OK, let’s clear up a few things at the beginning: Most of my experience has been in grocery store dumpsters; the safety of prepared food from restaurant dumpsters can be a little more difficult to assess, but I’ve never heard of anyone who got sick from eating any kind of food out of a dumpster. Still I prefer to stick with grocery stores. Most dumpster divers I know stay away from meat (many won’t even take vegetables that have been in a dumpster with meat because of the danger of contamination) and many avoid dairy products. A vegetable is either edible or visibly too far gone to be edible. It’s obvious. Our national obsession with perfect appearance extends to the produce section: most of what we find in the dumpster is not rotten, it’s just got a nick or soft spot. You would eat it without a thought if you found it in your own refrigerator. Expiration dates are just the date the store takes a product off the shelf; most expired food is fine, and if it isn’t you’ll be able to tell.
Dumpstering is not stealing; technically it’s trespassing, but it’s rare for a dumpster diver to be given more than a warning or possibly a ticket. In most cities stores pay a disposal fee based on the amount of waste in their dumpster—you’d think they’d thank us for lightening the load, but they don’t. The mildly transgressive nature of dumpster diving actually makes it more fun. It’s very freeing.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 97 billion pounds of edible food goes to waste in the United States—that’s over a quarter of the food produced in this country. Just five percent of that wasted food could feed four million people for a day. It costs a billion dollars a year to dispose of food waste. Rotting food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2.
I would guess that I save $80 to $100 a month by eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Money is time. I spend the time I save by dumpstering on visiting with friends and my grown daughters, volunteering at Food Not Bombs, riding my bicycle, reading, writing. It feels wealthy.
Dumpstering is fun. It’s fun to put together a group of friends late at night and drive around to the back of the grocery store, drive slowly and quietly and douse the lights. Everyone has a slightly different technique. Stef wears latex gloves like a surgeon. Mark hoists himself up, lifts up the big black lid and jumps inside with both feet. Sometimes someone will put on a headlamp and its swaying beam illuminates the rough and rusty interior of the dumpster. I don’t feel confident of my ability to get out once I get in, so I often take a stepladder and pick out the things I can reach through the side door, or I hold a flashlight for the others. As the boxes fill up I carry them back to the car. We offer a running commentary as we work: “Wait, is that a bag of onions? There—over there under the celery? Yes!” Or “Could you check the expiration date on this one?” Or “Why did they throw these pineapples away? Look, they’re perfect! People are crazy.”
On a good night we can take home what conservatively adds up to hundreds of dollars of food. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars of food. When we get more than our household can use we stop by other collective houses and leave boxes of peppers, zucchinis, grapefruits and apples on their porches. Some mornings I’ll open the door and find a box of food on our back porch left by some other night-dumpstering crew. Sorting through boxes of dumpstered food is one of the pleasantest tasks I undertake. I love washing the produce in the big double kitchen sink and dividing it up: shining mounds of fresh tomatoes, dark luminous eggplants, zucchini and summer squash stacked like cordwood, peppers—red, green, yellow, orange—arranged in a bowl like a painting by Cezanne. Clusters of radishes, boxes of baby greens, sacks of potatoes, giant onions, bunches and bunches of bananas. Often we’ll find multiple bags of apples or oranges–one orange will go soft and the store will throw the whole bag away. Someone in the house once picked up an electric orange juicer, still in its box, that was being discarded by a neighbor. On mornings after a good dumpster run we have fresh orange juice for breakfast, made with dumpstered oranges juiced in the dumpstered juicer.
One night when we were out dumpstering we heard the rumble of a loading dock door lifting–—that night we were collecting food for Food Not Bombs as well as for our own household. A woman stood in the opening, backlit by the fluorescent lights behind her, her blonde hair standing around her head like a fiery nimbus, her hands on her hips. Mark was in the dumpster hoisting full boxes of potatoes and peppers over the rim to Will who was handing them to me.
“What. Are. You. Doing. In. My. Dumpster?” the woman said with an angry little pause between each word. Mark, Will and I sped up the assembly line.
“Put those boxes back!” she said. I began dumping the boxes into the trunk of the car and handing the empties back to Will who tossed them over the edge into the dumpster.
“You’re breaking the law!” the woman said. “That’s illegal. I’ve called the police.” We didn’t believe her, but we weren’t sure.
“We’re collecting food to feed people who don’t have anything to eat,” Mark finally said.
“I don’t care,” she said. “Get out of there right now. You’re breaking the law.”
Mark’s good humor disappears abruptly when he’s angry. He stood up inside the dumpster, riding the mountain of vegetables and cardboard cartons like a ship’s captain, and looked across the parking lot at the furious woman on the loading dock.
“What do you think is more important?” he shouted. “Feeding hungry people, or the law?”
We heard sirens in the distance. Mark got out of the dumpster. I slammed down the trunk lid and we left.
Which is more important: feeding hungry people or the law? If you ask yourself the question over and over again it becomes like that little place on the wall where the paint has buckled. Curious, you pick at the bubble one day and discover that the plaster underneath is cracked. You follow the line of the crack down to the floorboards. You wonder why the plaster cracked just there and you go down to the basement to investigate. You discover that one of the floor joists has moved. You look more closely and realize that the foundation of the house is tipped and crumbling. You call in an expert and discover that the ground beneath the house is sinking away. Deep below the house an underground cavern is widening, a great stone plate is shifting, a lava flow is making its way to the surface, a column of sand is settling. If you look too long you can no longer look away.