i recently had the opportunity to interview Keith McHenry, one of the original founders of Food Not Bombs,
on his relationship with the dumpster and the development of Food Not Bombs. this is what he had to say:
So I suppose I should start by asking if you're still a regular dumpster diver?
I do recover many discarded items but since 1980 I often talk with workers
and ask if they have produce, bread or other items they can't sell and let
them know I would be happy to redirect their future trash to provide food
for the hungry. At times if it is not possible recover food by speaking
with workers I will visit dumpsters. I also find stuff just sitting on the
sidewalk or on the sides of highways that can be great scores. So free
discarded stuff is not limited to dumpsters only.
What came first for you, dumpster diving or FNB? Was one a logical
progession from the other? How important was dumpster diving in the
creation and development of FNB?
I did do some dumpster diving many years before starting Food Not Bombs. I
found food in dumpsters while hitch hiking throughout the west. The coolest
score that became food was the discovery of 30 45cent Martin Luther King
postage stamps. I was walking out of Santa Cruz, California on my way down
route 1 when I saw a bright image in the sand. I pulled it from the dirt
and wow it was a sheet of stamps. I was really hungry so I took teem to the
Denny's at the Route 1 ramp and talked a waitress into buying them from me.
I told her she could get some glue and they would work fine. She agreed
and I had enough for breakfast and coffee.
In 1980 I trimmed organic produce at Bread and Circus in Cambridge,
Massachusetts and filled several large boxes of less then perfect produce
every morning. This seemed to be a real shame and as I was considering
seeking out people who might be interested in taking my discarded food a
young man stopped by and asked if we had anything to donate. I gave him
several boxes that he took back to Broadway House, a Catholic Workers
Shelter in Cambridge. Soon I was working with my friends taking my surplus
to community centers at local public housing projects and to Rosie's Place
The one thing I did get out of the dumpster that changed my life happened
around the same time I was helping start Food Not Bombs. A friend told me
he saw some paper in a trash can in Harvard Square that he thought I might
want for art materials. I drove down to the trash can, retrieved the items
and brought them home. As I looked through the materials I saw that they
were the originals for IBM's annual report. This was before computers were
used for graphic design. The backs of each board were printed with the
words Letramax 2000 and the fronts were marked in light blue lines for the
outside of an eleven by seventeen sheet of paper with margins for the type
and images. Red boxes were "windows" for photos and there were thin black
"cut" lines. Each page was covered with tracing paper and that was covered
with a nice sheet of writing paper. I had already taken a few things to be
printed so I knew right off that I could be a professional graphic designer
by removing the IBM type and replacing it with my own. The next day I
started Brushfire Graphics and a couple of years later I was designing
publications for the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and winning Cleo
Dumpster diving is probably the easiest way to acquire the large
quantities of food required for FNB, however I've found that not
everyone is comfortable eating food that's been reclaimed from
dumpsters. Whilst serving in Toronto, people often wanted reassurance from
us that the food was not dumpster dived (luckily all of our food was
donated to us at local farmer markets). How do you think FNB groups can
deal with this problem? Is it a problem at all?
I found that the easiest way to get lots of great free food is to talk
with produce workers, bakers and other food providers and ask them if they
every throw anything out. They all do and they hate the waste so they will
often agree to set their surplus food aside for you to collect. They will
need for you to be reliable so you shouldn't agree to more pickups then you
can really handle. In San Francisco I would start my day at the House of
Bagels picking up four huge boxes filled to the top. This happened seven
days a week for years. Then I drove my truck over to Thom's Natural Foods
and picked up five or six cases of organic produce. My truck was already
over flowing so I had to unload that at the morning kitchen. Then off to the
produce warehouse district in Bayview Hunters Point. Veritable Vegetable
would refill my truck with more then I could hold most days but if there
was room I could stop at the other warehouses and in one or two more stops
be loaded down with organic produce. Other volunteers were filling the Food
Not Bombs van with produce from Rainbow Grocery, Other Avenues and bakeries
all over San Francisco.
