Best way to recycle your menu

Dumpster dining, gleaning and urban fruit picking take leftovers to the next level


Would you eat a lip-smackingly delectable spread of roasted vegetables, artisan bread and cheese, grilled sausages and vanilla-bean ice cream? Of course, but would you enjoy the meal if its ingredients were scavenged from a trash can, a no-cost prix fixe repast of garbage leftovers?

For most, the answer is a resounding “Gross!” But the way the economy’s going (that’s south, for you Granite Bay-ers), Dumpster dining may become the new coupon clipping.

Food’s cost is getting steep. The price of oil is up, so imported foods—and even domestically produced bread, eggs and milk—cost more than ever. Milk prices have skyrocketed since 2001, pushing $5 a gallon, more than double the millennial price tag. Meanwhile, Americans continue to throw away more usable food than all other nations combined. According to Food and Drug Administration data, nearly one-third of the U.S. food supply never makes it to American mouths—hundreds of billions of pounds of food wasted each year.

Many have been eating America’s trash for years, filling their bellies with perfectly edible and often delicious “garbage.” The sight of freegans—those who boycott the profligate food economy by salvaging wasted grub as a political statement—rummaging through trash has become more common.

How reasonable is it to actually find free food in Sacramento’s trash? Can you recycle three square meals a day? To answer that question, I embraced waste and dove headfirst—literally—into a Midtown Dumpster to see what’s for dinner.

There are rules and tips for Dumpster dining, er, diving. First of all, it’s illegal, so SN&R totally and absolutely does not endorse picking through trash. On the plus side, you don’t need coupons, a Costco membership or even a grocery cart. The proper attire for Dumpster descent is gloves, jeans and boots—galoshes or fishing boots.

I wore Chuck Taylors, which was a mistake, and I’ll probably never sport them again. You want to remain inconspicuous. (Remember, it’s illegal.) A pole or broomstick is useful for poking around. I recommend remaining perched along the perimeter of the bin’s interior rather than trouncing about. You never know what you might encounter.

In two words: Be smart.

One diver, whom I met in a downtown alley between J and K streets, introduced himself as Dan. He says he doesn’t have to beg for food or cash, and lives off found food and recycling money. Dan explained that he sleeps during the day and hits up trash bins in the late evening and early morning to get first dibs.

Most Midtown Dumpsters are locked or indoors, like at the Safeway near the R Street Corridor. Downtown trash bins in and around Dan’s turf often are picked over by sunrise and usually don’t hold a lot of eats anyway. The Dumpster divers I watched started early in the day, before sunrise, and most were toting recyclables—aluminum, plastic, glass. If they found edibles, it was a bonus.

But if you’ve got a family to feed, or need to catch a week’s worth of food in a day’s worth of diving, a few scattered edibles aren’t gonna cut it. If that’s your situation, venturing outside the grid will lead to a cornucopia of wasted goodies. Strip malls are topographical eyesores, but veritable freegan meccas. A mall full of chain stores on Folsom Boulevard, east of downtown, is like the Chez Panisse of Sacramento Dumpsters.

I started scavenging there around 6:15 a.m. on a Sunday. The first stop, Save Mart Supermarket, had two bins for foraging, and the treasures were many. Produce was the main find: two plastic cartons of mini yellow bell peppers, a cardboard box full of green onions and tomatoes, and probably 10 pounds of seedless green grapes. None of the fruits and vegetables were rotten, bruised or vaguely tainted, and the grapes were still wrapped in plastic bags. I nibbled on a few inside the Dumpster.

Save Mart’s garbage proved bountiful, so I continued down Rubbish Row to further explore the mall’s offerings. Blockbuster was a bust, though I did nab a copy of the 3:10 to Yuma remake, and there was a ton of cardboard for reuse. A guy at the nearby recycling station later informed me that you can get hundreds in cash for a flatbed truck full of cardboard.

Baskin-Robbins’ trash held a few multigallon bins of various 31-flavor offerings, but everything was melted. B.R. closes at 10 p.m., and I returned later in the week around midnight in hopes of unearthing frozen goodness, but there was no ice cream to be had.

Summertime in Sacramento is pretty awful for Dumpster dining. Trash bakes like a stew all day long in the 100-degree heat, so unless you’ve scouted locations and pinpointed employee trash-drop times, the food sours and is too repugnant. On the flip side, gleaning—collecting leftover crops and farm yields—thrives during the summer, even here in our urban cityscape. There are 10 farmers’ markets in Sacramento County, and at the end of the day, growers pack their tents and leave a fridge-full of produce behind.

On a recent Sunday morning underneath the freeway near Eighth and W streets, local farmers stocked their vans with unsold produce and swept up leftover goods, but even after a cleaning there still was plenty to glean. This particular market ends at noon, and by 1:30 p.m. I’d found yellow beans, green bell peppers, apples, corn, grapes and tomatoes—enough to last a week.

If you don’t mind spending a few bucks, deals were everywhere at the close of the market. One particular vendor was practically giving his yield away, selling 5-plus-pound boxes of apples, pears and plums for a mere $5. Of course, a true freegan or gleaner would never throw down cash for eats. Instead, a gleaner would visit the Davis Wiki site and search “fruit trees,” which brings up a Google map of peach, plum and orange trees that are free for the picking.

Ultimately, looking for leftovers is a lifestyle. If you need food on your plate, binning and alley surfing as a weekend warrior won’t cut it. Freegans must be vigilant, like scavenger samurais constantly on the lookout for wasted wares and rations in unexpected places. Last week, I came across a $200 Panasonic microwave in the trash at the upscale MARRS complex in Midtown. Before that, I uncovered cans of tuna in the bins of a local specialty grocer.

If you can’t coax yourself into searching the city’s trash or hijacking the region’s orchards, there are easier, legal means of winning the occasional free meal. One of the best ways to garner a snack on the house is by donating blood at BloodSource. It takes less than 10 minutes, and when it’s over there’s a horseshoe-shaped snack bar offering a smorgasbord of sugar-enriched treats and beverages. Best of all, the volunteers want you to eat. “Can I get you a refill?” Of course. “Would you like another bear claw?” Hell, yes!

I didn’t have a chance to check out BloodSource’s Dumpsters, but there’s a bakery around the corner. Why not take the plunge?