I Eat from UWS Dumpsters and So Should You

Found food abounds on the Upper West Side.

By Frugal Frannie

Now before you turn away in disgust or dismiss me as looney tunes, take a look at some of what I’ve recently pulled from Upper West Side grocery garbage bins…

Fancy chocolate, truffled popcorn, brown rice, anyone?

Insist on organics? No problem.

Why would I – a professional earning a decent income, a co-op dweller, a healthy-diet-focused vegetarian – deign to dine a la dumpster?

I hate waste. Wasted money. Wasted time. Wasted resources. Wasted potential. And the American food system is replete with waste.

According to the Save the Food campaign by the Ad Council and NDRC, 40 percent of all food in America is wasted. It’s not just the apples and bagels that get thrown into landfills. Consider all the water, fuel and labor that went into getting that food grown, processed and shipped. Poof! Gone! Wasted!

Juicing oranges made for a very nice mocktail.

Why don’t stores donate the goods to food pantries?

Some do. But if you’ve volunteered at a pantry, you know how much work and time it takes to get donations into hungry people’s hands. Stores have to box up excess goods and store them somewhere for pick up. In space-starved Manhattan, that might make sense for non-perishables like canned goods. But for fresh produce? Where are they going to stash it?

Inventory churn is one reason for the enormous amount of discarded food. If the store has 300 pounds of tomatoes coming in twice a week, and 50 pounds from last week remain unsold, they’ve got to make room for the new by tossing the old.

Plus, we consumers often demand perfection in our purchases. Slightly bruised bananas? Baguettes baked 12 hours ago? They aren’t going in our baskets, so they’re headed for the trash.

Could stores dedicate a corner to steeply discounted produce and day-old baked goods? Sure. But many don’t. Because then you might see the folly of paying $4 for a tub of organic lettuce that’s now $1 and still good. They’d rather throw it away.

Could grocery employees take the food home? I would hope so, but I don’t know if there are actual mechanisms that facilitate that sharing.

Protein shake mix that retails for $30 apiece.

So, rather than shake my fists in frustration, I periodically do my minuscule part to reduce the waste stream by plucking nice items from the bins.

I don’t do it every day. I still buy the majority of my fresh food. But I keep a bag in my pocket. If a wonderful item or nine is sitting right there for the taking, don’t mind if I do.

It’s perfectly legal.

Before writing this column, I reconfirmed that fact with NYPD officers in the 20th and 24th Precincts. As long as the food is in a public space (not a private loading dock) and clearly discarded as waste, you are allowed to reclaim it for your fridge.

Just follow the NYC Freegans’ number one rule: Be neat. If you open bags or move boxes around, restore the area to its original (or better) tidiness before leaving.

Cart full of discarded fruit likely headed for the trash.

I’m a picky picker, only grabbing items in plain view that are not mashed in with other garbage. If I were more militant and devoted, I’m quite sure I could meet all my nutritional needs through waste reclamation alone.

Because once you start looking, you discover an outrageous quantity of food lying about these UWS streets. Most days, I can’t even carry everything I find and might eat. This past weekend alone, I left behind boxes of kiwis, cartons of strawberries, bags of bread. I don’t have room to store nor consume it all either.

And that’s just the grocery store cast-offs.

If you want to level-up your treasure hunting, try opening up the black garbage bags tossed out in front of drug stores, bakeries, bodegas, quick-service restaurants, etc. Inside you may find another bounty: that day’s pre-made, unsold [and plastic wrapped] sandwiches, artisanal breads, fruit cups, desserts and dented cartons containing all kinds of products – everything from hair curlers to party hats.

Some may worry about getting sick from eating surplus food. I don’t. The “expiration” dates on bagged produce are often “best by” dates indicating peak freshness. My nose and common sense are my guides; I inspect and wash all produce before consuming. And, when you think about it, what’s the real filth difference between an avocado sitting on an open-air shelf amid traffic fumes and one 25 feet away perched on top of a discards crate?

Fun to turn this bounty into…

This roasted melange of goodness.

Ultimately you may not wish to join me in this small act against the tsunami of waste. That’s fine.

