Treats from the Trash

Alameda County discards more than 150,000 tons of food annually. Tonight's mission: to scavenge a decent meal.

“Flowers. Tons of bread. Potatoes. Some produce. Maple syrup. Peanut butter. Cheese. Tortillas.” Ellen is recalling all the good food she has found in Dumpsters.

John Hoffman, author of the 1993 manifesto-slash-how-to guide The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving, calls the activity “part piracy, part rummage sale, with lots of bruised fruit.” And in the East Bay, it’s practiced for sport as well as sustenance.

Ellen, whose name was changed to protect the slightly embarrassed, is a 27-year-old full-time student who first learned how to Dumpster dive when she traveled around Mexico and the United States with some friends who never paid for their food. Several years later, money became scarce. “Before I got a student loan last year, spending $20 on grocery shopping seemed like a luxury,” she says. “I was reminded of Dumpster diving.” She started going out with friends once a week.

Why do it? Three reasons, none exclusive of the others. First, it’s free. “When you really don’t have much money, it’s your only option,” she explains. Second, you’re reducing your environmental impact — and that of others — by siphoning off part of the waste stream. And finally, you’re sticking it to capitalism.

That’s all cool with Cara McClendon, a Food Not Bombs volunteer who stopped to talk to me once her team had ladled out all the brown rice, black-eyed peas, and salad on the group’s table. Cara confirmed that most of the food that FNB’s Berkeley branch serves in People’s Park is either donated or Dumpstered. “But we do a lot of Dumpster diving for my personal house, too,” she says.

The term freeganism seems to have entered the Anglophone lexicon sometime around the turn of the millennium. It pops up most frequently in lefty and anarchist circles, and can refer to vegans who will eat eggs and milk when it’s served to them. But more often, freeganism means refusing to pay for food. As defined by the Web site, “the freegan rescues capitalism’s castoffs from the jaws of the garbage truck compactor, defying capitalism’s definitions of what is valuable and what is worthless.”

In a Kantian twist, though, the author of this definition-cum-manifesto claims simply eating trash isn’t enough: “And while the freegan can enjoy the liberty of indulgence in these goods, she is also mindful to never be too charmed by their allure to forget their history and to remember the ravages of the culture that produced them.”

That’s taking it a little far, in my book, but when you look at the numbers the freegans have a point. According to a study conducted by the California Integrated Waste Management Board in 1999, food is the number-one type of waste disposed of by businesses — in Alameda County, it represents 15.9 percent of the waste stream, a whopping 150,870 tons a year.

Now, much of what the board calls “food” isn’t really edible. Think of your own trash can: orange peels, rotten meat scraps, the wilted outer leaves of lettuce heads. But in an age when seasoned shoppers like yours truly sneer at peaches with small bruises or green beans with tiny spots, grocery stores who want to retain their reputation for freshness chuck a lot of edible produce, or donate it to shelters, or both.

And the quality of the booty? “Sometimes it’s perfect,” Cara says. “Sometimes the fruit is on the verge of overripe. There’s tons of usable stuff.” Some markets separate the food out from the rest of the trash, knowing their garbage will be culled. But not all are so thoughtful. “Sometimes the food is packaged,” she adds. “Sometimes it’s all mixed together. [What you take] all depends on your tolerance level. Some stuff is a little too gross.”

Cynthia Bartus Jepsen, a supervising environmental health specialist at the Alameda County Department of Environmental Health, says her department doesn’t set fixed guidelines for how long a market should keep a cauliflower, say. Produce needs to be checked daily, she says, but it’s up to the store to determine when to toss its merchandise. Environmental Health only steps in when someone files a complaint, or when an inspector finds mold or deterioration during a site visit. In fact, Jepsen says, regulatory agencies don’t set sell-by and use-by dates for individual products. Manufacturers do.

Is Dumpster diving legal? That depends upon where you live. Jepsen says Alameda County has no law specifically prohibiting it, nor must stores and restaurants guard against it. Basically, as long as they’re not attracting rats and roaches, stores can control the destiny of their trash. Still, Jepsen says, “We would definitely not recommend it. The food is compromised if it’s in the trash already. We know that the food is not safe to eat because of cross-contamination issues.”

Neither Ellen nor Cara report ever having been sick from one of their finds. Then again, neither has picked up meat or eggs, and they choose pretty carefully. “I’ve found stinky potatoes, but I’ve never really gotten anything out of the Dumpster that I’ve gotten home and said, ‘Oh, it’s rotten,'” Ellen says.

