One Wednesday night, just after nine o’clock as Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco closed, I notice a small group of people rummaging through the store’s three dumpsters. I see a man look at the time and say, “Oh they’re closing now – let’s go check the dumpster.” Another woman, also digging into the trash, says: “I gotta admit, it’s kind of like Christmas.”
Beside the contents of the three industrial size dumpsters, employees had placed boxes full of fruit: dozens of apples, pears and lemons. About five people of various ages and races rummage through an enormous amount of food.
The amount of organic produce and food that the store had deemed unfit to sell is almost unbelievable, but I’m still not convinced that it’s safe to eat. I decide to go back the next night to learn the secret of dumpster diving.
A Swiss man, who asked to only be identified as Felix, lives down the street from Rainbow Grocery. He was introduced to dumpster diving by people from the organization Food Not Bombs, who distribute free food to hungry people. Although he still purchases groceries from inside of the store, he visits the dumpsters outside of the store almost every night.
Ramon Perez, who lives on a school bus, shares his secrets and spoils with Felix as they searched through the dumpsters one day.
“Do you want any of this cheese?” he asks Felix.
Perez is a musician.
“I was having a hard time making money busking in the BART station. People just don’t kick down these days like they used to,” Perez says.
With gloves and a headlamp, Felix dives into the dumpster.
“Now look at this salad! I mean there’s nothing wrong with this. You can right away eat it. Do you wash this salad?” he asks Perez.
Perez tells Felix that what he grabbed had probably been safe until he touched it with his dirty gloves.
“Things have to be trimmed sometimes here,” Felix says, “but I live close to here so I go home, juice it up, cut it up and you know, eat it.”
Felix often shares the food he gets from the dumpster with his roommate or friends. He doesn’t always tell them where he got it.
“Some people feel like you’re not a useful member of society if you do this,” Felix says.
“They call you a bum,” Perez adds.
At one point, Felix pops out of the dumpster with a beautiful bouquet of snapdragon flowers.
Meanwhile, store employees continue to toss more bags into the dumpster, bags I used to think were full of garbage.
“Sometimes you take too much. Like this salad--will I be able to eat it before it rots? But it always can go on my conscience – oh I didn’t buy it, now I can throw it away,” Felix says.
I leave with the bouquet of snapdragons and a new appreciation for what many of us waste.