“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure.”
—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
“Dumpster diving” is the term used for the act of salvaging food and reusable materials from garbage bins. In the United States, probably the most aggressively wasteful culture in the world, this practice has become an entire clandestine subculture. Almost every city in the nation has tightly-knit groups of people who meet up on a regular basis to raid dumpsters. These teams are usually difficult to find, however, since prime scavenging locations are often kept a carefully guarded secret, and experienced divers keep a low profile to ensure the security of their monopolies.
A friend had informed me of a dumpster diving group in Pasadena and invited me to join them on their weekly scrounge. I was told they were going to scour some of the city’s best diving spots by bicycle. I didn’t have a bike, of course, but a contact had promised to lend me one for the evening.
I pulled up at his house around eight, and found him out front tuning a bicycle that he had turned upside down. His name was Eric and he was a handsome twenty year-old with a ready smile and long curly black hair. He held up greasy palms and apologized for not being able to shake my hand. He said that he was having trouble with the gearshift of the bike he had planned to give me.
He was an experienced cyclist, and a set of tools was strewn on the ground beside him. I sat on a nearby windowsill and watched him struggle with the repairs.
“Why don’t I just take my car?” I proposed after it became clear nothing would be resolved any time soon.
“Well, all right,” Eric agreed regretfully. “It’s almost time to meet the others anyway.”
He put on his helmet and rolled out of the driveway with me cruising slowly at his back. Soon we arrived at a nearby park where a group of about a dozen other people had already gathered. I parked and Eric introduced me to the others, a disparate mix of old and young, men and women. The group leaders were a bohemian couple named Aaron and Penelope. He was tall and lanky, with a thick beard and immediately ingratiating personality, and she was a spunky brunette in a red shirt and black tights. They told me that they donated the majority of the food they salvaged to the homeless. I made the rounds, shaking hands and telling snippets of my story. They all seemed like good people. A middle-aged father with his teenage daughter. A student in a varsity sweater. A character carrying a pet dachshund in the basket of his bicycle.
One of the women was a fifty-year-old whose name was Anne, and she had also arrived without a bike. Aaron asked if I could take her in my car, and I readily agreed. We quickly introduced ourselves and got in the vehicle to follow the caravan of bikes.
The first place we were to hit was Trader Joe’s, one of America’s most popular “natural food” supermarkets. As we coasted behind the bicycles, Anne told me how she and her husband had both been out of work for months, and now they were fighting desperately to stay out of debt. The economy in California was terrible, she said. People everywhere were struggling to feed their families.
We arrived at the supermarket and rolled into a parking lot underneath, where two huge open-air dumpsters stood in a corner. The group surrounded the bins and several people had soon clambered inside. Almost immediately they were tossing over loaves of bread. Not one or two, mind you, but dozens and dozens of them. Then huge packages of cookies and muffins. Then whole unopened boxes full of twenty chicken salads apiece. Then a massive bag of potatoes. Then another. Then a garbage bag full of bell peppers. Then another of onions. Then carrots. Then a huge crate of bananas and apples was passed over the top. Then a bunch of cartons of apple and orange juice. Then a few bottles of wine. Then lettuce. Then cabbage. Then celery. The deeper they dug, the more they found.
I was stupefied by the amount of food they had produced in only a few short minutes. It was probably close to a thousand dollars worth. I looked it over as they stacked it up. Some of the salads had a few rotten leaves. One of the loaves of bread had some flecks of mould. A couple onions out of a bag of fifty had gone bad. The juice was about to pass its expiry date.
“They don’t sell anything unless it looks absolutely perfect,” Eric explained. “As soon as one vegetable gets a spot, they toss the whole crateful.”
“But it’s insane!” I said. “This is enough to feed an army! And 95% of it is still perfectly fine!”
“Yeah,” he agreed with a shrug. “One time we counted everything up after a night of diving, and we figure we got around $2,500 dollars worth of food! Of course when you come with bikes, you have to make a lot more trips.”
He jumped back in the dumpster.
“Have any of you guys ever gotten sick from eating dumpster food?” I asked the people who were standing around the bins.
Nobody ever had.
