This is a piece I wrote after trying dumpster diving for the first time--it wasn't my last time dumpster diving, either, but it didn't become a lifestyle. I see this piece as a way of glancing into this lifestyle without becoming embedded, which is a great way to teach anyone (whether or not they want to dumpster dive) about why people are doing this.
I'm reposting this piece (which is currently posted in its entirity into this collection) as a single card just to see how it looks. I hope you enjoy reading this piece!
It had been five minutes, probably more. I spun around in my kitchen trying to build up the courage to take a single bite. My roommate snickered as I entered her room for the third time shaking my head and shoulders. Eat it, dude. I had chosen this task, and I needed to finish it.
Angry with myself, I stormed back into the kitchen, scooped a heap of sautéed asparagus and red onions into a bowl and grabbed a fork. My lungs felt shallow as I stared at the concoction in my dish. Just take a bite. I rolled my head in a circle once more, cracking my neck. I stabbed a spear of asparagus and took a bite, then three more. I set the bowl down and stepped back—awaiting the worst. I love asparagus; what was wrong with me? Perhaps the fact that my favorite vegetables, on that night, had come from a Dumpster behind my local Trader Joe’s explained my fear. It had been my choice to go dumpster diving (or gleaning, or salvaging, depending who you ask), but I had not thought about actually eating the food. I wanted to meet those who dumpster dive, learn how dumpster diving is done, and experience what dumpster diving is really like. I was in this for the research—for the experience, not the consequences. So I set out to find a dumpster diver. The internet yielded no results for me, so I wandered around staring at Dumpsters for a few days, hoping I would catch someone in the act. I had no idea if dumpster divers existed in Pittsburgh. I was stuck, so I did my best not to offend my friends as I called and emailed them asking: do you know anyone that dumpster dives or salvages wasted food? Most just seemed to be a little concerned about my mental stability. Others stated simply: “no.” I didn’t blame them for being shocked. The first time I watched a special on Dumpster diving on Food Network, watching gourmet chefs prepare food from a trash can, I was appalled, too. After three weeks, I had no leads. The divers were hiding from me, and I could not enter their world of Dumpsters and trash bags. I understood that most divers do not typically offer that information outright—some are mothers of children and are afraid they will be teased; others think they will be judged harshly for it. In one case I read about, a woman in her seventies that did not want to rely on her children to buy her expensive food, so she would sneak out of the house at night to drive to a local dumpster to gather food. She did not want to embarrass them by letting them know about this. However, she eventually was taken in by the cops ultimately, exposed. I understood divers’ fear of this moment. But there had to be a single diver that was willing to share, to teach, or, at least to let me tag along. Later, I scrolled slowly through my phone considering each name that passed under my fingertips. No, might know somebody, no. Anyone could be a diver, right? From writers to gourmet chefs, I felt that there was no set mold for who would and would not hop in a dumpster. I paused on my manager’s name, and thought about my coworker, Sean. Sean. Yes! I knew Sean had a foot in their world. He’s a hipster, if anyone can really fit the word. I got in touch with him, and finally found what I needed: he dives occasionally, and he said he would love to take me. Success. I was going dumpster diving, and I did not know what to expect.
A week later, Sean’s white junker waited in a handicap spot outside my apartment building as I hurried out the door and knocked on the car window. His thin hands quickly motioned for me to get in before they returned to his cigarette box—hitting it one, two, three times before opening the pack and pulling one out.
