Adventures of an Urban Scavenger: How to Survive Without Paying for Food in the Twin Cities
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.
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.
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
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.
My nose crinkles and my stomach turns. We revisit the grocery store after an hour of retching and sneak into the dumpster area, in full view of apathetic pizza shop employees. I scavenge maybe 20 bouquets of fresh flowers, but food is limited to a can of black olives and an open container of cinnamon roll dough.
Though our first night's bounty is small and unimpressive, we're learning valuable lessons. Bakery dumpsters can be gross and difficult to sort through if they consolidate their trash. Check with dumpster-diving enthusiasts before trusting new spots, since certain establishments pour chemicals on discarded food. Don't go out before midnight unless you're looking to be caught waist-deep in a dumpster by employees. Always retie garbage bags after going through them. Never rip open bags to access the treasures, or the establishment will lock their dumpster and fellow divers will hate you.
I develop two dumpster routes involving the same few stores I know I can rely on — one route in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul. The St. Paul route starts with a compactor behind a small grocery store. On Wednesdays, it is generally filled to the brim. On Thursdays, it is empty. On Wednesdays, I hop the fence and prance around atop overflowing bags of garbage. On Thursdays, I lower myself seven feet down, sifting through unwrapped produce that rolls back and forth on the dumpster floor.
I quickly graduate from compactors outside grocery stores to any sort of trash cans I come across. I am quick to snag food off the ground. On one particularly lucky day, I find a styrofoam to-go container on top of a City Pages box. In the past, it would have blended into the landscape, as trash is prone to do in the city. But today I snatch up the styrofoam, sit on the ground near the Lyn-Lake bus stop, and tear into the three slices of chicken quesadillas inside the container. The guacamole is black; the cheese is warm and rubbery from the sun. I swallow each triangle in two bites. Afterward, I sit with my friend as he eats his brunch, pitying him for spending $12 of his hard-earned money on food.
On the wild side
Food is all around us. All it takes to eat for free is a keen eye, patience, and the willingness to get a little dirty. Foraging isn't a viable option in Minnesota year-round, thanks to our annual arctic tundra makeover, but the spring, summer, and fall months are rich with possibilities. On a boring Sunday afternoon, I ride my bike through the woods near Minnehaha Falls and channel the foraging skills I picked up from a woodsman ex-boyfriend in my late teens.
Dandelions are always an easy score. They're bitter as hell, but they're abundant and I feel like I'm doing homeowners a favor by weeding their yards. Every part of the dandelion can be eaten, from the flower to the stem to the root. The root can be used to make dandelion coffee, which is technically an herbal tea bearing an almost identical resemblance to the real deal.
Despite its bad rep, stinging nettle is my personal preference. This loathsome flowering plant will leave you pulsating with pain if you're not careful. The trick to harvesting nettles without being stung is to pick the leaves from above. Pinching the top of the leaf and swishing it back and forth essentially deactivates the stingers. I take my time harvesting nettles, understanding that a half-hour or so of discomfort is well worth it. Nettles are like spinach's badass, better-tasting brother. I harvest a plastic grocery bag full, rinse them off, mix them with my dandelions, and saute the two foraged plants with an open container of dumpstered tofu I found outside a co-op.
Before starting the free-food experiment, I decided not to rely on food shelves or soup kitchens for sustenance. But a number of free meals straddle the line between charity and community-building. The Waite House in south Minneapolis serves lunch daily at its Community Cafe from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. One of the objectives is to teach youth to work in the service industry. A trained chef is in charge of the menu, which means everything served is typically top-notch. When I visit, the menu features enchiladas, corn muffins, cinnamon cake with purple frosting, and coffee. Tables are positioned family-style, encouraging attendees to get to know one another.
If you have internet access and a printer, an additional slew of free food options awaits you. Restaurants often encourage customers to join their fan clubs with coupons for free entrees, appetizers, and desserts. Within 30 minutes of starting my search, I amass enough coupons — for a Taco John's breakfast burrito, White Castle sliders, and a TGIFriday's appetizer — to get me through several days.
Samples, especially those offered at more upscale stores, are a great way to supplement a freegan diet, so long as you have a thick enough skin. On one trip, a woman with no apparent affiliation to the store taps me on the shoulder and sneers.
"Excuse me, miss. Are you actually going to buy anything? Or are you just going to walk around eating samples?"
I choke on the pepper jam I'm in the middle of swallowing and stare back at her, dumbfounded, before scurrying out of the store empty-handed.
I wasn't doing anything wrong. If people weren't supposed to take samples, stores wouldn't offer them. But disdain, mostly from strangers, is pretty common. I learn to get over it.
Freegan prom queen
My 16-year-old cousin asks me to her high school prom. There are 50 people in her graduating class and I have a few too many tattoos and battle wounds to be a convincing teenager. No matter: There will be food.
