I’ve been dumpster diving for food for the past two years and have gotten quite good at it. Dumpster diving isn’t a skill like playing an instrument: it’s more of a habit or behavior. If you want to fully embrace dumpster diving, it requires modifying your lifestyle in subtle (but important!) ways. These modifications include scouting, scavenging, and preserving.
Scouting means pausing while going about your daily routine to explore. This might mean circling around behind a grocery store to examine its dumpsters before going inside to shop. Scouting comes naturally to all of us, but this innate curiosity gets circumvented. We’re funneled into certain modes of interacting with the world around us: we walk towards the large, inviting front doors of a shopping center instead of the dingy, secluded delivery-area where the treasure is buried.
Scavenging is the actual act of collecting food. Dumpster divers don’t have to literally dive into dumpsters. I generally visit stores that leave their trash in smaller containers. On occasions when I plan to get dirty, I come prepared. Scavenging is probably the easiest part of dumpster diving: bring a bag, a pair of gloves (optional), and be prepared to awkwardly slouch away if anyone sees you.
Preserving is how dumpster divers deal with the uneven distribution of their scavengings. Eating from dumpsters is not about feast or famine: it’s about having too much of one thing and not enough of another. Recently I came across a box with roughly thirty pounds of mozarella cheese; a few months ago I nabbed almost a hundred bell peppers. Preservation can be as simple as throwing things in the freezer (cheese), or can get more complicated. When I come across bell peppers, I usually fry them into a food called ajvar, which, in addition to being delicious, has a long shelf-life. Learning how to preserve food will pay dividends: with frozen cheeses and preserved peppers (and a steady supply of bread), I’m able to make as many paninis as I can eat.
After moving to San Jose late last month and discovering a few promising dumpsters to scavenge from, I decided to impose a challenge on myself: I won’t purchase any food for the month of April. I relocated to San Jose for work, and my company has plenty of free food in the office. To offset this, for every free meal I eat at the office, I’ll be cooking one for my friends.
I don’t expect that this challenge will be all that challenging. About 75% of my current diet is dumpster dived, the remaining 25% being meals I eat out with friends. However, it’ll be more of a proof-of-concept: I want to demonstrate that a young adult with a full-time job and normal social life can spend zero money on food and get on just fine. If April is a success, I might expand this experiment through the spring and summer – but I’ll have to post an update about that as things unfold.