“You mind if I smoke in the car?” I minded, but told him not at all, flashing a smile. I could hear the rumble of the car beneath me as I anxiously waited to begin. It was cold out, but I didn’t mind. From what I had read, dumpster diving in the winter was good and bad: frozen food stayed frozen thanks to the cold, but that also meant your hands and toes could suffer on a particularly long haul. I still had no idea where we were going or for how long we would be out. Sean is easy to like—easier to talk to. When he stands outside and puffs his cigs, he talks about literature, the elitists that study it and reminds himself that’s why he could not stand his ex-girlfriend. “She always talked about these great themes in literature: death, poverty, you know. How she wanted to do something about them. But she never got up and took action.” He’ll laugh and change the subject to why he’s taking a break from school (“Too many rules. I just want to learn”) instead of lingering on the past. Sean keeps moving. Cigarette in mouth, Sean shifted the car out of park and took off. It had taken me weeks to track down a supporter of the Dumpster community, and he would be my guide to the unfamiliar. Lars Eighner, a writer who spent time in his life dumpster diving and later wrote about it, had spent months searching the Dumpsters of rich college kids who wasted perfectly good food since it was their parents’ money being stuffed into a trash bag. I had studied his techniques—his brazen attitude as he gathered his dinner from the waste of others. Eighner tells us that it is a slow process to become a diver, and at first, the diver will feel utter disgust for what they are doing. Would I, too, feel it as I slum it through the streets of Pittsburgh? “Let’s head to Bruegger’s first.” I nodded my head, giddy in my seat with excitement. Sean told me he only dives on occasion, usually when his friends want to. I asked him what kind of foods he usually finds, and he quickly told me again about the boxes of bagels his roommate often brings home. He told me about his homeless friend, Joe, who sometimes stays with them. He told me about Joe’s aptitude for diving. He told me about his bagels. We rode down the street and parked across from Bruegger’s. At six in the evening, a Sunday night, no one was around. Sean quickly took the lead and crossed the street in strides double the length of my small steps as I hurried to catch up with him as he got closer to the Dumpsters. Moving straight along the side of the building to the parking lot behind it, I glanced around me, but I did not see people, security cameras, or any other obstructions to my mission. Ahead, Sean slowed down as he approached the two large, green Dumpsters. Half of the cover on each Dumpster was open; the other half was blanketed in snow. "They’ve changed the dumpsters since I was last here a few months ago,” he said as he looked over the Dumpsters. “They used to open from the side, which kept the rain and shit out a lot better. Hopefully everything isn’t soaked.” I nodded, understanding. This was it: I pulled the sleeves on my jacket up to my elbows, ready to dig in and find the treasures the Dumpster held. I circled each of the Dumpsters, standing on my tiptoes to peak into the half-full receptacles before turning to look at Sean. I did not know what we were looking for, so I decided to watch at first. Sean did not jump in. Using his long arms and even longer legs, he simply reached an arm into the first Dumpster, lifting a box full of bagels out from the top of the garbage pile and setting it carefully on the ground next to my feet. “Grab those,” he said as he walked back to the second Dumpster to peak into it once more. I bent down to observe what kind of bagels he had rescued and was happy to find that they still carried the faint aroma of a bakery that I inhaled while surveying the box’s contents. I picked up a bagel and squeezed it gently. It was still fresh—still soft. I could eat these bagels. Even experienced divers still get nervous about eating foods that seem safe but are hard to judge, but to them, certain foods simple to categorize as safe . I think bagels may have been this food for me. Easily tested for freshness, even more easily eaten, I thought, smiling to myself. As I began to take a mental count of how many bagels we had so far, Sean headed towards his car, his voice indicating that we were done here. I looked around and glanced back at the Dumpsters. What about the bags inside? Tear those open! You’ve gotta get in! I quickly picked up the box and jogged lightly to catch up to Sean as he strode back to his white Ford. We will find more at the next Dumpster, I thought. “Let’s move on.”
We pulled in to Trader Joe’s parking lot, and I nervously noticed a lot of people still filtering in and out of the store. Unlike Einstein’s, Joe’s Dumpster is in the parking lot in full view of the store’s customers. Deciding I did not want to linger on this thought, I hopped out of the car behind Sean and followed him to the Dumpster. We peeked in and saw bags upon bags of stuff. We used Sean’s height as our only search mechanism as he reached in and moved a few things around. We grabbed a few plastic pots out of a small Dumpster and looked around a little more before Sean started to head back to his car. You’re kidding me, right? That was it? No diving, really? I stuffed my hands in my pockets, defeated, when I heard someone ask about our finds and if we had jumped in. I shook my head no, and she hopped out and headed towards the Dumpster, a boy parking their car and then following close behind. I sent one more lingering glance their way as I got into Sean’s car, where he was warming his hands on the heater. Something about the way he called her “crusty” made me ask him to wait for a few minutes. I headed back towards the Dumpster and saw the girl standing on top of it, fastening on a headlamp. I approached the boy standing outside the Dumpster watching her and introduced myself. "I’m Brian,” he said, “and