Dumpster Diving: DIY Free Food

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Augusta Hagen-Dillon BC ’11, Lenny L. and Nathan Bailey CC ’12

Bwog may not have on-campus free food tonight, but that doesn’t mean you still have to pay for dinner. New and Different Foodways Correspondent Peter Krawczyk reports on Columbia’s dumpster diving contingent.

Let’s be clear: dumpster diving doesn’t involve jumping into any waste receptacles. That wouldn’t be any fun.  It does, however, require digging through bags of things people had intended to throw out to find things you intend to eat. Here’s how it works: every evening, food-selling businesses in the area around Columbia throw away food that will no longer be saleable the next day. They put the food into garbage bags, and leave it on the sidewalk to be collected. At this point, the food is fair game for anyone—usually, as one diver put it, “a mix of students, grad students, and homeless people”—to take as they like.

Bwog tagged along with an intrepid group of Columbia students on a dumpster diving mission this week: Augusta Hagen-Dillon BC ’11, Lenny L.  and Nathan Bailey CC’12. Hagen-Dillon, the senior diver in the trio, began dumpster diving when she heard students talking about collecting bagels after-hours from Absolute Bagels, on 109th Street and Broadway. “I’d always liked Absolute, and this just seemed like a great way to get bagels for free,” she said. But free food is not the only reason Augusta dumpster dives. As a Barnard EcoRep, she feels a commitment to the environment. “Dumpster diving is a great way of reducing urban waste, and that’s definitely a big reason why I do it,” she said.

Lenny and Bailey are both relative newcomers to the dumpster diving scene. As suitemates, they first started dumpster diving this year as a cheap way to provide food to their shared kitchen. “As sophomores, this is our first year really cooking for ourselves in college,” says Bailey. “We share a lot of our food—we call it communal food—and dumpster diving is great for that.”

The quality of the food recovered by dumpster diving varies. Baked goods are often baked fresh every morning, and are often in bags only with other baked goods. Fruit, on the other hand, is more varied. Most of what the divers take is only slightly damaged, but it can often be bagged with less-fresh pieces. The most important thing is to use or freeze anything found through dumpster diving. “My best advice is to wear gloves,” Hagen-Dillon says. “Sometimes I forget them.”

For those considering dumpster diving themselves, retailers often put garbage out around 8:00 and it is often picked up by 9:00. Stores in the neighborhood vary in terms of both the quality of food found in their trash and their friendliness toward dumpster divers. Absolute Bagels, Garden of Eden, and Silver Moon are often good bets, and Garden of Eden employees have even reportedly made suggestions to divers as to what fruit might be the best to take. Milano Market, on the other hand, is apparently very unfriendly toward aspiring eco-vigilantes.

Lenny says that he has even received attention from police while going through trash bags on the sidewalk. “They were concerned that we were opening the bags,” he says. “I’m not sure what the laws are, but we showed them that we were repackaging what we were taking, and they seemed to accept that.”

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  1. What do you call

    someone who dismisses dumpster diving as a petty hobby of the crunchy, bourgeois elite who have never come home to an empty dinner table themselves?

    A trash talker!

    • Surfin' UWS  

      See I don't find this as disgusting as other people here. I mean, a lot of the delis wrap the food in plastic and its possible to salvage large amounts of good food that never touches any trash (used to work at a restaurant).

      What does annoy me is, as its been a bunch of pampered, full dining-plan having deluded undergrads, doing this for fun and douchely (ever so douchely) posing for pictures while they do it.

      A lot of actual homeless people rely on this (hence the congregation of them near the Church, WS, and Morton's at night). It's not dignified, it's NOT green (do people even know what that means anymore?!), and it's not commendable it's just fucking douchey.

      • Absolute Bagels,  

        from what I understand, is a family run business. They charge a dollar for each bagel, $2 with cream cheese. I can see these fools doing this to Le Monde or any of the crappy franchises around campus, but don't you think you could afford a buck to support this business instead of mooching off their trash?

        "Why did they even let their names be published?" You forget to mention having their picture on bwog. If I (for one) see them on campus, I will think "oh, there's the trash guy" and will judge. I assume I'm not alone.

      • Your Comment Is Stupid  

        In a year and a half of dumsptering (Milano, Garden of Eden, Absolute Bagels), I have encountered a grand total of zero homeless people salvaging the preposterous amount of food these stores throw out. Most aren't interested, even when we pull a perfectly sterile loaf out of plastic bags and offer it to them. And you have no idea whatsoever about these kid's financial statuses.