All I ask is that you see food reclamation as another choice worth considering in this land of plenty.

COLUMNS, FOOD | 58 comments | permalink
    1. hungry says:

      Food waste is one of the biggest crimes we commit as a civilized society. Americans should be ashamed of this! We are clearly more concerned with people getting “harassed” (in various ways) than we are with providing a BASIC HUMAN REQUIREMENT to all for survival. Human beings are gross.

    2. FreshPrince says:

      Please don`t invite me for dinner.

    3. Susan C says:

      Sounds great. Except for when I think about all the rats, mice and roaches that crawled over that stuff and left waste on it while it was sitting in the garbage. So no thanks on the dumpster diving.

      I do agree that the waste is a problem. With people going hungry in our city every day, there is no excuse for this. Trader Joe’s manages to donate their excess food. Perhaps this is something our mayor can work on implementing citywide. Maybe a joint effort by the city and charitable organizations can make it work and get the food to the people who need it.

      • Terri says:

        Haha, they do this in the store too–I’ve seen video. And since most produce is grown outside, it stands to reason that something could have crawled on it anyway.

    4. katherine says:

      This is great!!! Good for you!

    5. Allison says:

      The waste in this country is horrendous. Good for this guy!

    6. Reynold says:

      Her logic is impeccable. Her moral stand is unassailable. The waste is grotesque. Posts like this can and do change the conversation and ultimately the culture. Hats off to Frugal Frannie!

    7. Larry K says:

      Great heads up. Thank you. Not to punish any stores that are throwing away good food but it would help to identify where you’ve gotten your “plunder”. I believe there are food banks that would like to pick up the food to recycle it to people in need.

    8. Doug Garr says:

      So when is Frugal Frannie going to fill us in on which UWS restaurants toss the best gourmet food?

    9. Martha Louise says:

      Amazing, incredible and thank you for sharing all of this information and your thoughts. We, as a society, really do need to keep trying to do better, always and in all ways…

    10. Gillian Rosenfeld says:

      This is an admirable attempt to draw our attention to how much good food is wasted. I’m concerned about all the prepared foods for sale and what happens to that if not sold. Thanks, Frugal Frankie

    11. Cynthia Brownell says:

      The social security was increased but unfortunately at same time that left many in a slightly higher income bracket so the rent increase kicks in and also a decrease in food stamps. Its a shell game to be sure. The food should be delivered to pantrys for distribution! The prices at the supermarket are extremely high. Eggs 4-7.99. Loaf of bread 4.69. Tuna salad 9.99 lb etc, etc. Walk into any supermarket on the upper east side and you’re in for food sticker shock. Snap runs out after one shopping trip. I encourage shop owners to offer unwanted foofstuff at a reduced price to the poor shoppers

    12. Jan says:

      Just exactly where r these dumpsters?
      I’d go for a box of kiwis anytime
      The one and only time I dived I netted
      several thousand in signed original art!
      True. Go figure. A one time phenomena
      But still…….

      • Frugal Frannie says:

        If a store doesn’t compact its waste before putting it out for trash pickup, you can find discarded food outside many groceries, bodegas, bakeries, etc.

        Sometimes it is in plain sight in milk crates, boxes or dumpsters often near loading dock areas. Other times the food is in black garbage bags that must be opened to find it.

        Rather than call out particular retailers, I wanted to raise awareness of the issue and encourage people to ask their favorite stores about their waste policies, seek out ways to reduce food waste and find opportunities to share excess food with others.

        Next time you see a clerk pulling old stock off shelves and tossing it into a box/cart/bag, ask where that food goes.

        Thanks for reading.

    13. Burtnor says:

      Wow. Good for you. Not sure I have the time or inclination to shop in garbage bins, but I am appalled at the waste. This is the UWS; surely there is a way to redirect food about to be discarded to people who need it. Maybe the West Side Campaign Against Hunger could help design a system to receive donations of fresh undamaged items and distribute them.

    14. Sue Llewellyn says:

      As the French might put it: “Chacun à son goût” and in this case, “Sauve qui peut”! As another UWS professional–though a renter and not a vegetarian*–my comments are: “Give us a break, willya” and “Lady, get a life!”
      *I happen to be an editor, so I was struck by the “deign to dine” above. The word “deign”–check your Webster’s!–connotes condescension by a superior to an inferior. Hardly the best way to share one’s “exalted” wisdom, is it?!