“If you use a little common sense,” Penelope said, “there’s almost no chance of getting ill.”
We started filling my car, and within a few minutes had packed the entire trunk and back seat to capacity. So Aaron instructed us to head back to Eric’s house, dump our load, and meet back at a nearby Whole Foods store.
We drove to Eric’s and spent ten minutes unloading our booty before heading back to meet the others. Soon we pulled up behind the gigantic Whole Foods building, where the team was already plundering the riches of three enormous bins.
Heaping piles of food were stacked all around the dumpsters, and we set to work refilling my vehicle. The haul was even bigger this time. We set up a human chain to pass the stuff from hand to hand towards my car. I popped the trunk and Eric moved to take the nearest position on the line.
“Jesus Christ,” I said to him as he handed me a box full of potatoes. “This is ridiculous! Do they throw this much food out every day?”
“Not every single day,” he responded. “But almost. And remember, this is only one store. Do you have any idea how many Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s there are in the United States?”
“You think they all dump food like this?”
“I know it. There are probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in food getting tossed in the trash every week, just by Whole Foods.”
“But that’s nuts!” I exclaimed. “How can they make a profit?”
“Haven’t you ever shopped there? The prices they charge are through the roof!”
It defied belief.
“Besides, we shouldn’t complain,” he continued. “At least this store hasn’t started chaining shut its dumpsters.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked, astonished. “They chain them?”
“Most of them,” he affirmed. “It’s becoming official policy at supermarkets all across America.”
“Cuts into their profits, I guess.”
The logic was mind-bending.
As we were finishing up, a middle-aged Asian man appeared in the parking lot and asked Aaron if we worked there. Aaron laughed good-naturedly and told him that we most assuredly did not. The man surveyed our group suspiciously for a moment and then walked away, staring over his shoulder as he pulled out his cell phone to make a call.
It was time to leave. My car was already stuffed to bursting anyway, and Anne could barely squeeze into the passenger’s seat. After making a quick plan to meet up at Eric’s place, the caravan of bicycles headed out into the street to start the trip home. Anne and I spent another minute or two reorganizing the boxes so we could both sit comfortably, and then drove off to catch up with the others.
I was about a block from the group when I suddenly heard police sirens. Looking in my rear-view mirror, I saw three patrol cars coming up fast at my back. My heart leapt into my throat. Then I heard the whirring of helicopter blades.
“No way,” I thought, leaning forward and looking out the top of the windshield to see an LAPD chopper. I had been wondering if there was anything illegal about dumpster diving. Now I knew.
I slowed the car, preparing myself to pull over and deal with whatever hassle the cops were going to lay on me. But then a miracle happened.
They drove right past.
Probably because I was in a car, they hadn’t realized I was a member of the group. So, as they charged ahead to stop the cyclists, who were carrying nothing.
I took a turn at the next intersection and left them all behind.
We arrived at Eric’s house without incident a few minutes later. After we had been unloading the car for about a quarter of an hour, Aaron and the rest of the crew finally arrived, laden with stories of police harassment.
“They came up on us like it was the O.J. Simpson chase scene all over again!” Penelope recounted with exasperation. “That police helicopter just hovered overhead the whole time, shining a big light on us while they gave us the third degree.”
“They were growling and threatening to cite us,” Aaron told us, “but we didn’t have anything, so what could they charge us with?”
“What could they have charged you with if you did have something?” I asked, struggling to understand, “taking garbage that nobody wants?”
“Trespassing?” Eric speculated.
“Trespassing in a parking lot on a main street?”
“Well, they sure looked like they meant business,” Aaron said, shrugging. “Lucky that guy didn’t get your license plate. That’s why we usually go diving in bicycles, because if you drive a car and some irate store worker writes down your plate number, you can get into serious trouble.”
“But for what?” I pressed. “Isn’t this stuff you take supposed to be worthless?”
“Well, I guess it looks bad for the store to have people seen in the dumpsters,” Eric explained, “and besides, if everybody knew how much good food was out there for anyone to grab, who would be willing to go into their stores and pay those extravagant prices they charge?”
It all made a sick kind of sense, I supposed.
Eric’s broken gearshift may have a dozen people a night in a jail cell.