Dumpster Diving for Food: My Night as a Freegan

Alden Wicker

whole grain and sourdough bread from a dumpsterI ate food out of a dumpster.

And so are increasing numbers of educated, employed and perfectly sane people.

The movement is called freeganism, and its adherents use unconventional methods to get things for free. Although some are frowned upon, like digging through the trash, freegans also grow their own food and forage in the park for edible greens and berries.

Those who’ve joined the movement live off of free things for a variety of reasons: preserving the environment, protesting capitalism or just filling their pantries when times are tight. And they share the desire to protest the wastefulness of our food system.

Food, Food Everywhere …

Americans throw out an astounding 27% of available food, about a pound of food per day for each American.

This is because 1) stores feel pressured to keep shelves perfectly stocked at all times; 2) they throw out food with merely cosmetic blemishes; and 3) expiration dates demand that food gets chucked regardless of whether it has actually gone bad. For example, American bakeries keep shelves full all day long for purely aesthetic reasons; at closing time, whole shelves of bagels go directly in the trash.

What Being a Freegan Means

Freeganism started in the mid 1990s and has since spread across the U.S. … and the world. Because freegans tend to be anti-establishment, there are no official numbers on how many exist, but groups meet up periodically for discussion and dumpster diving.

For the most part, stores and restaurant managers ignore freegans, who strive not to bother anyone or make a mess. And there’s no legal gray area: Once trash gets put out on the sidewalk, it’s no longer the property of a store and is available for anyone bold enough to walk away with it—or cook it up for their own ends.

Of course, one of my first questions to a freegan was about food safety. One woman, a freegan since 2003, told me she’s never gotten food poisoning. It’s very uncommon, she said, because freegans take extra precautions in washing and cooking food. Plus, many are also vegans (hence the wordplay), so they don’t eat much meat …

To find out whether a person could actually get a balanced diet from dumpsters—or if the whole thing is just insane—I attended a freegan trash tour, run on a biweekly basis by freegans in Manhattan who want to highlight how much waste consumers and businesses really produce, and, in the process, bring more people over to their side.

And then, the next night, they kindly invited me over for a freegan feast—to taste the results of our foraging.

Here’s how the events unfolded.

Foraging for My Food

Monday, 9:30 p.m.: I meet up with the group outside a large grocery store. Since, by now, most food establishments have put out their garbage for collection the next day, the freegan pickings are plentiful at night. Some attendees are hardcore freegans, and some are curious tourists. They range from college students to one man who looks like he’s in his seventies. Nobody (besides a fellow reporter) is dressed really nicely, but nobody looks homeless either. Overall, the crowd looks smart, sane, open-minded … a lot like people you might pass on a hiking trip.

Before we take off, our leader explains freegan etiquette: always retie all the bags and leave the trash pile cleaner than you found it (to prevent being banned from a store in the future). Also, share what you find with the group. Certain foods come in quantities that are more than you can handle, and while you might not want a bruised apple, someone else in the group might.

Is Freeganism Great … or Gross?

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9:50 p.m.: We’ve been walking for a while, not finding much, but finally we come across promising trash bags outside a deli. The groups start untying bags and dig in, but I hang back with my notebook to observe. Passersby gawk, but we find individually wrapped rolls, cut pineapple in a box and whole bouquets of roses and hydrangeas. One leader puts a rose in her hair. Another freegan puts the flowers in her bag to arrange at home.

10:15 p.m.: In the trash outside a large grocery store, we find beef liver, five packs of frozen mashed turnip, prosciutto, challah bread, apple cobbler and candied apples (all wrapped, but sticky with mystery residue). Nobody seems to mind the gross stuff on the outside, as long as what’s inside is protected. One woman wears gloves, but another brazenly handles the items bare-handed, and when I ask if she ever carries hand sanitizer, declares, “Germs can be good!” She offers me a bite of bran muffin, and, in the name of journalism, I tear off a chunk to try. It’s dry, but edible.

11:00 p.m.: Outside a natural foods store, we find expensive organic yogurt containers with an August expiration date (note: it’s now October). Undeterred, one freegan reasons, “It’s got bacteria anyway. It’ll be fine.”

There’s also fresh-looking kale, broccoli and garlic. Someone holds up a sealed bag of Kashi Heart to Heart, my favorite cereal, along with a package of prepared organic chicken and rice with an expiration date of that day. There’s nothing wrong with any of it, and it’s organic. So I take it—and wonder what my friends would think if they saw me now.

Am I now officially a freegan?

11:15 p.m.: We head to a national organic grocery chain that frequently shoos away freegans (admitting it throws out perfectly good food could ruin the store’s “green” image, one freegan tells me). Right now it’s so late that all the employees have long gone home, so we’re free to dig. Of course, this stop is a jackpot.

