By Ada Kulesza
The target is Trader Joe's, squatting and lit up, surrounded by a dark, empty parking lot in a ritzy shopping center in a ritzy suburb. "Damn," says John, leaning over the dash on the passenger side of the car, which is painted in Aboriginal patterns, covered with driftwood, and strung with strings of little shells. "I think they're still in there," he says as his girlfriend, Samantha, swings into the parking lot behind the store.
She creeps to the back, where no one in the store can see us. There is nothing there. She curses under her breath. "Usually they just leave a cart filled with plastic bags out here," she says. They decide to check the dumpsters beyond the parking lots, but the plastic bags are filled with napkins and the little cups Trader Joe's customers use to sample coffee. No food.
For being shadows in the night, the couple are nonchalant. They don't even whisper, or look over their shoulders in trepidation. They kind of stroll across the lot from the dumpsters to the car chatting, as if they were in a mall.
But their goal is not to window shop. They are at Trader Joe's to scavange the food the store throws out. To do that, they dumpster dive on a weekly basis. It's not because they are starving -- John and Samantha work, kind of, albeit under the table. Call it, instead, a highly individualized (and nutritional) political statement, a way to protest America's food oligopoly and the culture of consumption and waste.
This Philadelphia couple isn't unique. Dumpster diving for food is practically a rite of passage for politically aware college students. There's even a name for those who practice it: "Freegans." The couple go a step further toward the fringe. They are Rainbow People -- a part utopian, part bohemian, part hipster movement with informal branches scattered throughout the country, who gather together in the woods to dance and camp en masse without electricity, motors, or modern toilets.
It takes street smarts and a little luck to return home from a midnight dumpster dive with free food to stock the fridge, especially from Trader Joe's. "It's sweet to get organic foods, for free," Samantha says.
She grew up 10 minutes from here, and it's a wealthy neighborhood. At some time in her life, she decided to become what she calls a "gypsy." She and John, who are both 28, work as artists and freelance circus performers for parties and festivals. "She'll do the face painting. I'll be on stilts, juggling or fire dancing," John says. But they don't do balloon animals. "We try not to use plastic," Samantha says. "They're so wasteful."
They travel in Samantha's station wagon, digging in dumpsters sometimes along the way. They've come to settle in a rowhouse off Gray's Ferry Ave. in Southwest Philly, trying to keep their comparatively low rent their biggest expense. They're builders, too, scavenging construction materials and furniture from dumps and curbs and turning them into found-chic art in their narrow living room.
Generally, they want to opt out of the corporate system. "Besides dumpster diving, we get some stuff from the store, but we want to start growing food, eventually just buying our coffee and soy
milk," Samantha says.
She drives past the Trader Joe's slowly, and grabs John's arm. "Look! It's in there!" There's a red cart in the store vestibule, piled high with white plastic bags. "Do you think they're locking it in there for the night?" They were nearly caught last week by a manager.
"They're still in there, stocking," he says. "They were here this late last week, too." It's half past midnight. "They'll probably take it out when they lock up. Let's try Whole Foods and come back."
"It's nice they're right next to each other, because if one fails the other provides," Samantha says, turning the steering wheel.
The dumpsters behind Whole Foods have better vantage for any potential police patrols, but the pair aren't very concerned. The two dumpsters are against a wall, with enough space between them to create convenient shadows to slip into. Donning headlamps, we dig through the trash bags.
"At Trader Joe's the food's waiting for you. This one's always a little gross," Samantha says, as a slimy mango falls out of my hands. I gingerly lift the corner of a bag as she digs away at the fluffy, crunchy-sounding tangle. By the time I've fished out a couple of vacuum-sealed pouches of organic curried pumpkin soup, John has climbed into the dumpster. I stay in the car as they go out for another round.
With the trunk half-filled, Samantha drives to Starbucks; it's usually good for day-old pastries, but not today; the bags in the dumpster are filled with paper cups and napkins.
The employee comes back to the store, then re-emerges with two more carts filled with white bags.
"Oh my God! Three carts?" Samantha exclaims.
John laughs. "Whoa, this is the mother lode."
"Trader Joe's doesn't use scales for produce," Samantha says. "It's all wrapped in packages. If one thing is bad, they'll throw the whole package out. We've often found things that are just inexplicable to throw out."
More than they can eat themselves. When the dumpster harvest is good, the couple winds up with a surplus they can't handle, so they give it away.
"When Occupy Philly was around it was ideal. We'd donate what we couldn't eat. On the first day of Occupy, they were getting donations together; we showed up with giant bags of bread," John says.
"Usually food's grouped together, so when they throw out the food it's grouped by department. I've never gotten sick," he continues. "Meat's the only thing you'd need to worry about."
"When we get meat, we leave it to the neighborhood feral cats," Samantha says. "We freeze a lot of the fruit and make smoothies. It's always nice to have a fridge full of food to feed people who come over. It feels good to be able to feed people wherever we go without worrying about money."
"We're not buying into the system of buying petroleum-shipped food from Mexico or Guatemala or wherever. We're taking things out of landfills," Samantha says. They compost anything they don't eat.
Waiting for the Trader Joe's employees to leave, we make fun of the shopping center - a spectral fraud of a village. Then around 1 a.m Samantha squeals, "They're leaving."
"Should we duck down when they drive by?" John asks.
"Nah, the windows are foggy, so they can't see us," Samantha says. As the headlights swing by, we duck anyway.
Two more cars pass, and they poke their heads up. The store is dark. Samantha gives a hoot and guns the engine.
The carts aren't there. "They must have caught on to us," John murmurs.
But, he decides to check a tall dumpster at the end of the lot, surrounded by a wooden fence. Inside a ramp leads up to a platform, where we stand for a second and peer in into the dark dumpster. The plastic bags are nestled inside, containing a cornucopia of discarded food. We hustle out with the bags and put them in the station wagon.
At their house we unload the bounty, and take a tally. This is what we scavenged from the dumpsters, free of charge:
One trash bag we reject, because it's full of limes and apples contaminated with ammonia
30 loose apples
Eight two-pound bags of apples
20 Clementines; 15 tangerines; two grapefruits; 15 lemons
Six mangoes; one pomegranate
Two boxes of mozzarella cheese; two packages of cream cheese
One package of pesto; one roll of cinnamon buns
One package of Swiss chocolate
One package of dried spaghetti
One jar of apple pie filling
One head of lettuce; 14 bags of washed iceberg lettuce
One package of Portobello mushrooms
Four deli packs of cheese; three packs of yogurt
Two bags of organic curried pumpkin soup; one box of winter squash
One pack of cheddar cheese snack sticks
Eight potatoes; two packs of pre-cut party-style celery and carrot sticks
One bag of flour
One package of kitchen cloth
Two heads of broccoli; two packages of dried dates; one papaya
Six beets; five brown eggs; one package of beans
One can of tomato sauce
One carton of chicken broth
Two cans of salmon, caught in the wild, only to be thrown away.
Photos: Web and file art