These unassuming veggies were plucked from a dumpster and fashioned into latke-inspired potato fritters.
One night in early spring, my friends and I went out to pick up some groceries in northwest D.C. But when we got to the store, we didn't go in the front door; instead, we went out back and crawled into the store's dumpster. And here's my secret: I cooked up what I found and fed it to some friends in Petworth — only I didn't tell them the food had been trashed.
My cooking experiment was prompted by a troubling trend: roughly one third of the food we produce every year — about 1.3 billion tons globally — rots or is wasted, according to the U.N. Environment Programme. And every year in developed nations including the United States, we waste almost as much food as is produced in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Food waste occurs all along the supply chain, not just with leftovers forgotten in the fridge, but even at grocery stores and restaurants that regularly throw perfectly good food out to keep their stocks fresh.
The trip up to the grocery store in northwest was my first time dumpster diving, but I was learning from the pros. The two friends who took me are regulars at the dumpster, and they showed me how to inspect what was inside and identify what is, in fact, fine to eat. (Hint: there's probably more of it than you would think).
The dumpster was one of those rectangular behemoths that opens to the side. There were no rats and no flies. It didn't even smell bad; the pleasant scent of discarded coffee grounds overpowered everything else. Because the dumpster is behind a grocery store, the food's generally in good shape — not the picked-through trimmings that get thrown out after a family dinner — and it's in closed bags with other edibles, not with cleaning supplies or bathroom waste. Plus, this kind of dumpster gets emptied frequently, so there's little time for critters to get friendly with what's inside.
After just 20 minutes, we made off with buckets full of spinach, oranges, lettuce, and bok choy, plus mushy strawberries for their chickens. I grabbed some potatoes and jalapenos. We left the alfalfa sprouts and cheddar cheese behind.
Then, I cooked up my bounty and brought it to a potluck, in the form of potato fritters. In part, I wanted to know if people could tell the difference between food and trash. I wondered if they, too, might become dumpster divers in a bid to avoid food waste. And I knew that the only way to gauge raw reactions was to not tell them about what they were eating, until I had a mic pointed in their faces.
Not surprisingly, I got mixed reactions. One man was enthusiastic, citing his grandparents' survival of the Holocaust as inspiration for a life-long crusade against wasting food. Others were indignant. The most common questions were about how I prepared the veggies and where they came from. I learned a lot about the concerns: "How do you know the expiration date is the only reason these were thrown away?" The misconceptions: "Were you just poking around in an alley? Were these half eaten?" And the expectations about what we eat: "That kind of food doesn't belong here. Put a label on it."
For me, it was a fun exercise. But I can't say I blame those who were uncomfortable with how I did it.
Would I go dumpster diving again? Definitely. Would I feed garbage to friends again without telling them? Probably not. But wherever you stand on recycling food, let me tell you a secret: home-cooked garbage tastes great.
[Music: "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House" by Cab Calloway from Hi De Ho Man]