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

UPDATE: If this story intrigues you, and you'd like to try your hand at being an urban scavenger, here's what you need to know to dumpster dive in the Twin Cities.

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.

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.

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.

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

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