        • I think  

          So many logical fallacies in that I could write a fucking CC paper about it. So because you haven't seen homeless people collect food from those places...they don't? Never seen tentacle anime porn either-- I still know it exists. Tell you what, go into these places; ask them what their relationships with homeless people are (or better yet ask one of the (balanced) homeless people around here WHY they stick around at night and then come back with your bull).

          I think the reason why so many students are upset isn't the social aspect of it however; it's the douche and smugness of these kids.

          It's presumptuous to assume that we're all trust fund babies but NONE of us are at that level- that much is a guarantee.

          Especially when the focus of the article is "yummy bagels asswipes don't want to pay for".

          • lmao  

            lol yes homeless people are lurking in the dark shadows during that whole entire hour while the trash is out, waiting for you columbia kids to look away so they can take all of the trash. and if you take any trash, you are depriving them. because they totally horde bags full of bagels and shit somewhere in riverside park or something. how dare you.

          • yeah dude  

            why else would homeless people be hanging out on the street at night? I mean why wouldn't they just go to their houses? they must be posted up on the street cause they're waiting to go through trash!

          • I love you guys  

            it's the *definition* of green, and with a tiny smidge of common sense totally safe.

            smug? compared to a facetious, anonymous commenter? grow up.

            it's FREE FOOD. everyone loves free food, that's practically Bwog's mission statement.

  2. that...  

    is absolutely disgusting.

    only white people...

  3. Are you kidding me?  

    This is the most disgusting thing I have heard about. Why did they even let their names be published?

  4. omg  

    THE FOOD IS STILL GOOD...It's just that people like you won't buy day-old and so the restaurants throw it out. It's not like the trashcan outside.

    Main point: More power to the people saving money and our environment!

    • name  

      There are better ways to be "green." How about trying to make a systematic change that will reduce the amount of food that is thrown out? A simple discounted "day old" section would have much more of an impact than a few self righteous people digging through trash to "make a difference."

      I am extremely interested in saving the planet, and I don't think this is the way to do it.

  5. haha

    nasty yo, seriously stop being cheap and also stealing from the homeless
    this is just a ploy to get attention

  6. Surfin' UWS  

    Sorry to beat on a dead horse here but "ZOMG I want yummy bagels?" Seriously?! Go shit yourselves a pair of slacks. Seriously, who does that?!

    There are homeless shelters that specialize in doing this for some actual good in this world.

  7. While

    this is a good way to reduce urban waste, there are a lot of organizations that salvage this food and distribute it to the homeless. This is a good way to kill two birds with one stone. Next time you dive, keep others in mind.

  8. some  

    people seem to be conflating lack of food with lack of a home

  9. So....  

    You pay $50,000/year for education and cannot spend 75c on a bagel? Are you f**king serious?

  10. hmmm...  

    this is pathetic, why steal from those who actually need the food to survive? i have no respect for these people

  11. You're all...

    idiots. This was a joke. go get a life and stop trying to make yourselves feel good for thinking you feel bad for the homeless. you're not better than the people in this photo. Anyways, the homeless are constantly harassing people. Most (not all) are bad people. All you liberal obama loving fools are complete jackasses and most of you will never learn

    • Female  

      Agreed. We all have so much "sympathy" (mostly empty) for the homeless, totally forgetting that many of them ended up that way because their families couldn't deal with them, or they were too lazy to hold down a job. It doesn't mean they're all bad -- of course there are people who end up homeless merely because of unfortunate circumstances beyond their control -- but no means should we take upon ourselves an unconditional obligation to support them.

    • You forgot

      Communist. We're all communists, too.

    • just think for a minute  

      a lot of the homeless people who are so "hard to deal with" and MENTALLY ILL and come from families/backgrounds that are too poor to handle taking care of them. often these people are kind of pushed through the public school system for a little while, and try and hold down a job but can't as their illness worsens and eventually end up on the street. these, along with the people who end up homeless for being down on their luck, make up most of the homeless people you see. rich/white people get to hide their mentally ill in special hospitals, so how quickly we forget...

  12. D  

    I don't see a problem with this for two reasons:

    1. NYC spends millions of dollars running homeless shelters, as stipulated by federal law. It's really not as if the homeless people have nowhere to go, they just choose to stick around Morningside Heights because dumb Columbia students give them money which encourages them to stay around. In fact, I think more students should be dumpster-diving, to create that much more of an anti-incentive to living on the streets.

    2. If anyone wants to point fingers, blame the restaurants/supermarkets that choose to throw out the food instead of giving it directly to organizations that collect food for homeless shelters.

    I would never do this because the possibility of eating contaminated food doesn't seem worth it to me, but I think it's a bit of a hasty generalization to assume that all Columbia students are well-off. Anyway, it doesn't matter -- even if they are well-off, why should the decisions they make with their money or time be anyone else's business? Who the hell cares?