      • Alex says:

        Careful, editor. The author uses “deign” perfectly: it implies acting beneath one’s (perceived) status. That seems a good description for a salaried person dumpster-diving.
        It is, instead, condescending for you to call someone out for her usage, by brandishing the empty moniker of “editor.” Comments that focus on the minutia of a post like this, not the content, are the most impotent.

      • Alita says:

        Maybe you should look up “pedantic”.

        • Ye Olde Englishe Teachere says:

          Re: “Maybe you should look up “pedantic”.”

          VERY CLEVER…sharp & succinct.

          Then again, congrats to BOTH !

    15. J says:

      God I love this neighborhood

    16. Barbara McCarthy says:

      Please, spare the dramatics. You are not diving into dumpsters that are crawling with rats, used diapers, half-eaten food and god-knows-what. You are looking for food that is fairly close to perfect,in relatively clean bags or containers.
      Go hand out some of your food to the homeless but again, can the drama, because what good points you did make have fallen to the bottom of the bin. And if you do give to the homeless- great, but please don’t brag about it. The best good deeds are the ones not spoken.

      • Dave says:

        Yes where are these dumpsters?

        • Rosalind Martin says:

          i use my UES spots. So do my friends. Esp. breads.😈
          you hafta know WHAT TIMES to prowl.😝🍕

        • B.B. says:

          This is not new, has been going on for some time now and is growing. So much so many streets of Manhattan after dark look like something out of Charles Dicken’s novel. That or Paris during the Prussian invasion.

          Hordes of persons rummaging though all manner and sorts of dumpsters, garbage bags, etc… Just walk up any avenue or street with a supermarket, food store, shop or whatever and you’ll find persons lurking about competing with vermin for the best morsels.

          Aside from the destitute you have these “freegans”. Able bodied and healthy persons who tell themselves they are fighting some sort of cause by “liberating” food sent to dumpsters.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJmCUSb-ZVo

          You probably do not notice, but if you paid careful attention it is obvious many rubbish bags in front of Starbucks, supermarkets and anyplace else that sells food or whatever have been interfered with. Bags are opened, contents scattered, that and or bags have large holes torn open.

      • why would you say that? says:

        Are you really that miserable that you must criticize this woman who’s done nothing to you, and who (in her own way) is helping to solve a pressing world problem? Seriously, this cruelty is misguided.

      • geoff says:

        yours is one of the strangest, maybe most fearful complaints i have ever read.

      • Alita says:

        With all the real problems in the world, you’re complaining about someone advocating for less hunger and more awareness?
        I’m pretty sure your time can be better spent complaining elsewhere.

      • Claire says:

        Sounds like someone put a used diaper in your cereal this morning

    17. Good insecurity affects one in four families in America!
      In the wealthiest nation on earth, that is nothing less than a social sin!

    18. Karen Korman says:

      That was awesome – thank you so much for sharing an optional way of life – let’s hope for personkind it doesn’t become a necessary way of life in our not too distant future – imagine someday standing in line for your turn at the dumpster
      – it could happen

    19. say moi says:

      From my observation of the kinds of things low income people tend to prefer to eat, it ain’t veggies and fruit unfortunately! I live near Western Beef and I’m always horrified to see the massive amount of really bad things people have been persuaded to get stuck into. Nothing healthy. Take a lettuce to the checkout counter and they don’t even know what it is!

    20. Intentional Ina says:

      I love this.
      Snotty commenters be damned.

    21. Jellenk says:

      Brava, Frugal Frannie…..This is so important….you should see what they throw out at our local food pantry. I am with you..I’d come over for dinner anytime!

    22. Jen says:

      It is not about being frugal. It is about waste as the author pointed out. Waste of the food and waste of all energy and labor associates with growing and delivering it. I may not want to get the food from the dumpster, but am constantly disgusted by the amour of perfectly good food thrown out. Both by the stores and households. I wish people didn’t buy too much that they would have to throw food out. As far as the stores and the restaurants are concerned – why can’t they donate to shelters?

