk, go out on street and  caw for the crows

and pidgeons to come'an get it. I freeze extra loaves give a few slices to birds daily.
Just at the peak of the recession, 07/08, All my fave markets joints got sealed trash dumpsters!

God forbid one customer should feed his family for free and not use the costly shop.

But before the locked boxes, flats of berries got hefted into the car. At home, I floated
 them in sink, find good ones for draining,
  air drying then into the fridge. The rest
were planted, Smushed and planted. I trade the berry bushes for
bags of potting soil,
adverting them on Craigs list. "Bring bag of soil get trees/ flowers/berry vines free.'

Bags of potatoes mayve have a bad one, quickly separate it. Plant it if it has life. Rest are dried!
& stored in cool, airy place in baskets. Get rid of the plastic around them. Carrots get
soaked overnight to stiffen' em up. They throw away any melon with a crack. I will grab
it, take it home, cut out and discard any area exposed to air. The rest is fine. Ice 'em down.
The bags of nectarines, peaches,grapes, cherries, apples just get grabbed! Later, I'll find that
one fruit the CLERK saw which had mold which made them TOSS THE whole BAG! Soft  gets
made into jam.

More fruit is available in suburbia. As I drive to the market, I know which houses have the great fruit trees, spilling fruit on the lawns. I have three grapefruit houses. Lime houses. I know which alleys have apple trees, guava trees hanging out of the back garden into the alley which is covered with fallen fruit. During that tree's ripening season, I visit daily.

For the apple tree, which is tall, I use a 4 foot garden cultivator with three, curved steel fingers to pull off the apples that hang over the alley. I don't take the ones inside the person's fence. With guavas, I make an extremely low-sugar jam and freeze most of the jars. One jar is in fridge all the time. Run out, move another one down from the freezer.

I mix all the fruits together add liberal lemon rind and lemon juice and make jam immediately or that very night. Fruit and sugar, simmer it five min, put in clean peanut butter jars, cool, put lid on and keep it in freezer until it's the jam's turn in the fridge. I don't sterilize jam. Nor do I use that very costly white powder to thicken it up. PECTIN. Fergetaboutit. If you want thickness in a fruit that refuses to thicken, (most will,) grate a cup of apple into the mix, it'll clot. Apples are where pectin comes from.

In any fruit collection there are dented pieces. ANY FRUIT that isn't good enough for jam  goes to the POSSUMS who run wild thru the garden at night, who ate all my snails thank goodness. They deserve PAY for that! I also collect all edible trash for them. if I drove a car, I'd go to a nearby cafes, get leftovers from the cook for them. And if there were a World War III, and a famine, I'd find a way to eat the possum as my gardener sez they're fantastic, a favored food source in Honduras.

Food from DUMPSTERS can be a good thing. Many wilted items can be freshened up. Carrots get soaked in sink overnight. Romaine or cabbage gets its hoof cut off, so it can be torn apart, & soak for an hour in sink. Drain/dry and bag for fridge. If I spot crates of CHEESE in the dumpster, I feel them. If they're still cold that onion cream cheese or jack cheese comes home with me. Deli meats also should be cold. Cats cannot eat them due to chemicals, salt but possums can. Anyone even a blind man, can find a hundred bucks worth of groceries on the average run. Do check the web sites of the FREEGANS, and WIKIPEDIA on them, also, for
many TIPS, and inspiration.

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not make clean riddance of the corners of your field when you reap, neither shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest: you shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger."
Leviticus 23:22

"A wife can throw more out the back door with a spoon than her husband can bring in the front door with a shovel." I never really understood this saying of my grandmother until I became a keeper of the home myself. Now I can truly understand  and see how easy it is to throw away money, spoonful by spoonful...really without even thinking about it. Everyday I am learning how to "have champagne taste on a demitasse pocket book" and love it." Yahoo frugal lister.

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