Find Dining

That's not trash picking—it's a protest of our consumerist culture

That's not trash picking—it's a protest of our consumerist culture

The grocery store's parking lot is always busy, but at noon, the atmosphere is especially anxious. Hurried mothers clutching toddlers' hands load groceries into SUVs. So when Joey Adamji and Andrew Ehrmann, both seniors at Macalester College in St. Paul, approach the Dumpster, no one notices.

Ehrmann, a smiley, outdoorsy type with floppy brown hair and a solid frame, doesn't hesitate before hoisting himself over the stained metal rim. He tromps through the trash, stopping momentarily to open a bag, which turns out to be raw beef oozing watery blood. Next he spots several eggplants and zucchinis at the bottom of the bin and grabs a cardboard box to carry his vegetable haul.

Adamji, the son of a doctor from Evanston, Illinois, and Ehrmann, who hails from a small Colorado ski resort town, hardly fit the stereotype of the trash-picking vagrant. But two years ago they moved off the Macalester campus and left their meal plans behind. Gradually, they phased out shopping at grocery stores and began to rely on the Dumpster.

"It's not like we Dumpster dive to just save the planet," Ehrmann says. "It's also just cheaper."

Once the exclusive province of bums and street urchins, Dumpster diving has gotten an eco-friendly makeover in the form of "freeganism." Definitions of freeganism vary, but the main ethic is to not pay for food. The movement started in the mid-1990s as a reaction against consumerism, but both Newsweek and the New York Times brought the practice to a larger audience last year.

"It's just that certain kids here—mainly types like the hipster, punk south Minneapolis scene—have caught on to it and made it cool," says Chris Allison, a staffer at the Minnesota-based nonprofit Sisters' Camelot. "Living off waste is something people have always been doing. It's just that young, college-going, radical kids are doing it now, so they are making a political statement."

A smorgasbord of food, all found in the Dumpster

A smorgasbord of food, all found in the Dumpster

Inside their apartment, Adamji and Ehrmann recline on mismatched couches, which they retrieved from the trash, naturally. The decor is college chic: wall-to-wall tapestries, Christmas lights, and musty, faded rugs. The fridge is stuffed with vegetables, bread, and hummus, almost all of it thrown away by someone else. The roommates spend about $10 a week each filling in what the Dumpster lacks: eggs, coffee creamer, onions, and alcohol.

Occasionally they find a veritable feast in the trash. Once they recovered a 50-pound block of sharp cheddar cheese that had just a slight bit of mold on one corner—they froze the cheese and cut it with a guitar string into thin slivers; it lasted them six months. Then there was the time last winter when Ehrmann found a frozen crab in a local seafood store's Dumpster—he mixed it with pasta and it tasted as good as anything you'd get at Olive Garden.

The roommates claim they've never gotten sick from eating out of the Dumpster. Adamji says they draw the line when "something smells foul," but that otherwise they don't see a problem with consuming food that is, in their opinion, perfectly edible.

But Paul Allwood, assistant director of the University of Minnesota's Department of Public and Occupational Health, begs to differ. Dumpster diving carries a high risk of food poisoning, he says. "Risks would vary with the kind of garbage that is generated at the particular store and also the collection time," Allwood explains. "Pulling out things that are ready to eat, like bread and cheese, pose the most significant dangers from a food safety standpoint."

Groceries discourage Dumpster diving, mostly for liability reasons. Jan Christensen, the manager of the Kowalski's grocery store on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, says the meat department pours bleach on its waste products to discourage people from eating them. "Usually if we see someone, we would just confront them and say, 'Excuse us, this is not for human consumption and we don't want people getting sick,'" Christensen says. "We try to educate them on the hazards health-wise."

If all goes according to plan, this summer the roommates will become less dependent on Dumpsters for sustenance. Pending the city's approval and 75 signatures of their neighbors, they will be permitted to house chickens in their backyard, slashing one of their four major expenses: eggs. They plan to build the coop with wooden planks they claimed after a dance studio stripped its floors. They also hope to start a vegetable garden that could provide them with their much-coveted onions.

Adamji and Ehrmann graduate this month, but they're not busy preparing their résumés. In fact, they hope to never join the cubicle-dwelling workforce.

"There shouldn't be a line between work, play, and putting food on the table," Ehrmann muses. "If you're living cheaply, you don't need a job."

Standing in his kitchen after returning from another trip to the Dumpster, Ehrmann unpacks two slightly indented eggplants, a yellow squash, three loaves of bread, two pastries, four green peppers, nine packages of soggy oregano, two bruised cantaloupes, a handful of loose grapes, and a carton's worth of strawberries. The load would probably cost about $70 if purchased off the shelves.

Ehrmann reaches into the box and scrapes a strawberry off the bottom. He doesn't bother rinsing it, just pops it into his mouth. "Tastes just like springtime," he declares.