    • homeless shelters are totally always the answer!  

      way to assume all shelters are open all night (many are not) and way to assume they're safe places to go (most are not). leaving out the homeless population that is mentally ill (which leads to irrationality) many homeless people who choose not to go to shelters do so because they've already tried-and had their shit stolen, or have been beaten, or turned away, or raped. sometimes homeless shelters work, and some are good, but many are bad, poorly run and dangerous, or have to turn people away because they can't support the demand. a lot of these places are also frequented by people who aren't necessarily even homeless, but simply can't afford a meal that day. just because homeless shelters exist we assume they must be the answer, and then we resent the people who don't go to them. why? because when we see them, we have to confront their pain and our privilege. man, the homeless totally ruin my good mood!

  13. Ben Weiner  

    Silver Moon donates to City Harvest, which fills food banks. So whatever they throw out is left over, but maybe still delicious.

    A good thing to do is start conversations with store owners, and let them know about City Harvest, or arrange a pick-up time for old baked goods, so you don't have to root through garbage bags.

    There's something to be said for reducing waste. Too much is thrown out on campus and in the neighborhood, but through policy changes and good dialogue, that can change (without hygiene issues.)

  14. This is awesome.  

    I am jealous. If one of the commenters above is correct and the trash bags aren't often salvaged by homeless folks, then I don't see how taking a bagel or two here and a couple pastries there qualifies as stealing from the poor. As long as good food is being thrown into garbage trucks, dumpster-diving is cool by me. But I will judge you, o dumpster-diver, I will judge you awesome.

  15. I'd  

    like to point out that no one is "stealing" from the homeless people, as they do not own that food.

  16. nope, I spend  

    $50,000 a year on tuition, THEREFORE I can't afford to spend 75 cents for a bagel.

  17. Alumn

    As a non-well off Columbia student, I did not pay $50,000 a year - and I still didn't have a lot of money to spend at those establishments.

    • ...  

      but I bet you didn't resort to digging through trash. You ate ramen like everybody else. I would easily put money on the fact that 99.9% of students can at the very least afford SOME kind of food (learn to cook your own, much cheaper) and the ones that have let things get that bad would probably leave. I feel like we have meal plans for exactly this reason.

      I'm sorry, but this just seems like the douchiest, idiotic, most disconnected thing I've ever seen at Columbia. Wonder what their parents would think if they found out...

  18. Here's the thing  

    It's not the fact that they're eating out of the trash (it's not my business what weirdos want to do in their free time); it's the fact that they need an article about themselves on Bwog, detailing their eating out of the trash.

    I think I'm supposed to be humbled and inspired by what they're doing; I'm not. Glory hounds don't impress me.

  19. Ah, the Freegans  

    I remember a group of them digging through the Morton Williams trash. Out of all the places... Morton Williams?
    Anyway, they have a website. And recommended locations to do some foraging.

  20. Concerned dentist  

    I shudder at the thought that these freegan kids will engage in oral sex with the same mouths they use to eat festering refuse.

  21. alrighty

    my big issue with this is, sorry if it's been said multiple times, the fact that these self-proclaimed urban foragers, many of whom i've been forced to break foraged-for bread with, are proud of their thriftiness. this thriftiness is directly affecting the mostly small businesses they're taking from. now, to simply say "i am on a tight budget and this helps out" is one thing, but to be proud of actively fucking over the small businesses that we Columbia students purport to love seems a little silly.

    also, if i hear one more self-righteous, self-described freegan extolling the virtues of sticking it to the capitalist man i'm going to lose it. you're in no position to talk about freeganism if you're alright with paying 50 k on a bunch of bullshit classes on sexuality in the arctic and the socioeconomic role of the bonobos in the rainforest.

  22. hey now

    i find columbia urban foragers (their facebook page: problematic in their attitude and general philosophical justification. that said, let's not target these three; this attitude permeates the columbia, and general college, population - urban foraging is not the only or even the best example of high-minded bourgeois or wannabe bourgeois hypocrisy.

    also, i commend bwog commenters - these comments are pretty trenchant.

