Food & Drink

How to eat like a king out of the trash

The art of going freegan

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For someone who never spent any money on food, Adam was eating pretty well. "Especially in the winter time," he says. "You'd get meat that was thrown away a day or two before it expires and it would freeze — which is exactly what you're supposed to do with meat that's about to expire. I can't tell you how much alcohol, Dirty Blondes, and bottles of Champagne I got out of the Dumpster." It turns out Black Friday isn't just a great day for shopping, but also for reaping the benefits of capitalist waste for free — Adam says he once found 14 perfectly fine discarded frozen turkeys the day after Thanksgiving.

For a little over three years, our friend Adam [name changed] ate exclusively out of the garbage. This was right before "freeganism" — the eating of discarded food — got the Oprah bump in a segment back in 2008. Adam has since gotten out of it — it's a young person's game — but was happy to recount his experiences and offer his years' worth of tips.

The way Adam sees it, the driving force behind our nation's waste is corporate liability. "Say somebody drops a box unloading it, breaks two bottles, and beer gets all over the other bottles," he explains. "They can no longer sell them. But you just take them home, wash them off, and you're good to go." And expiration dates, Adam says, already give a little wiggle room, with companies erring on the side of caution.

Adam says he never once got sick from eating food out of the garbage, simply relying on the survival skills humans evolved before there were "Best If Used By" dates. "I was pretty cautious," he says. "I cooked the meat all the way through. If I thought something looked questionable, or if I thought it wasn't going to settle well, I just wouldn't eat it. It's not like I was throwing away money," he says.

Adam had already been Dumpster diving for items other than food since high school, scoring superficially damaged DVDs from Blockbuster and camping equipment from REI's trash. In college, he and a friend went hitchhiking through Denver, Colo., and wound up staying with a collective whose food all came from Dumpster diving. "They had a map. There was a beer Dumpster, a chocolate Dumpster, produce, and a few other spots," Adam says. "They would go out on runs and come back with all this food and booze."

The first rule about Dumpster diving, Adam says, is you don't talk about Dumpster diving. "You never actually want to talk about where you're going to get your shit because you're putting it out there for competitors, but also you're putting the Dumpster at risk of getting shut down," he says. When people posted YouTube videos of Dumpster diving at Trader Joe's, the company changed their practices because they didn't want to be perceived as wasteful.

Adam advises scoping out the scene beforehand, which can mean waiting for several hours to make sure all of the employees have left. Some places, like bakeries, will only have a brief window between shifts. Adam would spend no more than a half-hour at a Dumpster.

As for gear, Adam says to wear dark clothing that's nonreflective, as well as a baseball cap to shield your identity from security cameras. Gloves are a good idea, and Adam even used a headlamp so he didn't have to worry about holding a flashlight. A coat hanger fashioned to the end of a stick makes a great way to easily reach bags without having to climb in. Adam would also bring a small knife in case he had to cut open boxes.

"Whenever I got stopped by the cops, I was always like, 'This is what I have on me,'" he says. "Normally, I never encourage anyone to talk to the police, but I think that's a relatively low-risk situation."

Adam has got caught by the cops twice, but says he was let go in both instances. "I was like, 'Look at all this stuff they were throwing away,'" he says. In one instance, he says he dealt with a classic good cop, bad cop scenario. Adam got cuffed, patted down for drugs, and otherwise roughed up, but "the nicer cop was like, 'Oh, just last week I saw this thing on Oprah, this thing about freegans. I bet that they're going to start showing up all over the place here.'".

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