that’s Chelsea. You’re welcome to hang out—it’s not like we mark our territory or anything. Anyone can check these Dumpsters, ya know?” Chelsea was already in the Dumpster sifting through the bags, and Brian had grabbed a box to gather their finds in. I was not sure what to say, but I just told them it was my first time diving. Brian’s gold feather earring caught the light from the street light as he turned to me and told me more about themselves. The two, who live somewhere in the south of Pittsburgh, get all their food from Dumpsters. Trader Joe’s is one of their favorite spots, though the findings have not been as good since Trader Joe’s installed Agro-Dumpsters that are used to recycle certain types of food into fuel. Some of Chelsea’s favorite items, like eggs, go there now instead of into the normal Dumpster. It’s good and bad, they say. While they are glad Joe’s is taking the initiative to not waste as much, they miss their eggs. I wondered why Joe’s made this choice. Many establishments dislike divers. Not because they want to waste obnoxious amounts of food, but because of the legalities and possible lawsuits that can come about from someone eating their trash. Supermarkets across the US install similar Dumpsters that cannot be jumped in to prevent these lawsuits from occurring. Then, to combat the bad publicity that comes from doing so, they donate what bruised fruit and wasted food they can to food pantries without putting themselves at risk for a lawsuit if someone were to get sick. It had only been ten minutes since I met Chelsea, and already she was waist deep in garbage. She had systematically started on the right side of the Dumpster going through every item and checking to see if it was usable. One particularly fruitful bag seemed to be the leftovers of an employee refrigerator. Here, Chelsea wasn’t interested in the molded and inedible food, but instead collected all the Tupperware she could find and passed it out to Brian, who joyously explained to me how much they need it. I looked back, and Chelsea was examining a jug of milk. She unscrewed the cap, poured a bit into her hand, and took a sip. Every dumpster diver in my readings used this technique, but the extremity only struck me in person. Eighner points us to three questions to ask: use your senses to judge if the food is safe (check), know the area you’re diving in (check), and always ask why something was thrown out (not checked). Chelsea didn’t seem to care about the third bullet point as she handed the jug to Brian—it must have passed her standards, if those existed. "Oh sweet, yogurt! This is the only stuff I’ll get really grimy for. It’s my favorite find,” Chelsea explained to me as she opened container after container of yogurt. The full case of 32 ounce containers had been tossed since some of them were cracked, and I watched as she scooped spilled yogurt from the bottom of the bag into an un-cracked container she found, licking her fingers off after closing the lid. Brian just laughed as she handed out some four packs of organic yogurt she came upon in the same bag. I bent to look through the box of finds Brian had packaged up so far. They had done well so far. Most divers, when they go out, find only a few items per Dumpster. Sometimes divers get nothing but smelly clothes. Meanwhile, Chelsea was scoring big at just one store. When I stood back up, a prepackaged “sauté kit” of frozen asparagus and red onions was shoved in my face. “You know, you haven’t really salvaged if you don’t eat it yourself. Here, take these. You have to go home and eat these for dinner with those bagels you got, or else you’re just wasting your time right now.” I blinked. I came here to experience dumpster diving, not to eat the food. I reached out and took the two packages nodding my head. Not making any promises. They offered more of their finds, but I stoutly refused, not wanting to take any of the sustenance they lived off of. Chelsea adjusted her headlamp, and as she did, I took a better look at her. She was pretty and younger than I originally thought. I wondered what had brought her to this point, but she told me that it just seemed necessary. Why pay for food when she can get it here? She will buy some things at the store, but never meat. She only eats meat from the Dumpster, she told me as she munched on somebody’s leftover spicy chicken nuggets. Eighner, on the other hand, avoids most meat except beef, which usually keeps better than other game like poultry or fish, which he would instead leave to his dog, whom had no qualms about their smell. All dumpster divers, it seemed, had different rules for what they would and would not eat, and Chelsea was breaking every rule I had studied before coming into the field of Dumpsters. Chelsea flipped through the last few bags with her now red hands and climbed out. She then handed me a four-pack of organic strawberry yogurt and told me that I had to eat it, too. It’s her favorite. I smiled and thanked them both for letting me hang out. They told me to enjoy my dinner (“You better eat it, dude!”) as I headed to Sean’s car. That’s right, dinner. With my terrible sense of smell, I rarely eat any food that gets near its expiration date. And then there was Chelsea, who took a swig of milk out of a carton from the Dumpster to check its condition before tossing it in with her keepers. “I’ve never gotten sick from any food I’ve taken before. People assume that the food is bad just because it’s in a Dumpster. You just have to be smart about it.” She expected me to do the same: to take the food home and eat it myself. To be smart about it. I had asked to be allowed to experience her way of life, and she expected me to mean that.
On the way back to my apartment, Sean’s car was quiet. I was not sure why he had not joined me, but diving was just Sean’s hobby. It was Chelsea’s life. I thanked him and insisted he take some bagels. He grabbed a few and drove off after mumbled goodbyes. I went inside and called my roommates over to look at my haul.