We find eggs, mangoes, vegan minestrone, fresh produce, pork chops, whole grain bread and more. By now, the hardcore freegans, those who showed up armed with four reusable grocery bags and backpacks, have enough perfectly edible food for a week or more. Nobody has technically submerged themselves in a dumpster (dumpsters are a more suburban thing), but we’ve all gotten our hands plenty dirty picking through piles of black trash bags.

Before turning in, I am invited to a freegan feast the next night at someone’s home, a weekly event which usually caps off the group tour.

Attending a Freegan Feast

stuff out of a trashcanTuesday, 8:00 a.m.: I want to bring the freegan chicken I scored the other night for lunch, but unfortunately it smells a little like trash … in fact, my whole fridge is starting to. So I chuck it. I can’t shake the smell of trash in my nostrils the rest of the day. A co-worker assures me I smell fine.

6:30 p.m.: The feast is held in a cute Brooklyn townhouse, where I’m greeted by the smell of roasted garlic and the sound of French jazz. About eight people are cutting up vegetables, doing dishes and throwing ingredients in a large pot. The hostess makes pesto out of fresh basil from her garden. She hands me a spoonful of chocolate pudding from a plastic container I’m assuming comes from the trash, but I resist the urge to check the expiration date before having a taste. It’s not bad.

The rules tonight: We’ll only eat things that were free, whether homegrown in her garden or taken from a trashcan. I learn this when I try to hand our hostess a bottle of wine: She looks distinctly uncomfortable and sets it aside.

7:00 p.m.: I pick through salad containers to pull out fresh leaves. I was a little nervous at first, but it feels sort of like Thanksgiving—delicious smells, everyone helping out and lots of laughter.

8:00 p.m.: The dining room table is set with mismatched plates, bowls and glasses. Someone says a freegan version of grace: “We’re here to say this food isn’t garbage. Let us take a step back from our consumer capitalist society and appreciate shared work.” Seeing that 90% of the buffet is vegan or vegetarian, I’m impressed that it’s possible to feed yourself from trash and be a vegan.

The menu includes whole grain bread with homemade apple butter and berry preserves, freshly-roasted garlic, minestrone cobbled together from a couple types of pasta and soup, pesto pasta, vegetable stir-fry, salad with three choices of dressing, lemonade, fruit salad and even homemade mango sorbet and banana ice cream with fudge syrup. It’s not steak-house quality, but I’m not complaining either. Everything tastes like a home-cooked meal, and at no point do I smell anything off-putting.

Over dinner we get into a heated debate about animal rights and birth control. Most everyone at the table seems pretty liberal, but one woman explains that, though freegans tend to be liberal, or even anarchist, people come to the cause for many reasons: its principles, their hard times or just idle curiosity. While most everyone at the table has a job, one articulate young woman hasn’t been employed since she lost her position as a travel agent in the recession. She had applied for a position at a Halloween pop-up store the day before.

9:00 p.m.: I’m stuffed. The hostess urges everyone to take home the leftovers.

My freegan dinner companions ask if I’ll keep coming around, and I say I’m not sure. The truth is that even though I’ve been impressed with the variety of great food—and genuinely enjoyed the feast—I hesitate to have my neighbors finding me digging through trash.

Besides, I can afford food. And I have a busy schedule which doesn’t allow me enough time to go freegan—it would take about four hours every week to round up enough free food to survive on.

Does that mean I’m a typical consumer? Maybe so.

I will say this: I appreciate that good food is being rescued from the trash, even if this movement doesn’t necessarily address the root problems of food waste. And it’s free food! The freegans put couponers to shame. So if you decide to become a freegan, I won’t judge you. In fact, I’ll shake your hand … after you’ve washed it.

For more on affordable menu options:

It may not be free, but it’s definitely cheap: Check out our delicious meals for $10 and under.
Watch out for these five cheap foods to avoid.
Plan ahead with our Food For a Month series.

  • Mama Do It All

    Interesting, thought-provoking, fun read. Thanks!

  • http://senseofcents.blogspot.com Michelle

    Wow this is interesting. I’ve read about this before, but it’s cool to see the schedule of someone who has tried it.

  • http://michievouskitty.blogspot.com Stephanie

    While this was an interesting read, I doubt this is something I’d ever try.  For starters, unlike the author, I live in the suburbs, where this would, in fact, require actual dumpster diving.  But also, I can comfortably afford to buy food, and I buy most of my food directly from the farmer/baker/independently owned grocery store, and I just fill in the gaps at the chain supermarket… so I like that I’m supporting local businesses.