The star of my evening is a buffet-style spread of Italian foods on a chaperone-surrounded table. I move slowly and with great precision, not because I am forbidden from taking the food, but because I am afraid of being noticed in my voracious, take-as-much-as-humanly-possible state. In the end, I throw caution to the wind and pile my plate high with fettuccine alfredo, chicken caesar salad, garlic bread, and cake. As I make my way back to the tables, I realize I'm not as stealthy as I thought. Kids from all corners are sizing me up. Was I a parent? A sister?
Any big gathering is likely to involve food. Summer options are the most plentiful, with high school graduations, picnics, and barbecues. Winter is prime time for potlucks and Christmas parties. Spring is the season of not-quite-warm-enough outdoor picnics. Fall brings Thanksgiving and Halloween, and if you're freegan, it's totally permissible to dress up like WWE's Rowdy Roddy Piper and go trick-or-treating.
I plop my plate down next to a pair of scantily clad girls with Oompa Loompa spray tans. Within seconds, they are gone. After wolfing down my own food, I grab their abandoned plates, sigh, and set to work.
"You gonna finish that?"
At World Street Kitchen on a Tuesday night, my friend Patrick orders a barbecue pork sandwich and sets his tray across from me. I order nothing. When his food arrives, I mimic his every bite. If he opens his mouth, I open mine. When he chews, I chew the air, hoping I can taste his sandwich vicariously. Admittedly, I look ridiculous. I don't care.
I pray for bits of meat to drop from his sandwich. When they fall on the paper, I consider it fair game. When a bit of pork dangles from the edge of the crusted bread, my mouth fills with saliva. I lean in closer.
Come on, baby. You can do it.
The tender flesh finally falls and I lunge. I grab and swallow in one fell swoop. No chewing is involved.
Mooching is tricky. I quickly learn that watching people eat while gulping down ice water makes them uneasy. My looks of longing piss people off. From my own experience with annoying moochers, I know asking for "a little nibble" before someone has taken their first bite is an easy way to lose all access to someone's charity. I find it best to let people eat in peace. Once they settle into their food and start to groan and push the plate away, that is when I ask for a bite or offer to save their precious discards from the trash. If they decide to take it home as leftovers, I don't get offended — they paid for it, after all.
I hit a low point when I try to eat a dead squirrel. I come close, too. A few minutes after my friend Patrick and I part ways on the West Bank, he texts me a picture of a dead squirrel with the words, "I made a new friend."
"Where is it?" I ask.
"Don't eat that dead squirrel," he texts back.
We go back and forth for a while until he finally caves — the dead squirrel is on the first floor of a parking garage. Another friend and I drive over with two plastic Target bags. She stays in the car whimpering as I scurry over to where the squirrel lies. I suddenly realize that the prospect of scooping up a dead animal terrifies me and throw the bag over the squirrel's body so it fully encloses the corpse. I grab the handles, and sprint from the garage with the bag in tow. "Wait, you're gonna eat this thing?" my boyfriend asks after pulling into the driveway.
"I mean, yeah, that's the goal," I say, snapping on my yellow rubber gloves.
We grab Ikea knives from the kitchen, and head outside to work.
"Cut right here," he says. The knife isn't going through. We try another one. Another one. We stab it repeatedly in the belly, trying to catch the knife on a bit of flesh to begin carving. None of the knives cut the creature open.
Frustrated, I raise the butcher knife above my head, so the sun glints on its dull metal blade. I bring the knife down, stopping just short of the squirrel's neck.
"This is bullshit and I look like an insane person," I say, lifting the squirrel with the knife and chucking it in the grass near my neighbor's yard.
As I submit to a dinner of boxed mac and cheese from a friend, reality hits me. I had gone out of my way to retrieve a bloated, dead squirrel from a parking garage. I had tried to cut it open. I had every intention of consuming its questionable flesh. Hunger had finally gotten the best of me.
When the free food experiment ends, I don't know what to do with myself. I freeze at checkout counters. It takes me 30 minutes to order off a menu for the first time. When I visit the grocery store, I have an outburst over prices and can't buy anything more than eggs, milk, and coffee. All I want is to sit on my kitchen floor, cradling my dumpstered mangoes while digging through my own trash.
Days later, I revisit one of my favorite dumpsters like a widow at her husband's grave. I lean into the compactor and poke at the familiar bags of discarded citrus on the metal floor. I know the black bag to the right contains cinnamon twists. I think of their scent, of their curves, of the coffee grounds stuck to their sides.
"I can't quit you," I whisper.
I'm full of hamburger and French fries, full of disdain for high food prices and low food standards, and full of love for trash and roadkill. A song rises from the depths of my stomach.
"I know I'll get through this, 'cause I know that I am strong. I don't need you anymore! Oh, I don't need you anymore!"
I am serenading a dumpster with Cher in broad daylight. It is time to go to the grocery store.
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