  23. assholes

    dumpstering for food is not self-righteous--lots of people can't really afford food, or don't want to buy into the system by paying for food. its free shit you can eat/use--how is taking advantage of this questionable in any way? they're not pretending to be poor--alternative lifestyles that include "urban foraging" and/or alternative or anti-capitalist behavior don't exclusively represent offensive proletarian aspirations of the boujy. and saying this behavior is automatically illegitimate because these kids are most likely in actuality rich/upper class or otherwise socially privileged is like saying the earnest environmentalist efforts of every upper or middle class person are disingenuous, useless, and fake because the people dedicating their time to these efforts benefit from capitalism which destroys the environment. in summary, who the fuck cares, free bagels are awesome. pull the giant broom-handle-shaped dildo out of your ass.
    once again, 90% of people on bwog are douchebags (i eagerly await your "but-you're-on-bwog-that's-a-FALLACY-i-took-lit-hum-watch-me-intellectually-jerk-off" responses). god, could this site get any worse? i'm gonna remove it from my toolbar.

  24. "don’t want to buy into the system by paying for food"  

    Yes, aren't we sheep?

  25. A Free bagel from Absolute?  

    I threw it on the ground! I'm not part of your system!

  26. Dunkin' Demon

    I lived next door to a Dunkin' Donuts for a while and idiotic kids would root through our trash every single night, leaving the pavement strewn with stale baked goods. Vermin became a huge problem. Not to mention that people would urinate on the bags after they'd been opened. I took to chasing away the strudel stealers.

  27. what if  

    i'm just really cheap, don't care bout the philosophical bullshit, and just want free food? is that ok?

  28. comical  

    \I shudder at the thought that these freegan kids will engage in oral sex with the same mouths they use to eat festering refuse.\


    i like to think about that when i eat my festering dumpster'd bagels
    every time i have offered a morningside hobo food from the dumpster, they have refused it
    urban waste is criminal, foraging is not
    i can still cook a better meal for free than you pay for

  29. also-  

    ooooh boy, how terrible to generalize about the economic status of columbia students! that would be awful! but we should still generalize about the homeless all we want.

  30. Food is food  


  31. anonymous  

    it takes about same time for me to walk to and back from Absolut as taking one of dem 30min psych surveys on my way to mudd. that pays $5 thats 5 bagels. Doing this for free food is bullshit

  32. ...  

    The level of intellect on this comment board truly makes me question the worth of an "Ivy League" label. The baked goods (at least) in those trash bags is perfectly good. If one walked into Milano Market at 11:55, five minutes before closing time, it would be deemed perfectly acceptable to buy one of the loaves of bread that otherwise, would ten minutes later be sitting outside in one of those trash bags, along with the other loaves of bread that ten minutes earlier would have been not only edible, but furthermore worth spending money on. As intellectually cream-of-crop Ivy Leaguers, I sure hope that no one on here will attempt to explain how a difference of ten minutes makes a loaf of bread go from purchasable to repulsive. In fact, what is repulsive is the sheer amount of edible food that goes to utter waste everyday, a process spurred only by the difference between being on the shelf and being in a trash bag, with complete disregard for the actual state of the food within. It is refreshing to know that some individuals are attempting to overcome such ineptitude.

  33. BAAAAAAA you're toddlers  

    grownups aren't afraid to eat out of the trash.

  34. is that dude  

    wearing a track suit?

  35. you are

    a real person. thanks.

  36. LISTEN

    I am a Columbia student. I am on lots of financial aid. I look to save money whenever possible to minimize the loan I will be slapped with after graduation. I'd like to start dumpster diving to save a bit more. I am, however, not homeless and would of course not take food that I knew would otherwise be eaten by a homeless person.

    What is wrong with taking some food that I have no reason to believe will be taken by someone who needs it more than me, meanwhile saving myself a little money and the environment a little waste?

    Save your hate for when it counts. These are good people. If you have a problem with them, talk to them. You got their names. All you anonymous shit-talkers are pussies.

    • ...

      what's wrong with it is the fact that one of the kids in that picture attended a HIGH SCHOOL that charged tuition comparable to what columbia charges WITHOUT any financial aid.

      another one of those kids is from the versailles of chicago.

      ahh, those whacky columbia kids, what's next? blackface?

  37. ..........  

    what does where they went to school or the cost of tuition have to do dumpster diving?

  38. Em  

    Why don't you guys just steal from Morton Williams (you know they jack those prices!) like I do?

  39. i heart dumpster diving

    I don't think the tone of the students in this article was particularly self-righteous. If they can get food for free, why not? It would be thrown out otherwise, and I can guarantee you they are not "stealing from homeless people". Most of these businesses already donate to organizations like City Harvest and other foodbanks. Many times, though, City Harvest won't collect "highly-perishables" like the bagels at Absolute or the veggies at "Garden of Eden". They just don't have the storage space for it. I don't see why people are so outraged, and specifically over the class issue. That's like yelling at a privileged person for going to a thrift store or wearing hand-me-downs. Maybe their families are rich. Does that mean they shouldn't take advantage of a bargain? You would probably hate them more if they were super picky eaters and only ate caviar.

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