Adventures of an urban scavenger: How to survive without paying for food in the Twin Cities

30 days of hunting down everything from dandelions to dumpsters

Adventures of an urban scavenger: How to survive without paying for food in the Twin Cities
Emiy Utne

It's 11 p.m. on a Wednesday and I'm knee-deep in a bed of roses and organic produce. I fill my lungs.

This is serenity.

I crouch down and inch my fingers toward one of the knotted plastic bags. All that's separating me from my mysterious bounty is one pull. My fingers are poised and ready when I hear voices rising in the distance.

Produce found in a dumpster.
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Produce found in a dumpster.
Emily Eveland eating produce found in a dumpster.
Benjamin Carter Grimes. Hair by Amber Phillips. Styling by Abigail Guderian.
Emily Eveland eating produce found in a dumpster.

Two women are approaching. They're laughing. I lie low, praying they're walking toward their cars and not my hiding spot. I think of my two friends waiting for me in my car, certain they're taking pleasure in the absurdity that will soon strike.

It becomes clear that I'm not getting off easy this time. I sigh, straighten my posture, and open my mouth.

"Hi."

One girl jumps back. The other screams. Their faces collectively twist into cocktails of confusion, disgust, and fear.

"This isn't what it looks like," I say. Stupid. People only say that when it's exactly what it looks like. "I know it's hard to believe, but this is for a story."

They glare at me in stunned silence. The girl with a long brown ponytail nods toward the three bulging garbage bags in her hands.

"We're throwing away glass and poisonous blueberries," she sneers.

"Yeah, uh, and this bag is full of glass," her friend reiterates before tossing the bag next to my right foot. It clinks against the dumpster's metal floor. One by one, they wordlessly throw the bags on, next to, and around me.

When they finish the job and head back to their workplace, I collect my breath, dig through the glass and berries until I relocate my bag of roses, and speed off before the cops are called.

In my late teens, I wound up homeless, jobless, and penniless for a period of nine months. I was lucky; I had friends in different states who offered up couches, floors, and mattresses for me to sleep on. I was safe.

Food was another story. I obtained food stamps while living in Chicago, to the disdain of the county worker who urged me to "just go home." But it's difficult to stretch $200 over a month-long period when you lack the equipment needed to cook rice and beans for every meal.

Today, I'm 23 and I have a full-time job, an apartment, and access to almost anything I feel like eating. The tricks and tools that helped me find food in my teens have stayed with me, but I've grown too accustomed to convenience to use them regularly.

With minimal pre-planning, I decided to see what would happen if I stopped paying for food for a month. The rules were simple: no charity, no money, no blatant begging, no wedding crashing. By the end of the 30 days, I had more food than I knew what to do with. Grocery stores were the enemy. I was the urban hunter-gatherer, combing city streets for any sign of the edible.

Lunging at Leftovers

At the Uptown Diner on a Thursday night, I watch patrons at surrounding booths as my friend Hailey scarfs down a waffle with peanut butter. I miss the days of ordering freely from menus — of having a choice about the food I put in my mouth. As I wallow in self-pity, I lock eyes with a sweaty kid across the room, sinking his teeth into a fat cheeseburger.

My pulse rises. I haven't had ground beef in weeks.

"Stand ready, Hailey."

The kid gets up to leave, a half-eaten cheeseburger still on his plate. One of his friends lingers near the table, picking at the plate after everyone else has gone outside. He's stealing my dinner. Just as I start to clench my hands into sweaty fists, he leaves.

"Dan, grab that burger," I hiss. My friend Dan looks left and right, grabs the plate, and places it before me.

There's an art to taking food from people's plates after they leave. Restaurants aren't fans of the approach — they, of course, want you to buy food, not eat people's leftovers. Ethically I don't have a problem with it: The food will either end up in my mouth or in the dumpster, and even if it ends up in the dumpster, it will probably end up in someone's mouth.

Taking food off plates isn't illegal, but restaurant owners and employees are liable to kick you out of their establishments if they catch you scraping someone's leftovers into your purse. To avoid this, I'm subtle. I purchase a coffee or soft drink to avoid drawing attention to myself by loitering. I won't blatantly grab food from another table in front of an employee or while diners are still seated at their tables. I make my moves quickly and carry myself confidently, like Kurt Russell on a mission to save the world from excess waste. If I don't question myself, no one questions me.

