Archive for the ‘New York’ Category

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!

It is 6:30 PM on a hot Monday evening in August. My friend Melinda and I stand casually outside a Manhattan grocery store, chatting as we wait for the next black bag being brought to the sidewalk. We smile at the store worker as he places it at the curb and stroll over to investigate, our carry bags ready. “This one is cold…seems like packaged foods,” Melinda observes as she feels the side of the bag. We untie the knot and discover that she is correct; a wealth of frozen treasures hide within. We sift through the bag, pulling out boxes of pizza poppers, enchilada bowls, frozen breakfast burritos, waffles, green beans, vegan “meat” strips…it is never-ending. There is no actual trash in the bag, just boxes upon boxes of still-cold frozen foods seemingly chucked straight from the shelves to the curb. I look for the expiration dates on a few items, knowing how meaningless those dates usually are but checking just in case, and on almost every item the date is approaching but has not yet passed. “I guess they had to make room for a new shipment.” I shrug, wishing this was surprising, and hand Melinda a box of gluten-free mac and cheese. We split the remainder of the items, regretfully leaving many behind. There is only so much we can carry, so we have to be picky to save room for items we want the most. I’ve collected at least $20 worth of food from just this one bag; what will we find next?

My freezer, packed to capacity with food found from dumpster diving.
Another bag from that 6:30 PM dive. None of the expiration dates had passed on these cereals.

The scenario described above is not uncommon in New York City. Outside almost every grocery store, bagel shop, bakery, specialty food shop, etc., on almost every night of the week, perfectly good food is thrown away. Eight dozen eggs may be tossed because of a single yolk messing up the cartons, $300 of fancy cheeses discarded because of upcoming sell-by dates, scores of apples sent to the curb for minor bruises, bulging trash bags filled solely with bagels because new batches will be baked in the morning.

I discovered the food wasteland of NYC a little over a year ago after hosting Benny and Mira, two lovely couchsurfers from Australia. They get almost all their food back home by dumpster diving and were wondering what the scene was like in New York. I knew very little about dumpster diving but was intrigued by their description (it does not require literally diving into dumpsters…unless you really want to), and a quick google search revealed a secret side of NYC – and of most cities – that I’d never known existed. I took the plunge by joining the group NYC Freegan Meetup and registered for an event, “Freeganism 101 and Trash Tour,” eager to learn more.

Freeganism 101

I attended my first “trash tour” on Friday, November 2nd, 2018. I met the group at 9 PM at a public meeting space in upper Manhattan and was offered an array of treats collected from the trash: Cookies, cake, yogurt, crackers…the quantity and quality of snacks present at that meeting blew my mind. Then we got down to business: An introduction to freeganism followed by a trash tour of the area. Here are some of the facts I learned there and in the time since about food waste (collected mainly from freeganism.info and from the NYC Mayor’s Food Waste Challenge to Restaurants):

  • 40% of edible food is wasted in the US, while over 50 million Americans live in poverty. (source)
  • NYC sends four million tons of waste to landfills every year.
  • Of that four million tons, roughly one third is food waste.
  • When food waste degrades in landfills it produces methane, a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming.
  • In her article on dumpster diving in NYC, Eillie Anzilotti states that 16% of New York City residents are food insecure, meaning they may not know where their next meal will come from or if they’ll be able to afford it.
  • Dumpster diving is one aspect of freeganism, a movement based around “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.” (freeganism.info)
  • Freeganism is built on the following principles:
    • Waste Reclamation: “The practice of recovering useable items from dumpsters or street curbs that have been needlessly discarded.” This mainly includes dumpster diving, the act of rummaging through trash bins, dumpsters, trash bags, etc. of retailers, residences, and other facilities. Picking up a discarded chair or set of dinner plates from the curb is as much a part of dumpster diving as collecting bagels from a streetside trash bag; any items put to the curb as public trash are available for taking.
    • Waste Minimization: Freegans try to live a zero-waste lifestyle, always recycling, upcycling, etc. This also includes acquiring/contributing items from/to freemarkets, etc.
    • Eco-Friendly Transportation: Rather than contribute to pollution by driving an automobile, part of freeganism includes finding alternative methods of transportation, such as cycling.
    • Rent-Free Housing: Some freegans convert abandoned buildings into community centers, work spaces, or living areas, but rent-free housing also includes the exchange of living spaces through programs like Couchsurfing, Warmshowers, Hospitality Club, and even ones that require the exchange of services such as WWOOF, Workaway, Trusted House Sitters, etc.
    • Going Green: This mainly includes growing food, participating in community gardens, foraging, etc.
    • Working Less: By acquiring basic needs without spending much money, freegans are able to reduce the amount of time they need to be actively making income in the “money economy” and can devote more time and energy to the “core economy” (home, family, neighborhood, community) through volunteerism, activism, participating in TimeBanks, etc. Worker-led unions are an example of the freegan spirit within the workplace.

Learning about freeganism was very cool – I realized I’d been practicing many aspects of freeganism for years and had never known there was a term for it. Armed with my new knowledge, I followed event organizer Janet (who has been dumpster diving in NYC for over a decade!) and the rest of the group out into the cool Manhattan night air. It was 9:30 PM and we were about to discover just how wasteful NYC can be.

Stay tuned for Part II for more info. about dumpster diving, tips for getting started, and photos from some of my diving experiences. 

If you can handle the changing weather and perhaps a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder (oof, it hits me hard), New York is a wonderful state to be in during autumn. Central New York is probably the best place to be (biased, since I went to college there), but Long Island and NYC also have their fair share of fall foliage and festivities.

Autumn in my neighborhood

Today’s local adventure post will highlight some of the amazing carvings I saw on display at this year’s RISE of the Jack O’Lanterns.  Now in its seventh year, The RISE features over 5,000 hand-carved pumpkins each night – plus a few hundred artificial ones in addition to the 5,000 real ones – displayed along the paths at Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island. Each Monday morning, the jack o’lanterns are removed and another 5,000 take their place on Thursday, for a total of in 20,000 pumpkins carved for The RISE in one month. Other notable facts:

  • This year there were five dozen 100+ pound jack o’lanterns, each of which took anywhere up to 20 hours to carve.
  • There were many multi-pumpkin structures, including a life-size firetruck and a 40-foot long dragon.
  • Supposedly, The RISE is the only event in the country to display 5,000 fresh-carved jack o’lanterns each weekend.
  • Most of the pumpkins weigh around 20 pounds, for a total of 400,000 pounds (200 tons) of pumpkins over the month.
  • It takes around 50-100 people, each working two days/week, to carve, set up, and remove the pumpkins.

This year, I was grateful to attend The RISE with what started as three and became a family clan – seven of us in total! We had some trouble keeping track of each other as we walked on the dark, crowded paths that chilly evening, but it was definitely worth it to do something so unique and fun with my relatives. Highly recommend!

If you are interested in attending The Rise, please kindly use my referral link: http://theRise.org/referral?rID=CJBKZNVCFL

And now, a slideshow!

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