    23. Beverly says:

      Frannie,
      Can you please share some details on locations and best times/days to shop from these bins? I’ve never seen what you are describing and would greatly appreciate your sharing more info.

      • Frugal Frannie says:

        Thanks for reading, Beverly. Please see what I replied to Jan at #12. Additionally…

        If I were to name particular stores, they might do even more to hide or ruin discarded food e.g. mix it with rancid trash, pour bleach on it.

        Instead, I encourage you to walk the entire perimeter of every grocery store you frequent –exterior and interior. You may spot where the food goes. And, as always, you can ask the staff, “What happens to the old produce that gets pulled? Is there a place I can pick up some leftovers before they go in the trash?”

        I find edible produce at all times of day. Baked goods tend to show up toward end of the day. Most commercial trash haulers do their pickups after dark.

        Have a look at the Freegans web site linked to in the story. They have lots of info on how to do your own “trash tour” of a neighborhood.

        As I said, I do this periodically. Spending just a few minutes looking into bins as I go about my daily routine. You never know what you’ll find…

        • rosalind m. martin says:

          Yup. avoid being obvious.
          But this article MAY cause exactly that damage. Thanks. There goes my neighborhood😈

    24. Mark says:

      Check out The Trash Walker on Instagram, another local Upper West Sider doing their part to call out waste in the neighborhood!

    25. Intentional Ina says:

      I baked bread for Whole Foods for about 6 weeks in Greenwich, CT. Also baked for Daniel Boulud and Jim Lahey. omg the amount of waste at Whole Foods – and they threw it away rather than give it to employees. Literally there was a trash compressor in the back of the store where no customers are allowed, and an enormous unmarked mack truck was directly loaded with the beautiful food turned into mush. Employees could be fired for stealing if they grabbed it before it went into the machine. Totally obscene – they had people standing guard who weren’t earning enough to shop at Whole Foods, watching perfect food be destroyed.

      Versus Jim Lahey, mind, who donates enormous amounts of bread – I’ve come across huge bags of it being distributed at the food pantry at 13th and 7th Ave. His ethic is so strong, he’ll take his “mistakes” home and eat them. Its my guess that’s how he discovered the No Knead Bread recipe: forgot a loaf and baked it anyway. As for Boulud, everything is ordered so tightly by the kitchens, there is certainly nothing left behind in the bakery. A French hatred of waste. But Whole Foods, at least in Greenwich, CT, is another matter.

      Frannie, I think our grandmothers would approve. Onward!

      • Rosalind Martin says:

        try working big box … if ya wanna witness BIG WASTE😈

      • Take As Much As You Want, Eat All You Take says:

        Totally the opposite of my experience working in a WFM bakery. Products were baked with no preservatives, so by the end of the second day shelves were cleared and the unsold products were set aside for next-day pick up by a food bank. Employees were allowed and encouraged to take what they could use, both of two-day old products and fresh baked goods–breads, pastries, croissants, Danishes, cookies, brownies, strudel…whatever. I was often able to take enough to offer some to the homeless people who regularly rummaged in the dumpster outside my apartment building. Maybe policy varies by location, maybe times have changed. But your experience was the opposite of mine.

    26. Parker says:

      One word of caution here: some of these discarded items may be the result of food recalls (both FDA and manufacturer). When I was in graduate school, I held a part-time job going from store to store to ensure that the stores had pulled recalled items from their shelves. If they hadn’t, I would often have to then purchase all of the identified items and destroy them myself. Weird job, but it paid well. Needless to say, if you see a lot of one particular item being discarded, be wary, as many stores don’t follow manufacturer guidance for destroying items before they hit the garbage collection stream.

    27. Matthew A Valentin says:

      I live on the upper East side and my family is struggling with a full time job door dash and online business. Please inform me on what locations are doing this thank you for the post. #survive

      • B.B. says:

        For goodness sake; OP didn’t find the famous Lost Cord, or mythical city of Atlantis. Garbage picking has been going on for ages and isn’t that difficult to figure out where to look.