Trash rules everything

around me

On the first night of my experiment, I realize I am more squeamish than I want to admit. Each dumpster brings a sigh, a shriek, a whimper. I don't want to go through with it. It's too risky. Too hard. We stop at the first grocery store at 9:30 p.m. The lights are still on and employee cars are in the parking lot. We drive to Grand Avenue, sort through bakery and bagel dumpsters, and find nothing more than bags of uncooked dough, documents, and some unidentifiable dumpster matter.

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25 comments
Leif E. Greenz
Leif E. Greenz

I understand where you're coming from, but the premise of the story was to find practical ways of obtaining free food without relying on charity. It wasn't about taking food from people who needed it or pretending to be homeless, it was about seeing whether or not it was possible to essentially live off waste, scraps, and excess. It's meant to be a practical guide for people who are tired of paying an arm and a leg to feed themselves. I do appreciate your feedback!

Annette Louise Mizzi
Annette Louise Mizzi

This article is ridiculous, there are people who really live this everyday, humiliated because others look down upon them. At least, like you wrote,u have access to all the foods you desire. I'm glad that after eating other peoples garbage you felt enlightened there after, maybe it just makes you feel better about yourself and your life now. Also, you are stealing indirectly. I think if you really want to feel starvation again maybe move somewhere where you have no choices to cheese burgers and fries. Peace love and respect to the real people that have real problems.

Aimée Finley
Aimée Finley

Yep, that thought definitely occurred to me. :-/

Joel O'Brien
Joel O'Brien

And you ladies need to watch your drinks better. If sometime can steal your drink that easy, think how easy it would be for someone to drug it.

Katie Helseth
Katie Helseth

I was thinking the same thing. I watched a girl grab my drink and pour it into her glass at tavern in uptown while I was arms length from it with my back turned for 5 minutes tops. Food is one thing, but drinks? That's sad. I felt bad for the girl.

Patrick Moinichen
Patrick Moinichen

Great article!! Thinking they were just doing food out of dumpsters and stuff Aimee Fin Fin!

Aimée Finley
Aimée Finley

I wonder if this writer is one of the two 20-something girls who recently casually plucked our mostly-full cocktails right off our table in a club as we were dancing two feet away. Yes, I busted them. They didn't put up a fuss, just put our drinks back down and disappeared into the crowd. Cheeky.

Heidi Newstrom
Heidi Newstrom

I live in Chicago and always take leftovers and give them to people begging for food.. Or I leave it a on top of a garbage can.. Because it IS wasteful all the food we throw it(as restaurants and just regular people. Also people (businesses and regular persons) throw out their food that has a 'best buy' date, when that by no means the food has gone bad. It's so wasteful! Donate it to a food shelf (check to make sure they will take it.. Certain places do , in Chicago). Yes, I have dumpster dived.

Jennifer Shelton
Jennifer Shelton

Christian Jensen, I'm really glad u could summarize what a writer does for a story. Brilliant! Great read!

Christian Jensen
Christian Jensen

Seems like she's indulging in poverty cosplay, roughing it a bit before returning to her comfortable life.

Roxy Orcutt
Roxy Orcutt

This woman is a brave soul. Great read!

whtevrrr
whtevrrr

How perfect that the author is a 20-something, single, privileged white girl with the luck of having friends who constantly go out to eat so she can scrape their leftovers. The horror! It's a miracle she survived! 

dekay5555555
dekay5555555

I read through the whole article immediately.  Food industry waste is a major problem, not just food, but their containers as well.  The amount of food thrown out is abysmal.  Poisoning your garbage is mortifying.  We have lost track of our humanity.

charleyunderwood
charleyunderwood

I enjoyed this article.  The first-person account involved pretending to be that  broke again, but lots of people are and quite a few of them do dumpster-diving or foraging.  That's what the story was about,  in my opinion.  Any of us could be there at some point in our lives.

gasforthewin
gasforthewin

great job of not paying for food while you drove everywhere. 

qazqaz
qazqaz

giving leftovers to the homeless, wow do you really look them in the eye when you do that or just toss it at them? you are a regular Mother Teresa

freq
freq

@gasforthewin One experiment at a time! Why don't you write an article about being carless?

 
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