Former Gargoyle Editor recounts dumpster-diving experience

By Haley M. Walker |

My sweaty palms are planted firmly on either side of the plate. My mind is racing and it keeps my eyes from meeting my dinner on that plate. I am ravenous, but I can’t force myself to touch the food.

Everything on the plate smelled good and with the exception of a few brown spots on the broccoli, the food looked fine. The problem was where I had gotten the meal from hours earlier.

At 1 a.m., the white of my headlights swung across two dumpsters behind a local grocery store. These deep containers and others like it across the city, billowing with leaking plastic bags of blood from meat trimmings, bruised produce, expired dairy seeping from cartons and hundreds of pounds of other waste would be my only source of food for the next two weeks. I had committed my time and body to learning about America’s food waste by immersing myself in “dumpster diving.”

The late hours I kept tunneling through and subsisting on the discarded food of St. Augustine would provide me with a beautiful sense of adventure and defiance but also leave me literally chest deep in the reality of food waste.

On a Monday night in February, I met the group of people that would serve as my guide throughout the two weeks. They were members of the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, an international revolutionary movement protesting war and poverty through the collection and sharing of free vegan food that would otherwise be thrown away. Members participate in “dumpster diving,” where food and other items are salvaged from the dumpsters. The collective holds the belief that militarism and capitalism have direct links to world hunger and waste.

I sat on the floor of a small living room that showed the wear of youthful defiance. Cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer lined the windowsills and peered out from under the couches. Cigarette smoke hung stagnant above our heads, as if it had gotten stuck in the thickness of the stale air. It was 11 p.m. and ten people ranging in ages from 18 to 30 sat in the room discussing raising awareness for bicyclists, May Day celebrations of workers’ rights and who would cook and deliver the food they just found in the dumpster to the homeless.

At the front of the room sat Molly Jane Hammond, a 22-year-old student whose constant struggle with the injustices of the world can be told of through her eyes. The tattoos of broken ankle cuffs circling both of her legs would prove to represent her break from conformity.

Robbie Czopek, a 25-year-old University of North Florida student, sat next to her smoking a clove, wearing high black boots and a look of grave intent and concentration. Czopek is a sociology major who recently started college again after a year of hitchhiking across the country and working in Tucson, Arizona.

The room was filled with activism, idealism, intention and a bravery I didn’t yet fully comprehend. These people would be my partners for the next two weeks. They would teach me about capitalism and consumerism by using the dumpster as a learning prop.

“Alright get in,” Hammond said standing in trash bags up to her knees. I gripped the side of the cold metal, slippery with a mucus, comically referred to as “dumpster juice.” I clumsily stumbled in. With bare hands we began searching for our dinners and food to last us until the next time we could dive again. The smell was a powerful concoction of rotting produce and sour milk, and the occasional whiff of blood and raw chicken would blow in with the breeze, causing me to turn my head and sometimes gag.

As we threw bags out of the dumpster to make more room to explore, Hammond and Melissa Kafel, another Food Not Bombs member and a two year diver taught me about dumpster etiquette. “Number one, don’t blow up the spot and leave it cleaner than when you came,” Hammond said. “I wouldn’t want to ruin some people’s only chance at food.”

It didn’t take long before we began finding treasures among the trash. Hidden at the bottom under bags and boxes, we found bags of lettuce that had expired the previous day, a box of cucumbers, a few of which had molded, and mixed vegetables in bags. Kafel laughed in excitement as we found bruised avocados and soupy hummus. Hammond fished a few muffins floating loose in a trash bag and took a huge bite out of one of them, smiling.

It became a thrilling hunt, and I was immediately flooded with enthusiasm as more and more edible food was found. “Even after I have been doing it for so long, it is still so exciting to find something so good,” Kafel said. “I would love to grow all my own food but then all this food would still be left in the dumpster. I am saving it.”

While my first dumpster diving experience had turned into an adventurous game, and I left smiling at midnight with four boxes of food, the reality of the amount of what I had just found in the dumpster manifested itself as a large and heavy knot in my stomach. “I always have a double sensation when I am in the dumpster, but every time I am amazed,” Hammond said. “It is a delight in getting something for free, but the waste is disgusting at the same time.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 96 billion pounds of food are thrown away each year. This number is equivalent to 27 percent of the 356 billion pounds of food available and produced. Jonathan Bloom, an author and blogger on wasted food in the United States, estimates the amount wasted can be weighed in comparison to 15 million elephants.