Waste Management, which handles garbage disposal for many of the cities in Alameda County — Oakland, Hayward, Emeryville, and Alameda, for example — doesn’t go after Dumpster divers nor require businesses to protect their trash, according to a customer service rep who wouldn’t reveal her name. In fact, the rep notes, the firm had to replace the lids of its small commercial Dumpsters. “The heavy ones were falling down on people and hurting them,” she says. “I don’t know the legalities of that, but we could be held responsible, so we replaced them with very light plastic lids. That eases [Dumpster divers’] little job there. They can jump right in.”

Divers say Contra Costa County is less picked over than Berkeley and Oakland, but it’s also less permissive. Sheri Johanson, a representative for Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority, which hauls trash and recycling for Walnut Creek, Danville, and Lamorinda, says her company requires the cities it serves to pass anti-Dumpstering legislation. “In our service area, we have an ordinance that states that scavenging is illegal and violators can be fined,” she says. Fines are steep: $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second within a year, and $500 for each additional violation. The fourth can be punished as a misdemeanor.

But the authority doesn’t get many complaints, Johanson says — it’s more concerned with people raiding the spoils on bulky trash day. (See the June 30 cover story “What’s Killing Bulky Trash Day?”) Neither Cara nor Ellen has ever been fined. “I’ve been asked to leave, but not in a mean way,” Ellen says. “The manager told us, ‘If I didn’t know you were here I’d be fine. ‘” Cara recalls getting chased away by a security guard once, but that was in New Mexico.

Convincing Dumpster divers to reveal their hunting grounds is about as easy as getting Dick Cheney to chat about his energy-industry meetings. There are no online directories to the Bay Area trash bins, no secret photocopied guidebooks. Divers stick to good ol’ word of mouth. It’s just safer. According to Cara, they’re afraid the best spots will be picked over, or worse, the stores will freak out and start locking up their Dumpsters.

The names of a few choice locations slipped out in my interviews — such as the supermarket in a tony Contra Costa County city that’s legendary for great hauls — but each time a store was named I was forced to swear on both of my grandmothers’ graves that it would never see print. In general terms, though, Ellen recommends bakeries, health-foods stores, small grocery stores — almost all the high-volume supermarkets have compactors — and food manufacturers.

Since I couldn’t score an invitation to someone else’s raid, I decided to follow their instructions and see what kind of second harvest I could reap myself. One Saturday night, I recruited my friend Denise to help me stalk the mighty trash cans. When Denise was growing up, her father would bicycle home from work in his business suit, stopping at the grocery store to rummage through the Dumpster for just-tossed meats and vegetables. An Okie who moved to California during the Depression, he just couldn’t pass up all that food that was going to waste.

We set out at 8:00 p.m. Supplies: 79-cent rubber gloves from Walgreens, scuffable clothes, leftover plastic bags, two small flashlights. A step stool would have been helpful, too, as we discovered while making the rounds of bakeries. We hit the jackpot at Metropolitan Bakery in West Berkeley: There, at the bottom of a four-foot-tall Dumpster, nestled on a plastic-bagged mound of raw dough, were a dozen loaves of bread, still in their paper wrappers, and in perfect condition. Denise performed Carly Patterson-quality moves to fish a couple out. Her hands smelled of flour afterward.

Next stop: produce. After my interviews I had a vision of lifting up the cover of a Dumpster to find flats of slightly bruised peaches and zucchini. But no, this really was garbage. One Piedmont Avenue attempt turned up a few fish heads and bags of what looked like coffee grounds and napkins.

I was excited to see what I could find at A.G. Ferrari, the yuppie Italian deli in Montclair, but its Dumpsters were all fenced off, reminding me of something Cara had said: “It’s amazing how some people get possessive about trash.” With the late-night workers around, we were unwilling to breach the walls.

Higher up in the hills, we found two dedicated food Dumpsters in the parking lot of the deserted Village Market. On the left side of one, we spotted a heap of chicken carcasses, fresh enough that they didn’t smell too bad, but then again, not so fresh. On the other side of the bin, though, was a mountain of green: corn husks. A few whole ears stuck out.

We fished out three, as well as a runt of an avocado from the second bin, then declared victory. For a three-hour dive, our haul was three ears of corn (two usable), three loaves of bread, and one avocado. Had we poked further, we probably could have come up with a full meal. But midnight was closing in, we were getting tired, and the rush of finding free food had long disappeared.

Like many regular Dumpster divers, Ellen stopped her urban foraging habits once she started working. “I like to know what I’m going to get,” she says. “And now I’m really busy so I have less time. Dumpster diving is a lot of work.”

Hear hear.

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