    That said, I do like the idea of growing more of my own food.  I grow herbs each year, but next year I’d like to start a container garden with peppers and tomatoes, and perhaps get some blueberry and raspberry bushes since I go through berries like nobody’s business and they get expensive! 

    • Alexa

      I am really excited about growing my own herbs — anyone know how to do this in a city apartment? Having trouble! thanks.

      • MS

        Buy an Earthbox self-watering container and you’ll have a little herb factory that won’t die. Try it, seriously.

      • MS

        Earthbox makes a smaller container called the “Junior” if the regular one is too large for you. You need a sunny window or better yet a balcony/patio with sunlight.

    • pranker

      Never say never! I also never thought I would ever do this kind of activity. Now, every main trash day morning, once a week,  I circulating certain areas for usable stuff. Since I’m unemployed and still have my car and other payments due every months, it helps me get by.  I call this recycling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jes.gut Jes Gut

    Very cool. My sister has told me of friends who got arrested for doing this because the super markets were getting upset about it, perhaps they didn’t leave the area better than they found it. IDK. I would like to do it just for the experience sometime. 

  • mgs

    i had never heard of this!  i’m impressed, but i’m also wondering if something could be done in advance so that food isn’t thrown out to begin with.  it seems a better movement would be to address that issue.

  • Hollye1986

    Ive dumpster-dived plenty of times with lots of different groups, for more than just food. On one trip my friend found a guitar in the trash. I sell things online, and once I found hundreds of lovely colored and patterned mailing boxes flat packed, never used (They cost around $5 each), thrown away in the trash. I went and asked the USPS why they threw them out, they said they “weren’t allowed to sell that design anymore because it was out of season”. No wonder they are going under. And then there are people who have built cute bungalow-style houses out of scrap wood and shipping pallets.

    It is important to look at this with moderation. All these ways of life are looked at on the extreme side. Don’t have time? Go buy your food. Feeling thrifty? Cut some coupons. Want to go on an adventure? Dumpster dive. Want to support local growers? Go to the farmers market.

    • pranker

      They do the same with Hallmark items too!

  • Meg

    In college, we frequently went dumpster diving. A certain chain restaurant always threw out their bread at the end of the day. It was great to dumpster dive there, and we always scored bags of bread. It was always double bagged as well! We even dumpster dove at a bridal chain and scored bags of dresses. Sure, they were ripped or dirty, but we had a lot of fun running around campus in bridal gowns. For us, it was something fun we could do (and score some free food!)

  • nkl

    For those concerned about waste, a better idea would be to collect food from stores BEFORE it is thrown out and donate it to a local food pantry. I volunteer at a food pantry that receives donations from the unnamed “national organic grocery chain” that would have been thrown in the trash if someone from the food pantry wasn’t willing to stop by each week and collect it from the store. This food goes to people who truly can’t afford it—and items such as dairy, eggs, produce, and fresh-baked bread are especially hard to afford and don’t get donated to pantries much by the public. I believe this is a better way to address the issue of waste than a bunch of people who could afford to buy food foraging in the trash.

  • Lara Stewart

    I was an active member of Food Not Bombs in college. A note to people who say that the food should be gathered before it’s thrown away: a lot of stores refuse to do that. They claim it’s too much trouble, or that they are not allowed to donate perishable food.

  • Lara Stewart

    I was an active member of Food Not Bombs in college. A note to people who say that the food should be gathered before it’s thrown away: a lot of stores refuse to do that. They claim it’s too much trouble, or that they are not allowed to donate perishable food.

  • Ele

    I hate wasting food and always feel guilty when I throw food out whether it’s left overs noone wants or “expired” food.  It’s somewhat comforting to know that there’s a group feeding themselves from the unnecessary wastes of restaraunts and grocers.  It’s also impressive to see people do something to help feed themselves to make ends meet.  God Bless !!

  • Ella

    this was an interesting read. reminds me of that time vs. money article…if i was unemployed or only part time and needed to get by, i would consider doing this. but only in a group, as the writer experienced. i am curious to know which “national organic grocery chain” it is that has the best pickings….

  • http://www.facebook.com/deadlittlebunny Carla Deasy

    It’d be nice if there were website links to be able to find these groups in your area.  I looked at the Freegan link, but it was more an explanation of the mission of the group, and not resources to connect them.

    I’m in San Francisco, so there must be something.  I’m going to keep on searching…

  • HARP

    There was just an episode of The League about this!  I had no idea it was a real thing.  I must say I am intrigued…intrigued enough to try it?  I’m not so sure…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=651323976 Kellie Blair Alexander

    I believe in salvaging any useful item to prevent it from going to a landfill that costs tax payer dollars to operate. I have gotten many useful items from trash piles and free stores or thrift bins for my home (too many to name). We should have more local government support on such endeavors. Craigslist can be very helpful in keeping still useful things in people’s employ.

