Look at that haul. All photos by the author
So there I was, groping around in a pile of trash in the middle of the night.
People stared at the spectacle of a dozen dumpster divers carrying recyclable Trader Joe’s bags through NYC’s Upper East Side neighborhood. They didn’t look like they needed handouts, but they were digging through the trash in the streets not too far from Park Avenue. They were calling it “a movement.” These people are freegans: a group dedicated to saving food, shampoo, furniture, and anything else that people waste. They want to fight the system of consumerism because they believe it squanders the stuff people need. No one was homeless. On any given night, this meetup group hooks bagel stalkers from different age brackets and socioeconomic backgrounds with their e-mail newsletter. I saw a college kid break bread with a veteran. Each diver has different standards and different favorite foods, but they all share a bootstrapper’s mentality and are almost always on the hunt for things that are free. The food was for us, friends, people on the street—anything to keep it from piling up in a landfill. When someone throws something away, legally it's a public item, but that doesn't keep police and restaurant owners from hassling them.
There were people who survived solely on what they found, and people who dived twice a month who were just in it for the free food. And there was a lot of it.
The inventory from the biggest haul came from Gristedes grocery story: bottles of kombucha, stacks of pre-packaged guacamole and hummus, watermelons, peppers, breads, celery, salads, and packages of tri-colored fettuccine. It’s like this outside most grocery stores every night, but Saturdays are when the masses clean most stores out. There was plenty to go around for everyone’s personal stash and for the group feast that would happen tomorrow night. The leader gave me the address on a slip of paper.
The haul from Gristedes
I’d been curious about freeganism for years. I wanted to know what a dive was like, what freegans considered cool to salvage and how hardcore it was. It shocked me that I wasn’t grossed out. But jacking $50 worth of pristine quinoa salads tossed into the garbage required so little effort. There wasn’t so much “garbage” in the bag. I was relieved that there were no discarded napkins or coffee filters to scrounge through; it was just a bag of salads and wraps in their packaging that had expired that day. “Companies are conservative with their expiration dates,” Janet, our leader, explained.
I looked over to a mild-mannered Wes Anderson doppelgänger who worked as an intern at a Chelsea gallery as he pointed a flashlight to reveal packages of Japanese sweet potatoes. A woman offered me a container of cold gazpacho she pulled just because I said I loved it, but I told her to keep it. A Brooklyn freegan once told me that people can get cagey about their prime spots, but most freegans believe in sharing.
I scooped out a filmy $12 bag of shiitake mushrooms from Dean & Deluca for the feast the next night. There were no takers for the bag of loose pieces of Swiss cheese because a regular diver, Adam, wasn’t there. Adam’s known for dunking his hand into unwrapped food and eats right out of the garbage.
As people walked by, they took interest in the operation going on. Some passerby swiped a still-soft chocolate chip cookie from the huge pile without stopping. A man slipped into the crowd trying to hide his grocery bags from Gristedes. “This proves it’s a bad economy,” he said. “We’re all suffering, right?” Then he walked off; he must have decided earlier that even though he was suffering, he preferred to pay for his guacamole.
A recently unemployed woman ate her salad wrap rescued from outside of Organic Avenue.
“At least you’re being resourceful,” I said.
“Yeah. It helps,” she said.
“Would you go alone?”
“I’d feel too weird.”
I had to consider if I would. I imagined myself all alone, checking out the trash in broad daylight, looking not exactly pathetic but whatever is one level less nuts than that. I decided it wasn’t worth it. I was still marveling at how inviting and brightly colorful it all looked on the curb when it was time to tie up the rejects—bananas browned from days of neglect—and move on. Dumpster divers leave garbage sites nicer than they were before. They have that in common with Girl Scouts.
Being an amateur myself, I picked up some slimy garbage in hopes of finding something edible, and accidentally discarded it in a fellow diver’s general direction. A yellow rubber glove appeared in front of my face.
“That’s why I wore these,” a fellow diver named Mohammed said.
Look how much fun we're having!
The Italian market Agata & Valentina, the most upscale target on our hit list, was a bust. It was closed, but lust-worthy aromas of the prepared foods inside reached every corner of my nose. Outside, I lifted a bag of severed pineapple tops to find a ton of raw meat. Too scrappy. Too much work for the group.
We moved on, passing V-Note, a vegan restaurant. It would have been awkward to hit them up, what with everyone enjoying dinner and all. “We could claw at the window and go through their trash while they ate,” Cindy, the sarcastic leader said, laughing.
Dragging my free broccoli home, I had sticky ice cream hands thanks to some suspicious goo that collects on salad in a bag. It’s cool. I scrubbed my hands six times like I was reenacting Lady Macbeth’s OCD post-murder hand washing.
The next night was the feast, located in a residential building in East Harlem. They hold them to reward people who find food and share it. I set about chopping garlic, onions, and celery in the communal kitchen. My first task was simple enough: get rid of the mealy bits on the tomato with a cleaver. People come if they’ve been on the dive the night before, or they find something to bring in on their own. One woman produced potatoes and had prolonged their life span by separating them in her worn-to-death stockings.
Our rosemary bread was rock-hard, but it was nothing a microwave couldn’t fix. “I promise no one will get sick on this,” a cheery leader said. A drunk guy stumbled in looking for chitlins. Almost everyone was vegan—mostly for moral reasons—so he gave up, but not before delivering a lecture on how an onion can heal a broken leg if you can’t afford to go the hospital.
Every age bracket was represented at the dive, but at the feast, it was mostly people who were retired—an improv teacher, a former management consultant—and the lone young unemployed legal assistant. Not every diver survives on a strict freegan diet; some of them donate food they find to Food Not Bombs, a collective that feeds people in need with rescued food in order to create a more sustainable future. One guy talked about the young kids who jump out of a van to take all the trash from Organic Avenue on 21st Street. “They’re so ragged they look like they live in the subway,” he said.
I stared at my dish, which would elate hungry people everywhere, feeling disappointed in myself. I worried about anorexia rumors.
Somehow, bagging up the “rescued food” seemed less dicey than the end result: eating it. Boxed spelt crackers and cranberry oatmeal cookies tasted the safest. The stir-fry smelled good enough, but those $12 mushrooms and the tofu were gray. However, I’d pay full price for the asparagus, and the rice and beans were restaurant-quality.
These people were passionate and intelligent, but most of this stuff just wasn’t appetizing. It still impressed me that all this food would go to waste if it weren't for them.
I went into this thinking garbage… never good. But it struck me: the stuff was fresh enough to eat, and I didn’t poison myself. In the end, my own hangups about where it came from tugged at my stomach and got in the way of rational thinking. This was something I personally applauded, but didn’t want to take up.
So I chewed, nodding to signal how impressed I was while I fantasized about tunneling myself into the nearest steakhouse for a rehabilitative lamb chop. I was the only one who wasn’t into it; all the others finished their plates. As I washed the dishes, they invited me to dive again. But while they’re onto something, I remain a slave to the system. I prefer to see my food on a clean shelf.