The only dumpsters we every hit was the San Francisco Bakery because the
owner was the president of the Police Commission and wouldn't help and his
dumpster was a block from my apartment and sometimes if we were late we
hit up Odwalla but if we were on time they gave us crates of great organic
I joined London Food Not Bombs in skipping at Coventry Gardens Produce
Market. We filled a panel truck in less then an hour and hadn't even
visited but a few warehouses. In Tel Aviv we filled several shopping carts
with great produce by walking from stall to stall at the produce
distribution center. In Istanbul we found that if we asked the first stall
at the produce bazaar they were sure to take food off their shelves. When
the next stall saw their neighbor was making a contribution they were
compelled to make an even larger donation. Not one produce merchant would
give us any waste until we pleaded with them. For them it was important to
donate the best quality they had.
In Edmonton, Alberta I joined a punk band in dumpster diving behind a huge
natural food grocery. I found a 250 pound wheel of cheese pushed it to the
top of the dumpster and exclaimed "Why be vegan, lets be freegan!" The
band got a good laugh from that. I shared the story through out the rest of
the Rent is Theft Tour and an activist in Gainesville Florida thought the
term freegan was creative and published a flyer on living Freegan. Thats
how the term was coined.
In some really suburban corporate wastelands it is necessary to tour the
dumpsters for food but in most places you can get much larger amounts of
better quality food by asking the shops to donate. Food workers really find
it difficult to discard edible food.
have you seen dumpster diving and FNB change in the last 30/20/10
In the past 30 years there have become many more large national grocery
chains and they have adopted anti donation policies. Not long after Food
Not Bombs started cities started Food Banks and then Second Harvest and
other corporate surplus food programs started up. Many food banks try to
get our local Food Not Bombs groups to change our name "so they can work
with us". Most food banks focus on collecting processed and non perishable
food. The other thing that has changed is that many large food chains are
using trash compactors destroying all the edible produce and bread before
it can be recovered,
In your travels around the world, which countries have surprised you
the most in terms of ease or difficulty in dumpster diving?
The produce bazaars in the Middle East really surprised me. It turns out
that many muslim people feel honored if they have the opportunity to help
people in need. The pride and happiness they displayed when giving us their
contribution was very inspiring. They made us feel we were doing them a
favor and not the other way around. The other thing is I am always
surprised to see how much food is discarded. The large produce markets need
huge bulldozers to rid their warehouses of surplus food.
I can imagine how people can have unfriendly encounters with the
police whilst dumpster diving, but i can't understand how you can be
arrested for a FNB action. In general (I presume it changes between
states, never mind countries) what are the laws that FNB members should
be aware of and what are the most common charges brought against FNB
I can recall a couple of times when the police confronted us for
collecting food from a dumpster. One such time involved eight or nine cops
in san Francisco surrounding us at gun point but most often the police just
shim a light at you and pass by. The real problem has been when we share
the food. They police made over 1,000 arrests in San Francisco. They
claimed we were "making a political statement and that that was not
allowed". In the United States we have a constitution that includes the
first amendment right to free speech but it turns out that is limited. We
just lost an appeal to the eleventh circuit court of appeals in Atlanta.
The three judges rules that the government could limit us to expressing our
message to twice a year per location. I did over 500 days in jail in San
Francisco, was beaten by the police and taken to police intelligence where
officers lifted me by my arms and legs ripping my tendons and ligaments and
then stuffed me into a tiny jail cell hanging from the ceiling of their
office. It seems that the issue is money. Money for bombs or money from
consumers and real-estate. Many times it is a combination of all three.
With the economy in crisis the public might do something about wasting our
taxes on the military while people go hungry and they aren't so sympathetic
with the wealthy sweeping the poor out of sight.
