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Dumpster Diving – Food for Freedom

My Story

A radical way to never pay for food, no food stamps needed.

A million years ago I heard of dumpster diving through the gutter punk propaganda. When I was 17, I figured freedom was outside of a job, so I dabbled with the notion of voluntary poverty. My first boyfriend and I left Texas to sleep on the streets of Philadelphia for a week. I will say up front that it was one of the best weeks of my life. During that week we were part of the street community and got to know a bunch of travelers. That’s where I first heard of dumpster diving. I had no idea what dumpster diving meant and it went on the back burner for about 5 years. When I was 22, I typed “dumpster diving” into the search engine of YouTube and was surprised at what I saw. Hello, someone’s pulling food out of the trash. I remember thinking that it seemed novel and how I wanted to try it, but there was a mental barrier that prevented me from even formulating the steps to simply trying it. It resumed back burner status for another 4 years. When I was 26, a good friend told me that he was getting into dumpster diving and invited me along. I’ve learned a lot in 4 years.

Fruit and Vegetables

You’ve got to try it. I know how fantastic the mind can be, making up scary stories, but the mind has nothing on reality. I’ve seen hundreds of dumpsters and would estimate 9 out of 10 dumpsters are clean. Not everyone is a complete slob when throwing out their trash, so set that aside and consider this; in the last 30 days my husband and I spent $50 on food and have not touched 70% of it. When saving for our tiny house and land, we had to whittle our food budget down to $140 a week, but in reality we’d spend an average of $200 a week on food. Now it’s almost like we’re getting paid $800-$1,000 a month to dumpster dive our food or rather, instead of paying ourselves and having more money, we just work less because we have fewer expenses.

I’m going to lay out the steps then address some commonly asked questions.

Vitamins and Juice

Phase one: Just get inside a dumpster, any dumpster, whatever is closest.

There’s generally 3 sizes of dumpsters that I come across. The small ones that say “organics only” are for produce. Those are the size of residential plastic flip-top trash cans. There are the large metal trash cans that I can’t see over and have to usually climb in or peek through the sliding metal door. There’s a slightly smaller metal trash can that folks a few inches taller than me can see into. They don’t have sliding doors but large flip-lids.

That first week of diving, we knew that coffee shops threw out pastries so we went to one. That was my first time getting INSIDE of a dumpster. I was excited to cross that bridge and was unaware of discretion. I opened bags that clearly had coffee grinds in them and got my hands dirty. I felt liberated in that trash can and knew I was willing to follow this through. I think we ended up finding some sandwiches that were tightly wrapped up and completely edible, bags of cookies from 7-11 and 2 boxes of $50 Neiman Marcus chocolates! Finding things of value, even if it wasn’t something I wanted, meant that I would be provided for.

Plenty to go round

Phase two: Find food and eat it

The first time I ate food from the trash was the first time I opened the organics only dumpster behind the Mexican store near my apartment. I hit a goldmine! The top 3 feet of the trash can was dozens of perfectly ripe bananas. I ate one and felt liberated. I took my bag off, filled it as high as I could and walked home. I loved that dumpster.

If you have any thoughts of food in the dumpster being dirty or smelly, then it’s a sign that you’ve probably have never gotten food from the trash. The majority of the food dumpsters where I dive contain food that looks right off of the shelf. There’s a documentary called DIVE that shows a group of homies that live off of the dumpster finds and they eat better than ever. I’ve heard more than once there is an improvement of food choices once you dumpster often, and there are enough people out there living exclusively or supplementary on dumpstered food that it’s worth looking into.

Phase three: Branch out

After we got comfortable with dumpstering a few local spots, we started branching out. Diversifying has been a double-edged sword for us. For one, it gets us out of our routine, which makes for a really fun adventure, but it also creates varying levels of disappointment. Let’s say we hit the streets to find new places but it happens to be trash day so we drive around and it’s nothing but dead ends. Sad face. But sometimes we’d hit a goldmine and we’d all feel like a million bucks.

In the beginning, we had the Mexican grocery store and in the back of our mind we knew doughnut/bagel/coffee shops where always an option because they trash everything daily, but we wanted to really look around. Dumpster diving is known for it’s endless amount of junk food. When something comes to its “sell by” date, it’s often that a whole case that gets trashed. Just the other day we dumpstered 2 cases of unopened honey buns which was over 10 pounds! For a long time we avoided dumpster diving but not because we didn’t want to eat from the trash. For 9 years I was vegan, for 2 years I was raw vegan and for 4 years I was paleo/WAP. I have a long history of having a really neurotic (orthorexic) relationship with food and a lifetime supply of bagels and doughnuts wasn’t going to cut it. I’ve come a long way, I’m willing to enjoy a wide variety of junk food and fresh food. Back in the day the fresh food issue was still at hand. Once we branched out, connected with other divers in our area, and didn’t just write certain places off was when we found the mother load of daily fresh produce. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of places throw out produce but often it’s a mixed bag of decent, rotten and bruised produce, however our mother load always looks better than produce I’ve seen being sold on shelves.