        Pick any supermarket, grocery store, Starbucks, bakery, etc.. and go through the rubbish bags/dumpsters put out for collection.

        If you pass any supermarket or whatever place that sells food (or these days pretty much anything else of any value), you’ll find people evenings and nights going through the garbage. Either join in or find your own spot, if that is even possible any longer.

    28. Rosalind Martin says:

      An unfortunate choice to publish this article. Why do i say this? Priorities…. the truths about WASTE and FOODSTUFFS are available out there. Doesn’tneed to be a news ITEM. I was homeless in 1972 and have often helped myself to the foods you depict. From childhood my mom taught me in thr grocery stores of the 1950’s that the sale cart of10 cent cans missing labels were a surprise but shaking and handling the can gave clues to contents. Shr taught me good food vs. not so good for you….)
      P.S. You might have gone onto deeper explanations of the hunger help programs. there’s more…

    29. Rosalind Martin says:

      So “SHOULD YOU” … scusi white woman with access to doctors and not feeding your FAMILY😈😈😈

    30. Doree says:

      Frugal Frannie — would you be open to talking more, offline?

    31. Colista Turner says:

      So, so important. Just awful to think about all the wasted food. Thank you for sharing this.

    32. Concerned Citizen says:

      You admit that you can afford to pay for your own food. I wonder why are you taking food away from those who really need it by dumpster diving before those who are less fortunate have a chance to retrieve the food for themselves?

      • Frugal Frannie says:

        CC, your concern is understandable. But I assure you, the amount of food is astonishing. Whatever I may take from the bins [see pics for my typical take home amount], I am leaving behind much more for others who may also be looking for discards.
        It’s much more likely that hundreds of pounds of food are being compacted in back rooms of stores, or tossed in deep dumpsters, than taken by those — like me —who can afford to pay.
        Whatever I see but don’t take is likely going straight to a landfill, not into a needy person’s hands.
        I’m talking about bags and bags of food, especially breads, bagels, etc. If someone doesn’t take it before the garbage truck arrives, it is lost to everyone. A total waste.

        And when I find a bounty of stuff, I try to pull the good items to the top of whatever container it is in so that others take some, too.

    33. B.B. says:

      Cannot believe someone is actually advocating foraging through rubbish for food as some sort of “alternative” lifestyle or whatever.

      Suppose those who are homeless, starving and or otherwise desperate have few to nil options. But for an able bodied and gainfully employed person to preach this nonsense is an outrage.

      Will WSR be setting up a fund for healthcare for those who become ill eating trash. Considering the vast numbers and varied vermin one sees crawling in, out and around commercial waste set out on streets, it can hardly be considered a safe bet things aren’t contaminated.

      What OP wishes to do is her own affair. But hardly think it wise to compel or otherwise promote such a lifestyle.

    34. B.B. says:

      For the record there are several ongoing concerns that collect food for redistribution to homeless, food kitchens, and so forth.

      Healthy Harvest is one, and here is another recently started: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/12/20/food-charities-new-york-city-millennials-robert-lee-223317

      This being said a good amount of what people call “food waste” or whatever that is going into dumpsters/garbage bags are things which have expired and or otherwise past their sell by date.

      No charity or food service will touch such things. Most places that do take donated foods make it clear things must not be expired. Can goods cannot be dented, and so forth.

      Every now and then you have “shelf pulls” where unexpired items that didn’t sell are thrown out. Many stores have contracted services that take such things and store receives credit.

      Many supermarkets have a contracted service that will collect meats and poultry. It will be reprocessed into anything from pet food to other uses.

    35. Asha says:

      Oh my God! So many children starving in Yemen and
      other parts of the world and all this food being thrown away in the land fills! Such a shame!

      • we can all help to reduce waste says:

        Regardless of what you think about picking from discarded food, Frugal Frannie makes an important point that we should all do our part by asking the stores we shop at what they do with products they can no longer sell and if they do not have an adequate plan ask them to do so. The more people that ask, the more likely stores will start to change their policies –once they realize their customers care too.

    36. Evan Bando says:

      I would like to see subway fare beaters do community service as an army of food reclaimers to systematically distribute the discarded edibles to those who need it.