Food Waste and Freeganism in NYC – Part II

Posted: September 3, 2019 in Adventures, Food, New York
Tags: , , , ,

I am sitting at home writing this entry between bites of a vegetarian enchilada bowl, priced at $7.99, from an upscale Manhattan grocery store. I love finding these – they are full of real ingredients, taste great, and are worth the trip to a Manhattan sidewalk!

I obtained this dinner through dumpster diving, a practice that is all-too-easy in New York City and elsewhere. If you haven’t already, read part one of this series for an introduction to freeganism and food waste.

As stated in my last entry, I had my first NYC dumpster diving experience in November 2018. Around eight of us showed up for the Freeganism 101 meeting, through which we learned all about this idea that was new to almost all of us. Then we hit the streets, where organizer Janet outlined the common practices of dumpster diving for the evening: No one is judged for what they do or do not choose to take, we announce what we find so everyone in the group can share, we keep the sidewalks clear for pedestrians passing by, no one has to open a trash bag if they are uncomfortable doing so, and we close the bags at the end to leave each stop as neat as we found it.

With these common courtesies in mind we proceeded to a number of stores. That night’s tour included a grocery store, a bagel shop, a pharmacy, a pet shop, a bakery, another grocery store…so many places! At each stop we untied the trash bags and found what seemed like an infinite amount of incredible items. I was amazed by how little we had to get our hands dirty to find good food in the trash; many items were thrown out in large quantities by type, making it easy to find fresh food (and makeup, sunglasses, earbuds…all sorts of items from the pharmacy!) without having to search very hard. Even with almost a dozen of us sharing the wealth there was too much food and we had to leave a lot behind.

A display of all the still-good food found at just *one* grocery store.

Is it really safe?

As we walked, I spoke to Janet along with Kelly, another dumpster diver, about food in the trash. Had it ever made them sick? Why was it thrown out? Surely some of it must not be good? Neither of them has ever gotten sick from eating anything from dumpster diving, including produce, dairy, and meat products. Often food is tossed directly from the shelves to the street, and stores regularly throw out perfectly good items when they get new shipments. Plus, so many foods are wrapped in plastic, so thete’s no need to worry whether they touch other items in trash bags. I started out hesitant, but in the months since that first tour I can confidently say that I agree with their verdict on the food; I have consumed yogurt, cheese, vegetables, fruit, milk, bread, salmon sandwiches (common at Pret a Manger), salads, and even sushi with no problems.

Here are some best practices for making sure the food you are eating is fine:

  • Thoroughly wash fruits and veggies before consumption
  • Check if perishable products are cold when you find them (often they go straight from the shelves to the street)
  • Put eggs in a bowl of water to check if they are good (if an egg floats to the top, don’t eat it)
  • Be aware of what else is in the trash bag with an item
  • For sashimi or sushi, a fellow diver taught me a trick: Fry the fish to make a tasty treat and ensure that it won’t spoil

I was also curious about expiration dates. I know they aren’t accurate, but how far could you go? In some cases, food thrown out is not even past its printed date, but even if it is, it’s often still fine for weeks or months; dates are not as accurate as we imagine and often refer to peak freshness rather than safety. Additionally, terms like “sell by” vs “use by” vs “best if used by” all have different meanings. For a full breakdown, check out this article from Consumer Reports.

Expanding the practice

That night, I went home with more quality food than I ever would have imagined. I also had the contact info. for Kelly, who lives close to me. We have since formed our own little group of Brooklyn dumpster divers, and on almost any night of the week (or early evening for some spots) we might meet for a dive. We have a list of preferred spots but really it isn’t necessary; walking down any commercial Brooklyn or Manhattan street can prove plentiful.

Before dumpster diving, I saved money by buying bruised fruits and vegetables at my local grocery store. Now, the quality of produce I bring home has drastically improved; I often leave bruised apples and oranges behind in the trash bags because too many great ones are thrown away. I find myself eating fancy things I’d never buy on my own: Gouda cheese with black truffle flakes, acacia honey with pistachios, chocolate-covered figs, fresh-baked olive bread, organic coconut palm syrup, or date nectar, a tasty sugar alternative made entirely from dates. Too often I leave good food behind simply because I don’t have room to carry it. One night, my friend Sophia and I found a bag filled entirely with expensive, non-expired blocks of cheese (the average price of a cheese block in the bag was $15). We took home over $125 of cheese each, but even so we left at least another $100 of cheese behind!

Trash bag full of fancy cheese

Dumpster diving can bring other incredible finds as well. I am now the proud owner of a fancy Korean rice cooker (I looked it up online and it’s worth a couple hundred dollars!) that was still in its packaging when I found it at an end-of-semester dorm dive; college students throw out all sorts of crazy things! I’ve found high-quality chocolate bars, protein powder, chia seeds, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, drawing pens, hairspray, shampoo, a glue gun…it’s never-ending!

How do I start?

If you are interested in dumpster diving but are unsure how to begin, consider these tips:

  • See if your there is a dumpster diving or freeganism meetup group near you
  • Check out this list of Freegan groups worldwide (you can probably google others)
  • Check out the worldwide (mostly European) TrashWiki.
  • If you’re in France, check out this app…I know there’s another one bakeries use, but I forget what it’s called…
  • Food waste apps in Europe: Too Good To Go; Olio; Karma; NoFoodWasted.
  • Food waste apps in the US: Food for All; Food Rescue Hero; Food Rescue US; GoMkt.
  • If you can’t find a group, grab a friend and look for the following spots: Grocery stores, bakeries, bagel shops, pharmacies (Duane Reade is always plentiful here in NYC), gourmet sandwich chains like Pret a Manger, Maison Kaiser, or Au Bon Pain. Bakeries or bagel shops are great places to start because bread products are easy to feel in bags before opening them and are thrown out in large quantities every day.
  • Bring a headlamp, gloves, reusable bags, plastic bags, and hand sanitizer.
  • If anyone questions you (which rarely happens), remember that trash on the curb is public property. You are allowed to be there.
  • If you’re checking out dumpsters, be careful about when and where you go; a dumpster in a parking lot is technically private property.

So…those are some tips to get started. I’ll end this post with a little slideshow of some of the crazy amounts of food I’ve found on an average night. I used to take photos after every dive but had to stop – there were too many! I also used to add up all the prices to determine how much money I saved – often one night’s haul would bring in $60-$100 worth of food! Of course, you can also give some of your finds to local shelters or organizations such as Food Not Bombs. There is way more than enough to go around!

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