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I like to think of myself as a discerning eater, but not a picky one. Recently, I started my day with a succulent white peach, a handful of medjool dates, and a tall glass of whole milk. For lunch, I ripped open a scrumptious sealed package boasting falafel, pita bread, and tabbouleh. My substantial side-salad, however, was a disappointment. The radicchio had wilted, and the red cabbage smelled like vinegar. After a few bites, I chucked the rest without a qualm. But I am no reckless food-waster. Quite the contrary—I am an urban hunter-gatherer who roams through alleys freely, admitting no master save my inner gourmand.
In other words, I culled my breakfast and lunch, along with enough food to last me a week, from a dumpster.
When I moved to D.C. last year, I was 21 and living on an intern’s wages. Seven dollars, I thought, was a handsome per-diem allowance for meals. Then one day, I poked my head into the Logan Circle Whole Foods and found myself dreamily hefting stalks of white asparagus. Not far from the asparagus, I tasted my first free sample: fresh, almost crispy, watermelon. Soon, I was stopping by the store a couple of times a week, grazing on authentic Italian vodka-laced pasta sauce and creamy Camembert. And when there were no more free samples, I shrugged and took out my wallet. Before too long, my hankering for gourmet grub had far outpaced my budget.
About a month ago, I happened by the Whole Foods shortly before it closed for the night and noticed an employee emptying cascades of baked goods into a series of black trash bags.
“Are you throwing that away?” I asked, somewhat shamefacedly.
“Uh huh,” she replied, as her fingers tightened around a loaf of rosemary focaccia that didn’t expire until the following day.
“Maybe you could just give it to me?” I suggested.
The employee told me that she wasn’t allowed to donate the loaf or even take it home for herself. Once a week, soup-kitchen volunteers show up and cart away the delicacies. But, the rest of the time, because Whole Foods doesn’t put preservatives in its baked goods, employees must dispose of anything that has expired or will expire the following day. According to Whole Foods corporate spokesperson Sarah Kenney, in addition to the weekly donations, employees go through the bread to see if it can be used for croutons or crostini. “We don’t throw away food,” she maintains.
But one bakery employee told me that they’d thrown away seven bags of food during a recent night. And as I watched, she ruthlessly chucked whole rows of apple strudels and pineapple upside-down cakes. That was when I decided to head out back.
The alley behind Whole Foods is one of the District’s best-hidden sites of food waste. Many times a day, a massive brown trash compactor chomps all those bags of such goodies as panettone and slightly mushy star fruit that emerge from a chute in the wall. There are ominous sounds, like bones crunching or glaciers expanding. Then, after a while, a serene digestive gurgle, a few burps, some hissing.
My first attempts at dumpster diving were a disappointment. Despite its cornucopia of still-edible trash, the compactor made Whole Foods a terrible place to scavenge a meal. For five nights, I lurked beside it. Occasionally, while dodging the rats that strut about shamelessly, I’d find bruised fingerlings, crushed raspberries, funky mushrooms—food that had fallen from the compactor. But because my inner foodie had been created by Whole Foods, I had no yen to beat out the rats for these spoils.
So I decided to take my dumpster diving to other parts of the city. After all, it wasn’t just Whole Foods that could whet my appetite—over the past few decades, organic markets and upscale bakeries have sprouted up across the city. I started spending moonlit nights lurking behind Teaism in Chinatown, and LoveCafe and Cakelove on U Street NW. But Teaism’s dumpster is located inside an inaccessible parking garage, and LoveCafe claims that it runs out of supplies before it has to throw them away. Cakelove appears not to have a dumpster, but I didn’t care to look too closely because I noticed a large man watching me go into the alley. He waited near the entrance, blowing kisses.
But I was determined not to give up on the District yet. At a party, I heard a rumor about a dumpster cornucopia behind Yes, a small organic market on Connecticut Avenue NW. So I slipped into the alley around closing time. I spent a full hour skulking around, pretending to talk on my cell phone when employees started leaving, swatting off mosquitoes.
All I found was one measly bottle of baby food (mashed apples and carrots!). Maybe it would have been good on toast, but the concept was a little too gross (or too gourmet) even for me.
