Dumpster Diving: DIY Free Food
Written by Bwog Staff
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.”