High-End Dumpster Diving on the Upper West Side

Freeganism isn't just for poor people or anti-capitalists. People who want the finer things in life (for free) will also dig through the trash for them.

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Sep 29 2015, 1:00pm

Mike Felber with his loot. All photos by the author

There were bags of trash in front of me, and I was digging through them. My hands were sticky and covered in garbage juice. A dog walked over and peed on a bag I was about to look through. Nicely dressed people walked by and gave me various degrees of looks; a couple quickly diverted their eyes; a man offered an expression of pity.

"I'm going to feel around and see if there's any meat that I want," said Mike Felber, dipping his arm up to his elbow into a garbage bag. He pulled out a handful of what looked like gooey muck from the bottom.

"This is lasagna," he offered, holding it in the palm of his hand. It had been tossed out from the store's salad bar. "I have no shame. I will take that if I want and put it in a bag," Felber said. He proceeded to do just that.

Felber and I were spread out on the sidewalk in front of Morton Williams specialty grocery on the Upper Westside of New York City, looking through their garbage bags. The buried food was abundant: Creamed spinach. Stuffed cabbage. Bruschetta ham.

"There's a stigma attached this," said Felber, as he ripped open another garbage bag filled to the brim with bagels. "If a ton of people did this, there wouldn't be that much food at all. But the vast majority of people wouldn't even consider it or haven't thought of it."

A block away, homeless people were sleeping rough on the steps of Church of St. Paul of the Apostles, presumably unaware that they could feast for days on what is being thrown out nightly onto the curbside: not only perfectly good food—but gourmet food.

Felber spotted a man he knew walking into the Morton Williams. "Going shopping?" he asked his friend. "We're freeganing. Are you jealous?"

Mike Felber calls himself a freegan: part of an anti-consumerism movement that reclaims food that has been needlessly thrown out. The movement itself is nothing new; freegans have been dumpster diving since the 90s.

"Fifty percent of all food is wasted," he explained. "Some of its consumer wasted. Most of it's thrown out to make room for the next shipment. So you get tons of packaged foods."

To emphasize his point, Felber holds up a sealed pack of pricey ham covered in fruit rinds. "Ninety percent fat free," he read from under the pulp, and then the price: $7 per pound.

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Felber first realized he could do this in 1994, when he was walking home from work and discovered a café that threw out perfectly good sandwiches. He took them and gave them out to the homeless—but saved a few for himself. Now, he estimates that he gets 80 percent of his food from freeganing.

The thing is, Felber isn't doing this to protest capitalism; he's not poor, or living an alternative lifestyle. He's not a gutter punk or someone who'd frequent Burning Man. He makes good money, lives in a nice part of Manhattan, and he won't just eat anything out of a trash can. He only wants the gourmet stuff.

"Between the fancy sandwich emporium and the supermarkets, you can find everything from high to low-end stuff being thrown out," he told me. "You can get dairy. You can get meat. You can get gourmet food. This one place across from my gym sometimes has sushi." I cringed at the thought of "dumpster sushi."

This type of gourmet dumpster diving—call it "yuppie freeganism" if you will—is becoming more popular. The movement has become unhinged from the political, environmental, social reasons, and is more about middle-class Americans saving money. People do it as a form of extreme personal finance, to save a little money in the expensive city of New York so that they can splurge on other things. There are even people who make money off of the things they find in dumpsters. Felber isn't like that. He's the kind of guy who tries to only eat organic, high-end food. If he can get the same things out of high-end grocery stores' trash cans, so what?

Stores throw away food when it's expired, when it's bruised, or when they need to make room for a new shipment of food. Some of the food in the dumpsters is still cold, so you can even get high-quality meats and cheeses and perishable items. Twenty minutes earlier, a shopper would've paid $8.35 for the ham Felber found in the trash—now its free, right in front of the goddamn store.

A basic freegan ethic is to open up the garbage where it ties and seal it back up when you're done. "You don't want to slit it like it were the belly of an animal," Felber explained.

Most stores toss the trash around 9 PM, but it helps to know the type of food each place throws out. Morton Williams, for example, is the best store to score fruits, dairy, and food items dumped out from the salad bar (which means it's going to be messy, so bring something to clean your hands.)

"You got a narrow window. If it's out too long, the garbage men will take it," Felber said. "Sunday nights are good because supermarkets usually don't throw out goods over the weekends."

The proper freeganing essentials are plastic bags for the food, water to wash your hands and dirtied food, and paper towels. Clothes should be something you don't mind getting caked in garbage. Then you just go through the bags. Feeling the outside will give you an idea of what's inside.

"Even though there're rats out, they'll scurry if you're near by," Felber said.

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Felber—who is health-conscious weightlifter and tries to mostly eat the whole-grain, high-protein foods he finds—has earned some strange glances when he picks through the trash.

"People see a middle-aged white guy doing this—you can see shock, you can see fear and loathing and disgust."

Sometimes they mistake him as homeless, and offer him money or some of their own food. He looks hungry, rifling through the trash like that, in the middle of the sidewalk on the Upper West Side, not far from Lincoln Center.

Felber disarms them with a big friendly "hello" and tells them that even though he's not homeless, they should extend their kindness to someone else. "Unlike people who have to go through garbage to survive, [I] have this option."

Towards the end of the night, I realize that I smell like a salad bar. My hands are orange and sticky. Our last stop is Gristedes, arguably the most expensive grocery store in New York. The garbage looks like someone's gourmet shopping bag.

"Sometimes, if I'm hungry, I'll eat a little here and there and then put it in the bag," Felber said with melon in hand; scooping out the fruit with his cupped fingers. We dug through the Gristedes garbage and pulled out unspoiled treasure after treasure: Cold sesame noodles. Eight cartons of cheddar jalapeño spread. Linguini. Eggplant tortellini. Mangos.

Felber found a party veggie tray and holds it up. "I don't want this, but it's nice." He decides he'll take it and give it to his neighbors. He also takes a fancy cake to give to his super.

In the end, Felber had tens bags full. Our plundering is spread out on the sidewalk; several hundreds of dollars worth of food that's still good; all sealed in packages, and under their expiration dates. "Sometimes I hate to get anything else because it's too much to carry," he says as he lugs his food sacks down 9th Avenue to the roar of cabs. "But, if I don't eat it, it will just go in the garbage."

Even if the food is gourmet, people still get squeamish when Felber tells them where it comes from. "The vast amount of people won't do it because they have conditioned disgust about it," he said. And yet, Felber's building manager won't mind when he delivers him fancy cakes. His friends don't complain about eating the bruschetta ham, creamed spinach, and beef stir-fry.

"Even though this is more for my personal benefit, it's still something that is good for the environment," he said. And screw what those other people think—it's perfectly good food, after all.

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