  • Elle

    I am careful not to be wasteful with food, and have salvaged some wonderful vintage items from the trash. But scavenging for food items strikes me as unsanitary, icky, and really sad. Let’s elect some people who can free up this country to get us out of this economic mess so people don’t have to resort to picking through garbage to feel themselves.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=124301705 Phillip Ware

    I instantly think of Charlie and Frank in the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” episode “The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby.”

  • Rockstar_chick87

    Getting free food is cool, but paying for food isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it pays for someone else’s paycheck.

  • Caitlin Young

    My college had a group of freegans and most people in the cafeteria would bring their plate over to a particular table during meal times if they had good leftovers. They always had more food than they could eat which I think it true of most cafeterias (I’ve seen studies where they measure how much good food ends up going to waste.) After a couple years the college started discouraging/disallowing the practice because of “sanitary concerns” and extra work for the staff (i.e., people leaving plates of food out during non-prime food hours, and thus it sitting there for a while.) I think there are two key components for non-traditional actions like this to succeed. Firstly, education…the more people know about it, the more people can choose to participate and the more non-participators can understand what’s happening (thanks, LearnVest!)  The second is discipline. Like the article noted, it’s important for freegans to leave the space clean, so that no one is hurt by their actions. I think this could be extrapolated to situations like the Occupy movement. A lot of social norms are built so that if everyone follows them, everything works…lowest common denominator. Not everyone has the time and rigor to sort out good food from bad, the deal with the ickyness of trash, to responsibly clean up the trash when they’re done. If you want to act outside the social norm, you have to have the responsibility for it, or else the majority will react against you and pull you back into the norm (laws, social pressure, etc.) For those who can do this, and do it right, I think it’s a great option.

  • Jen

    I worked at a popular cafe chain when I moved to Boston for college. We used to bag up hundreds of leftover pastries and bread at closing time, and a couple of Boston’s big homeless shelters would come by and pick it all up from us. Then suddenly, the policy was changed from above–either the city or the corporate HQ decided this was a terrible practice, and we were no longer allowed to give away the leftovers to shelters. This helped me a little personally (because the closing employees were then allowed to take what they could carry, and I fed myself and 4 roommates on bread, spinach croissants, and cherry turnovers for several months), but it obviously hurt many other people who needed that food more desperately than we did (even though we were pretty broke and otherwise living on ramen noodles). I also discovered September 1st in Boston. It seemed like 1/2 the city moved that day. The nicer neighborhoods would be crawling with young people in the evening, all looking for good, free stuff that wealthy renters had abandoned, rather than take with them. We got everything like that back then–lamps, desks, chairs, tables, mirrors, books, pots and pans. Students would rent a van or U-haul together and go around looking for good stuff. We found odd things, too. Once we found the discarded diary of a clearly disturbed young lady, including her strange Polaroid photo collection. Yikes!

  • Christina

    There is an act to prevent stores from getting sued for donating their “old” goods…..so why would they say that they are not allowed or whatever?

    I used to work at a movie theater in my teens and they threw out already cooked popcorn and hot dogs (in clean, new trash bags) at the end of the day…..if I knew then about dumpster diving, I would have grabbed those up in a heartbeat!

    I have found perfectly good furniture (my desk, a chair, 2 tv stands, and more) from an apartment complex I used to live in. My husbands friends back in High School went “diving” in the more rich parts of town and found jewelry!!! I believe we need to jump on this bandwagon and start being conscious of what we throw away….why not just give it away so people don’t have to go through your trash?

  • Yukonmaster44

    Good article, I;ve been doing all my life,(I’M 48) it helps the budget, Sad though,the more publicity acts like this get the more establishments put forth efforts to prevent it from going on for one reason or another,( greed,safety,fear of liability lawsuits) HUSH!

  • http://twitter.com/NaturalGrocers Natural Grocers

    Honestly, it is not that hard for a grocery
    store to gather up its slightly dented, stale, dated, or slow selling packaged
    foods and get them to shelters and food pantries safely and legally.  We
    carefully manage this practice from all of our 50 Natural Grocers locations and
    it amounts to a significant food pipeline to our communities support
    systems.  Unpackaged food is actually a big problem, however, since it is
    illegal to give it away or for an agency to accept it.  Yes, over
    production and waste should be more tightly controlled, but those tasty and
    nutritious “finds” described above are likely to be as scorned
    internally as by freegans who gather up the bounty.  Alas, food safety rules trump any wish for
    restaurants and grocers to share their extras.

  • Gunnar Wordon

    I am a capitalist and a freegan, is there something wrong with that?

  • dennise

    My mother does this each week at a supermarket near Times Square. Organic apples and bananas are always in stock at home.