Dairy and Junk Food

Phase four: Dream big

Don’t think, “Oh the trash can is going to be dirty with nothing I like and I’m going to get caught….” That’s not dreaming big. On the Facebook dumpster diving page www.facebook.com/groups/freeusa/ (closed group) a women dumpstered 38 kind bars from an office supply store. We’re always on the look out to have snacks that my husband can take to college and eat between class. Seeing her picture was pretty inspiring. She branched out, tried new places, maybe got into the dumpster and her family is better off for it. Dreaming big is looking at your needs and wants and expecting those things to be provided to you, but not at a cost. You’re not putting someone out by meeting your needs, these are things that are going to the dump that still have value. My idea of “dreaming big” is never paying for food outside of social events. My friend who invited me out 4 years ago never pays for food and on the dumpster Facebook page there are others just like him. Whether it’s supplemental or exclusive dumpster diving food can be a part of your dreams.

Phase five: Repeat set four

I was working 50-70 hour weeks for too long and burned out. I stopped working and we were living on the cheap, spending  $1 on food which was pasta and rice. I really had it in my head that in order to live within my means I had to lower my quality of life because I had been living off meat and veggies. I think that humbled me a lot. Chilling out on of my orthorexic tendencies really made way for some serious dumpster diving. Now we have fresh squeezed OJ every day, fruit smoothies for snacks, I made homemade tomato sauce,  and we dumpstered a 20 pound spiral cut ham.

Dumpster diving can meet more than just your immediate needs.

We give away a lot of food to those who are interested in what we’re doing. We keep snacks in the car and when we pull up to traffic lights where hobos are asking for money we hand then 8 bags of M&Ms or a bag of potato chips. On the Facebook dumpster diving page, a pastor posted a picture of 50 pounds of meat that he and his wife were going to grill for the homeless. Some people wish they had more money to help while other people help out by diving food for those in need. There are families on tough times who dumpster dive to make ends meet. Dumpster diving and prepping go hand in hand. Ask any dumpster diver to show you their pantry, fridge, freezer or backup freezer because they are set!

Alcohol

Is it legal?

I doubt it, but every place is different, I just assume that the law would rather you starve and die before you’re allowed to touch their precious trash before it’s hauled off…. but that’s not always the case. The way I think of it this “if there is $200 in that trash can would I get in?” and the answer is always yes. When diving, I always think about “What if a cop rolls up, what am I going to say?” I think I would probably say that our country is broke and I’d rather reserve food stamps for someone who really needs it. (I’d try to make that sound the least “hippie” as possible) Plus there is The Good Samaritan Law and the 1988 supreme court (California Vs Greenwood) trash picking ruling. It says picking trash is legal if you’re not trespassing.

Food not Waste

Do you actually get in the trash can?

I’m always willing, but seldom do. We dumpstered a grabbing stick and I’m impressed with how handy it is! Getting in the dumpster isn’t required.

When is the best time to go?

We all go at different times and all have success. The key is consistency! Pick a handful of stores and check them every day for a week.

Where is the best place to dumpster dive?

Every dumpster ever, I’m not kidding. Whether you’re looking for food, clothes, shoes, pet food, etc., imagine every dumpster having something you need. Remember the case of kind bars at an office supply store! Plus the more you look for something the more in the zone you’ll be. Compactors are not your friend but keep an eye out, next to compactors can be a small dumpster with a gold mine in it.

Bringing home the groceries

What kind of people dig through trash?

I asked our dumpster diving group what their skill or education levels are and here’s what I got: “Associates in Science (nursing), CNA,  Bachelor’s degree in Biology, Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, office manager,  freelance writer, AA graphic design,  AA in business, Masters Industrial Hygiene/Hazardous Materials,  BA in Education,  BS in Business Marketing,  GED with some college,  B.S. in Mass Communication, plus 1 years study for a master’s degree, Bachelors in Environmental Science,  Bachelors in Psychology, and marketing minor in business administration, PhD and work at a university”;  the list went on but I barely graduated high school, so I’m not trying to do a song and dance about dumpster divers being top notch, well groomed people. I’m really trying to illustrate a spectrum for those who are only imagining hobos.

How do you know what’s edible or not?

If the food isn’t identical to what you’d pay for, then leave it where you find it. Smell will tell you most of what you want know. Smell and sight together will damn near paint a perfect picture. Use your brain, use Google’s brain and watch Dive the documentary.

Get in there

If I can answer any questions,  I would love to hear them all.

 

About Melanie Sorrentino

Melanie Sorrentino lives back in the big city after a year in the woods living in a tiny house with no plumbing. She and her husband are in transition to their next piece of land, this time with friends. The only things that Melanie cares about are photography, writing & community. She's kept up with her blog AnarchistKitchen.wordpress.com since 2009. She just started a new podcast called Cake Or Death Radio, where she interviews everyone from dumpster divers, the self-employed, people who choose voluntary poverty and everything in between. The heart of the podcast is a simple question, "If you had just one year to live, what would you do differently?" Her drive with the podcast is to interview a variety of people with lifestyles that are outside of the norm. Melanie has written a free e-book telling her story about how she saved $24,000 in 18 months to buy a tiny house and land. To see her photography: https://www.facebook.com/SorrentinoPhotos

2 comments

  1. I have two BAs–English and Social and Behavioral Science and an MA in Ed. I absolutely love to dumpster dive. We even eat the meat, dairy, and eggs before I had chickens.

  2. So much valuable, intriguing info here. I was also floored by the diversity and to see that many of the DD’ers are working people.

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