I realized, all too late one Saturday as I began to dress for what I was calling a “night out,” that I was on my way to meet several people whose real names I did not know, to a neighborhood downtown where I had never been, to rummage through stores’ bagged and curbed unwanted goods.
The dumpster diving community in New York is surprisingly large. There are comprehensive directories online for the city’s “freegans,” a portmanteau of “free” and “vegan” and a title they generally prefer over “dumpster divers.” New York City focused Facebook groups and message boards boast hundreds of members with niche diving needs or interests: specifically vegan, vegetarian, junk food-inclined, or leftist, anarchist, anti-consumerist. In Brooklyn, you can take Freeganism 101 or a Trash Tour, put on by a freegan collective on the domain name freegan.info.
This crowd is a mixed bag. I find a couple already rifling through some found garbage bags at our meeting place, almost certainly students; an older man and woman discussing the weather, united by their identical and endearingly frizzed silver hair and floral patchwork jackets; and a few others, prepared in boots and gloves with backpacks or small carts and reusable bags, in their late twenties to fifties. None of them are homeless. “We’d just rather not see food still very good for eating make its way to a landfill,” says Rosa, the woman in the floral patchwork jacket.
There are eight here altogether. Everyone has met before, save myself and one tallish guy in a Dartmouth sweatshirt. I learn that everyone here readily self-identifies as vegan or vegetarian, and that taking animal products is considered risky. None of them have ever gotten sick from their finds and a few exclusively eat only what they can “forage.” Bread is a common favorite, and easily found. A girl named Leah crosses her fingers for a loaf of good sourdough. Rosa wants to find blueberry muffins.
We follow a tight schedule: Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Gristedes, D’Agostino. At each store we are to take no more than thirty minutes, with or without sourdough and muffins; grocery chains like these are routine in taking out their trash and “leftovers,” and just as when the food is in the store, it’s best when fresh from the shelves.
We start at Trader Joe’s. I’ve never seen such an organized process. The big bags are felt up and then carefully opened—to be re-tied when they’re finished—and out comes food. Each store’s set-up differs: here, far from the retail entrance but still public and along the street, there are two dumpsters and several neat white garbage bags beside them; all members of our group steadily, confidently open the bags and the bins, though unfortunately no one “dives.”
Everyone works separately to first sort through what’s on offer, then come together over promising bags and boxes. We find tens of containers of hummus with “sell by” dates an entire week later, containers of tofu, silken or firm or flavored, bags of flatbread and whole grain wraps. There is no ambiguous liquid or residue, or even unplaceable smells in this trash—just sealed, prepared, and acceptable food.
Leah takes three of the red pepper hummus and a box of chocolate coconut cake bars; my novice compadre, the Dartmouth alumnus, gingerly selects a few bottles of lemonade and some sliced bread; Rosa and her quiet significant other load up on unbruised apples and pears. I am not yet bold enough to enter the fray.
This is legal. To go through trash on the street is not criminal, though it does become complicated when you get too close to a store, or enter an actual dumpster. My companions asked me not to use full names more out of concern for their personal or professional reputations than their legal standing. Angelo, a CUNY undergraduate, has never been harassed about going through the bins by more than a few back-stock or sales associates. “They tell me I probably shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m like: ‘Do you have a problem with it?’ They always go, no, they don’t, they don’t care, they’re just doing their jobs. Their boss or manager or whatever told them to say something. And I’m just finding dinner and some solid meals for the week.”
It occurs to me that for many here, not only is this their major grocery shop for the week, but their Saturday night out on the town. It’s only around nine, but this is a party. They’re having fun; these are their friends. Some of them like the weirdness of this thing (even if “it’s only weird to you,” they tell me, the passersby still stare), some of them like saving hundreds of dollars each week, and all of them are interested in sustainability and reducing waste. Rosa explains, met with nodding heads from our gang of foragers: “It’s win-win. They need to get rid of the food, we’re willing to take it and eat it, and we can do a tiny part to help the city’s trash problem.”
Whole Foods, next, is a disappointment. David, a middle-aged veterinarian, guesses that they must have turned over their shelves earlier and tossed their goods before scheduled, but he manages a few pounds of carrots. One woman collects a bunch of flowers. There are small cardboard boxes full of fruit, and I’m handed a few spotty bananas and some sunflowers. I stow these into my backpack and look toward the street. I’m excited to have my first goods from the dive, but church ain’t out ‘til they quit singing.
As we walk I talk with Sarah, a paralegal, and Ben, a self-described “chronic graduate student.” Sarah shares openly how little she earns against her input hours, and found in dumpster diving, when introduced by a friend from AA in 2010, a healthy solution to handling her free-time and some of her monthly expenses. “My quality of life is better, for one. And I’ve met people like Angelo and Ben, and they’re really my best friends.” She’s been a practicing freegan for nearly five years, as has Ben. He agrees: “I love it. I basically live off grants and stipends, and this way I don’t necessarily have to choose between money and health.”
Gristedes gives us the best food, and D’Agostino is just “predictable.” Some of the harvest: ripe avocados, berries, pre-cut mango, plenty of bread (sourdough included), pastries (blueberry muffins not among them, but some banana nut were scored), freshly packed salads (quinoa, couscous, soba noodles), and other in-house prepared foods (hot soup, stir fry, sautéed vegetables).
Their grocery yields aside, I want to know these downtown freegans better. This is not the most political or radical group in town, they admit, but they are adamant about waysiding capitalism as best they can. Many work with soup kitchens, churches, and food banks to disperse information and to volunteer, and to help others live more cheaply and sustainably. They have a lot to say, and want to invite more to their table. Theirs is a unique way of living and the more I learn, the more it seems a sacred charge. “Not everyone can do this, I get it,” Angelo says. “But imagine if more people felt comfortable trying to. People would be less willing to pay store prices. Food would be way more affordable.”
Back on the 1 train, I bite into my organic golden delicious apple, courtesy of Rosa, and consider going with them again next weekend. They’ve asked me to a group dinner, too, which will be comprised exclusively of found foods. This is a way to eat and a way to conserve. I’m far from deterred.
I make it home, and look outside to see light from the grocer across Broadway. I set my sunflowers on the window sill; this marks the spot where I can watch for their nightly drop-off.