After bagging them up and tossing some in the freezer, we counted twenty-nine bagels. I squealed with ecstatic joy at the pastry desserts I found in the box under the bagels. I could smell the fresh cinnamon and bit a piece off instantly. I could smell their freshness. One of my roommates tried one, too—she had worked at Bruegger’s and knew that everything is thrown out at the end of the night and made fresh each morning. When we took a look at the yogurt and the sauté mix, however, and hesitated. I still had not made up my mind on these items. I grabbed a bagel and wondered into my room to do some work while I munched on it. Is it really safe? Sure, Chelsea said she had never got sick, but would I? Maybe she’s wrong this time. How do I know? Two hours later, I re-entered the kitchen. I had read and re-read multiple accounts of dumpster diving and how to decide if the recovered food is good or not. I knew the food was still frozen and even the expiration date had not passed yet. I knew where the food came from, a reliable store. What I did not know was why the food was tossed out, and I couldn’t get past this lack of information. Eighner had trained me to answer these three questions, and I, unlike Chelsea, was not willing to toss out the last bullet point. I grabbed one of the sauté kits and noted its frozen status. I’ll cook it; then, decide if I’ll eat it. My oil heated up quickly. I washed and tossed in the red onions and asparagus, still unsure. My mind attempted to zone out as I prepared a meal I had enjoyed many times before. When I recognized the bright green color of the tender asparagus, I clicked the heat off and pulled the pan from the burner. I placed my hands on the counter stared at it trying to ease the anxious nausea growing in my stomach. Then, I paced. I shut down my mind, stabbed a fork in the food, and ate a bit. I paused. I waited for the sickness. It never came. I tentatively picked my fork up again and went back to my roommate’s room, still feeling nauseous, though I kept chewing. She reached over, without a word, and took a few bites, too. Soon, my bowl was empty. She suggested we finish off the pan. My mind keeps wandering back to the fact that the food came from a Dumpster and tried to tell my body to be sick, but another voice kept repeating: no, it’s fine. You’re going to be fine. I never get sick. I am not sure I can call myself a dumpster diver. I did not get in the Dumpster. But I did eat food that came from it. The whole time I was thinking of all the sanitation “rules” I was breaking. Chelsea had shamed me into eating the food, and I thank her for it. Since enjoying my salvaged meal, I have been a little more aware of the Dumpsters along my route to and from school. I have gone to Einstein’s ever few weeks and snagged some bagels. Maybe I’ll eventually make a stop at Trader Joe’s if I’m feeling adventurous and trust myself enough to judge the quality of food that I can’t smell. Maybe. It takes time and practice to learn, after all. Food looks different to me. As I cubed chicken that I worried may have gone bad for lunch, I nearly tossed it out of paranoia. I paused, though, and thought what Chelsea might think if she found my perfectly cubed chicken in the Dumpster. Score! Instead, I kept cooking. I still have not had the heart to touch the yogurt, but hey, it’s looking like a pretty great time for a snack right about now! I don’t want to waste it, right?
My piece "Dumped Dinner" is now complete! What did you all think? Thank you for any feedback you've given me; I really appreciate all the support! A few people have asked me to elaborate one why I decided to complete this project. It's actually pretty simple: I was curious about why people in the US were dumpster diving. My curiosity peaked when I saw a show on the Food Network that featured a cooking competition with all food that had been thrown away. I wondered why a show like this had come to be: how much food waste was there occurring in the USA that it caught the attention of a major TV network in this way? After I decided to go dumpster diving, it was a process--as seen in the piece--and I wasn't really sure if I had accomplished anything. After the piece ended, I really did go actually get in a dumpster. Reading this piece again, I found that I laughed at Sean for not jumping in, but I myself never got in a dumpster during that time, either. Later on, I would go out on my own, get my own bagels, and find my own vegetables that had been wastefully thrown out. Though I didn't keep up with the culture of dumpster diving, I did keep the idea of food waste in mind. Since that time, I find myself shopping for food in a different way. Rather than looking for the perfect apple, I look for the bruised apple that might be thrown away at the end of the week or the pepper that isn't quite green enough. I try to do my part to buy that food that others might not want for superficial reasons, to keep the food from being lost in a dumpster or garbage dump. I hope that you enjoyed my piece! Even if it didn't get you to go dumpster diving, I hope that you'll think a little more about the food that you waste or pass up in the supermarket for superficial reasons. If you have any questions about my writing or my experiences, please feel free to ask me here in the comments below!