After these fruitless hunts, I sought counsel from some dumpster maitre d’s. Having lived in a lot of college towns, I’d dumpstered for furniture, art, clothes, books, electronics, and, very occasionally, doughnuts for years. But I had never been as hard-core as the “freegans”—people whose moral and political commitment to a dumpster menu leads them to live mainly off scavenged food.
An old boyfriend, world-weary from dumpstering for food in places as exotic as Colorado Springs, Colo., and Reading, Pa., while on tour with his band, was quick to assure me that I wouldn’t find any dumpster sages here. “D.C. punks are very clean-cut,” he said. “They’re really into brushing their teeth.”
The problem, it turned out, wasn’t D.C. punks. As far as veteran dumpster divers are concerned, it’s the District’s dumpsters that are utterly unpalatable. The major groceries compact their trash and keep their compactors tightly locked. Most restaurants also lock their dumpsters—or put them in inaccessible parking garages. “D.C.’s totally different from any other city. There’s not enough food from dumpsters, so most [freegans] bum cars to go to Virginia and Maryland,” says Sarah Tooley, a champion dumpster diver and social activist in her mid-20s.
Tooley knows about 50 artists, musicians, and activists who live in the District (mostly in Columbia Heights and Petworth, though she knows of people at American University and Georgetown, as well) who dumpster-dive for food regularly. Some of them like to go on dumpster-diving dates. Others, such as Holly Poole-Kavana, hope to take their parents dumpster-diving with them. Poole-Kavana, Tooley, and their friends typically drive out once a week and bring back enough grub to feed six group houses. Late at night, they’ll drop off huge goodie baskets on their friends’ porches. Tooley also hosted a New Year’s Day fundraiser brunch for low-income transgendered people this year. More than 90 people paid to eat the dumpstered food that she and her buddies had found. Because they deal with such large quantities of dumpstered food, they say they usually don’t even bother to look in the District.
So, “Hasta la vista,” I said to the District, and roped a friend into driving me 20 minutes away, to an organic market in Maryland. From Tooley’s friends, I’d heard it was a veritable dumpster paradise. But, because so many people rely upon it for so much food, my dumpster gurus told me that I could never reveal the name of this mother lode.
“I’m not a lawbreaker,” my friend told me, parking her car quite far away from my target. I attempted to reassure her that I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but she would have none of it. So I started out on my own. I was dressed in my Matrix outfit: tight black pants, black top; conceding to common sense, I wore bulky shoes. I’d started thinking of myself as a righteous hunter-gatherer who must exercise stealth and wit in order to secure my dinner. I had also decided to put on headphones while I waited, on the theory that if I couldn’t hear the rats and the rapists, they didn’t exist.
I walked into an enormous parking garage ablaze with fluorescent lights. It was empty, but to its side, I spotted an enclave filled with some brown dumpsters. As I touched the first garbage bag, I noticed that it was helpfully transparent instead of mystifyingly black. I could glimpse the blurry promise of food in there, and already I could smell it
The first thing I pulled out was a package of sun-dried-tomato-and-basil free-range chicken sausage (which I convinced my housemate to eat the next day). About 15 boneless, skinless farm-raised salmon fillets and five packs of wild Alaskan sockeye salmon followed. I was gleeful, but I didn’t know if I’d dare eat the fish; if only I had some freegans to cheer me on!
Up next: falafel, white peaches, seedless grapes, and milk. Also: blueberries, and frozen Thai dumplings with radish, white cabbage, chives, ginger, and spring onions. Then there was the Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch (melting fast, but so what?), 2 pounds of medjool dates, frozen raspberries and mangoes, and more than 20 packs of “European-style” salad greens.
Triumph made me bold. I took my time putting everything I wanted into a huge box that used to hold ham. Humming a Cibo Matto tune (“Shut Up and Eat!”), I hauled my bounty out of the fluorescent-lit parking garage coolly; some kind of low-key telephone or alarm-bell was sounding the whole time, but I told myself that it had nothing to do with me.
Maryland obviously rules, but what about Virginia? The next night, around 11 p.m., I set out with Tooley and three of her friends in a battered minivan. Their accouterments included big plastic pails and small, powerful flashlights. When I told them I was looking for a gourmet dive, my escorts fondly reminisced about their best finds. Comely Bok Choi, aka Scott Warren, is a guy in his 30s who buys ice cream but dumpsters or works on a farm for all his other food. He claims to have found, and barbecued, mass quantities of frozen-solid ostrich burgers. The group has also found large quantities of extra-virgin olive oil, a thousand dollars worth of avocados, a lot of beer and wine, and 20 bags of almonds.