A veteran dumpster diver and parent who preferred to remain anonymous believes America’s food waste is a profound statement about the country. “It is a complete reflection of this country and how we are destroying this earth and we will threaten extinction to human kind,” he said. “It’s like, we are American and we are number one, so fuck you world and fuck you earth. This is 100 percent American.”

According to FNB, dumpster diving is not only a way of salvaging food, it is a way of opposing capitalism and its connection to waste. I quickly discovered this to be a common motivation for most of my partners.

“It [capitalism] is an unsustainable system that is built on the exploitation of non-renewable resources and benefits the global north specifically,” Czopek said. “Capitalism cannot exist without inequalities, and all it does is increase those inequalities to benefit the elite.”

Brandon Hill, a 25-year-old FNB member from Ohio, said the basic functioning of capitalism produces waste. “Its all about overabundance,” Hill said. “Capitalism is set up for survival for whoever can produce the most and provide it to the most markets.”

According to the local FNB members, expiration dates are a controlling mechanism of capitalism and a significant contribution to the amount of waste in America.

The Food and Drug Administration is only required to place an expiration date on infant formula, and the United States Agricultural Department is legally bound to label the date meat, poultry or produce is packaged. However, manufacturers reserve the right to place a sell-by or use-by date on products, which distributors then abide by.
“These numbers are created so arbitrarily,” Czopek said. “Everything is controlled by numbers if you think about it.”

Many dumpster divers who share these feelings are freegans, a people who live an alternative, anti-consumerist lifestyle. According to, Freeganism boycotts purchasing to oppose capitalism. The word is derived from a combination of free and vegan. Those participating in the movement also do not wear or consume animal products to protest the meat and dairy industries. “I recognize that me being vegan is not changing the world or the oppressiveness of our system, but at least it’s being an example,” Kami Sandusky, an 18-year-old freegan from Boston, said. “Meat is murder and dairy is a rape of animals and their rights as living creatures.”

On Valentines Day, Hammond and I began at 10 p.m., earlier than many of the other excursions. This night was my first visit to dumpsters not behind grocery stores. In honor of the holiday, we set out in search of sweets and flowers. We lifted cardboard out of the dumpster of a florist in search of a hidden bouquet. Hammond said she has used discarded petals as confetti. This dumpster turned out to be one of my favorite.

I gripped the steering wheel of my car a little harder than normal when we pulled behind an open donut shop. Soon, we were in a sea of buckets lined with sticky icing, and moist coffee grounds that formed a six-inch layer at the bottom. We moved quickly, tearing bags open in search of day old donuts or bagels.

As we started to leave, I realized that my car keys were not in my pocket. Had there been light, anyone could have seen my face go white. I began frantically throwing bags out of the dumpster and dropped to my knees onto the floor of coffee grounds. With my bare hands, I began to scrape away the sticky brown mess in search of my way out of the dumpster. The grounds made their ways under my fingernails and stuck to every part of me with the donut icing as the glue. After 15 minutes, the silver of my keychain caught my eye and I lunged for it, ready for the escape it would bring.

Before we left, the back door swung open and a short man with a ponytail began walking towards us. Hammond immediately warned me that we should go, but the man instead asked, “Do you guys just want some donuts?” We agreed and he came back with a 10-pound trash bag of red and pink frosted donuts. After handing us the bag, my heart raced as he lowered his voice, took a step closer and asked us if we would dance for him. He was careful to let us know that he would pay and that he didn’t want sex, just to help two girls out he thought to be in dire straits by stripping for him. With a clear no, Hammond and I left.

I returned that night with sweets and flowers, neither of which had been received in a particularly romantic way.