Tooley later found out that one alleged bag of salmonella-infected almonds had prompted the store in question to throw away its entire inventory; she didn’t eat any more almonds, but her friends roasted them in tamari and lived to tell the story. Although Tooley claims to have never been food-poisoned by her dumpster finds, Health Department spokesperson Vera Jackson warns, “For health reasons, no one should consume food that has been on the ground or in a trash can or in any other unsanitary place.” Unaware of the existence of voluntary activist-scavengers like Tooley, Jackson adds, “The city has expanded its programs for the homeless, so there really isn’t any need for anyone to look for food in trash receptacles.”
Not unless those programs include shiitake and portobello mushrooms, beets, pattypan squash, a tangerine, and a nectarine. This was our high-end haul from our first stop, MOM’s, a small organic grocery in Virginia. The group agreed that the best treats are always in the left-hand corner of the dumpster. Tooley discarded a box of moldy peaches, but Bok Choi picked it up.
“Has anybody gone through these yet?” he said.
“He’s all about the second look,” Tooley said. And she was right. Bok Choi does not share my gourmet imperative. Later that night, when we found 800 bagels behind a Giant, he didn’t hesitate to lick the weird white gunk on top of some of them in order to find out whether it was butter or frosting. (It was frosting.)
Because dumpstered food gets more perishable by the minute, in addition to a car, serious connoisseurs must have access to big freezers and blenders (to make smoothies out of blemished fruits). Above all, they must have friends who will help them eat the food, and quickly. Recently, Poole-Kavana invited me to a dinner at her spacious group house, which is graced by plenty of plants and bikes. More than 25 of her friends were sharing a bountiful feast. The gourmet coffee they were drinking, the extra-virgin olive oil with which they were cooking, and the fancy multi-grain bread that they were dipping into a nutty sweet-potato soup had all been rescued from dumpsters.
That night, after I’d broken bread with them, I sat back and savored the delicate postprandial bond that had arisen between us. But by then, I’d already tasted dumpster communion, and knew that it was sweet. It happened back in Virginia, on that first night out with the dumpster gang. Bok Choi pointed to the dumpster, looked at me, and said, “Do you want to go in?”
It was important not to show any hesitation. “Of course,” I said, but then looked down at my feet. I was wearing fancy slippers, hand-made in India. Matter-of-factly, Bok Choi offered me his sneakers.
I thought diving in might be a big deal for me; it meant ignoring my mother’s voice in my head. (Bidisha, don’t tell me you got that dress at a second-hand store!) I’ve lived in India for half my life, and I’ve worked with the street kids of Nepal. They survive by eating garbage and picking through dung-covered trash heaps for paper, metal, or anything that they can sell to a recycling merchant. They’d probably never choose to eat out of the trash unless they had to, and they’d be bewildered to learn that I, a rich, upper-caste woman, was doing it, too.
Bok Choi’s well-worn sneakers were way too big for me, but I laced them up tight, hauled myself up, and dove on in. In this dumpster, along with broken glass and an unidentifiable piece of meat oozing juice, we found Irish porter cheese, huge unwrapped chunks of white chocolate, two gargantuan unblemished red peppers, tofu, gluten-free French rolls, pumpkin seeds, mozzarella, and bags and bags of Valencia oranges.
Since that night, I’ve gone out with my dumpster band each week. Once, a young employee sitting in his car saw us milling around a dumpster in Virginia. “Don’t let the fat lady see you,” he said as he pulled away. Another time, a whole crew of late-night construction workers, many of them recent immigrants, watched us approach a dumpster near their work site. Although we were lit up by orange alley lights, they ignored us. Maybe they didn’t want to think about the America we represented, or maybe turning their backs to us was the most gracious way they could find to give us a thumbs-up.
I emerge from these nights with strange greenish-yellow spots on my palms and not a few scratches. I’m tired, I smell funny, and I can’t wait to fall asleep so that I can wake up to some fresh-squeezed orange juice in the morning.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Tom Deja.