I lay on the cold tile floor with one hand still on the toilet, clutching onto it as if it had the power to make me healthy again. A week into dumpster diving, I had food poisoning from what I attributed to be not adequately washing the “dumpster juice” off the produce I had found. Throughout dumpster diving, I had been meticulous about everything I ate, trying hard to put my health in the care of my five senses. As a beginning dumpster diver, I held higher standards than many of my partners. This caused me to loose eight pounds by the fourth day, nine by the seventh day and 10 by the eleventh day. My skin turned a yellowish color and it was hard to stay awake throughout the day.

None of my dumpster diving partners had ever become sick from the practice. Chris Greer, a FNB member, said he would rather eat out of the dumpster than at some commercial restaurants. “My dad says he is worried about me eating out of the garbage, but I told him I am worried about him for eating McDonalds every day,” he said.

I knew the medical and health risks beginning this endeavor. Dr. Jaime Cory, D.O. family practice physician with Anastasia Family Care, said that dumpster divers have the potential to acquire skin infections and the full-body bacterial infection known as Sepsis. “The risks of this outweigh any of the benefits,” Cory said. “The things that you are eating certainly carry a medical risk, and there are also hazards you are just putting yourself in from broken glass and metals that can cause soft tissue infections.” Tetanus, a disease caused by contaminated soil that affects the central nervous system and Hepatitis A and C could also be contracted from being in a dumpster and consuming its contents, according to Cory.

Dr. Dudley Baringer, family practitioner with the Healing Arts Clinic, said that dumpster divers should also be careful during warm weather. “You want to avoid dumpsters that can be in the sun and exposed to bacterial overgrowth,” Baringer said. “The food is going to be better preserved in a cold environment, and the bacteria are not going to be producing as rapidly in the winter as in the summer.”

While Baringer has medical concerns about the practice, he understands why in some circumstances it is necessary. “Starvation will make you lower your standards,” he said. “There are so many people that are hungry, and dumpster diving beats the hell out of starving to death.”

Throughout my time diving, I had been reminded by my partners about other people that eat out of dumpsters, those that may not be driven by political goods, but by necessity.

While walking down the street one day, I stopped to listen to a group of homeless people playing music on the sidewalk. I wanted the company of the strangers, and I sat down with them. That afternoon,
I met Daniel McKenna, a 46-year-old homeless man from Massachusetts, who currently lives under the 16th Street Bridge. McKenna said both his drinking and gambling on the stock market were why he had become homeless. He has been dumpster diving for two years regularly. “I have made a science out of it,” he said. “I am just a raccoon that has evolved.”

McKenna said he usually dumpster dives before nightfall and his favorite find is a rack of lamb still packaged. “There have been times where I could have stocked a freezer for six to eight months,” he said. “There was so much of it, I had to choose what to throw back.”

According to the USDA’s A Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery, up to a fifth of America’s total food goes to waste every year, approximately 130 pounds per person. It’s enough to feed 49 million people, a number the country has just reached.

On November 16, the USDA reported that 49 million Americans, including 17 million children are currently going hungry. It’s a 36 percent increase from 2008.

“The earth does not have abundant resources,” Cal Colgan, a 21-year-old FNB member said. “It does, however, have enough to feed the population, but if we continue to exploit the resources, there will be nothing left.”

While I sat with McKenna on a busy street corner in downtown St. Augustine, we drew some curious looks. The passerby didn’t know we have some things in common. McKenna has a blog he updates at the public library, and I have one as well. We both also eat out of dumpsters.

By the time I finished diving, I estimated that I had salvaged several hundred pounds of food from dumpsters. I had survived, and I was ready to eat my first meal that had not been thrown away first. My excitement quickly faded however when I found myself still wondering about the waste that sat in the dumpsters that I would not be putting to use.

I had learned about food waste in America but knew nothing of its future.

Even after finished dumpster diving, I still was left with many questions. Were people aware of the waste? I thought about the couple of dumpsters I had been in and then the millions around the country. Would the trend of dumpster diving grow? Would more people find and save what wasn’t commercially viable? I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions. However, I did know that this experience would forever be a thought in the back of my mind, haunting my every meal, my every bite.

I never thought I would find feelings of comfort and adventure among the trash, but it was hard to stay away. I have been dumpster diving many times since I officially stopped eating out of them. It seems as if I have seen the side of an issue that not many have, and this excitement has kept me adventuring through the dumpsters, smiling every time I find a treasure.

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