You can learn more by visiting www.foodnotbombs.net
thanks for the interview Kieth!
there can't be many cities where it's easy to dumpster dive a decent bike, but if there is one it's copenhagen.
we have more bikes than people (i just made that up). and the number of bikes that are discarded around the city,
left to rust in our shitty weather, is nothing but depressing. someone stomped the wheel or your gears got jammed,
so the ride is left half-locked to a post. and the worst thing is that you can't identify the dumped bikes until it's too late.
it makes me angry. even bikes left outside our apartment, i can scourge them for parts,
but they're never going to be a decent ride again.
discared bikes are routinely rounded up and collected by the police.
and if you like talking to the cops you can go and ask them for one before they're recycled
(more likely shipped off to china, what do i know?). or you could find a collection pile in the
street before they're taken away and help yourself. no one is going to complain.
the only problem is the ring lock on the back wheel. you can have fun trying to remove that yourself.
this is why i'm so happy when i find a moderately functioning bike in the dumpster in our courtyard,
complete with key left in the lock. thankyou thankyou thankyou. i spent a couple hours fixing
all the tiny things wrong with it, showing the world how shiny it is under the dirt, wrapping it with
"danger global warming" tape, and look at it now:
dumpster dived bike
it's just beautiful.
i've noticed that some of the supermarkets that lock their bins away at night actually have them out
during the day. in some cases right out on the street. i'm presuming this is because they have limited room inside
(horrible thought, but they keep the dumpsters in the storage area with all the 'fresh' produce?),
and if they're working in there during the day they need the space. i noticed a while ago that one supermarket
left their bins out (something they've never done before) during a particularly long holiday weekend.
most shops didn't stay open over the holiday, but this one did. i'm guessing they ordered in extra produce whilst
the deliveries were still being made, and then had no room for the dumpsters all weekend. it's a reasonable theory.
anyway, back to the food. if you're quick and don't mess around no is going to be bothered by
a quick rummage in the bin. but the emphasis on quick. no one is going to like it either.
protip - picking garbage up off the floor to put into the dumpster gives you a nice and friendly
reason for looking in there.
well that's where my broccoli (double c, one l) came from anyway.
and here's another pile of stuff we'd never be caught buying:
that was two weeks worth of muffins. they make a terrible breakfast if you're in a rush.
we went dumspter diving and all we got was half a cucumber and a lousy bag of shitty hotdog rolls.
and most of those were moldy. piece of crap. i'm mainly blaming the fakta, which had our
new favourite dumpsters until they recently decided to build themselves a cage to lock the bins away in.
and for what? they're not just making it difficult for us, it must be a total pain for taking the bins out every morning.
we'd be doing them a favour if we tore it down. if only we weren't such law abiding citizens.
this was one of those huge pit bins you have to jump into. rummaging around awash in plastic bags.
digging to find treasure through all the polyethylene and coffee grinds.
kind of reminds me of that scene in star wars. just like that. wow, that terrified me when i was younger.
and look at us now. anyway. the sack we heaved home contained:
there's a few interesting items. the cabbage is a beast. and we find mushrooms a lot, but rarely ones that are still edible,
so that made me happy.
our friend dumpster dived enough meat to make a 1kg mushrooms
1 red cabbage
bunch of celery
4 yellow peppers
4 loaves 'normal' bread
2 loaves rye bread
12 bread rolls (various)
whole pig. well, it would be enough if
the slaughter process was reversible. and even then it'd be a pretty weird pig,
with feathers and udders and such. but you get the point. it was a lot:
and now i have a future pot of apricot jam boiling down the on stove.
it's going to be just lovely. if not a little too sweet.
another worthwhile dumpster diving experience:
and all from just one store. it was such a good catch that we couldn't be bothered to go on to 8.5 tomatoes
14 various peppers
375g baby corns
3 loaves bread
2 rye breads
1 basil plant
1 dill plant
2 tubs rocket
2 baby lettuce
3 litres milk
1 wilted peperomia lillian plant
shaldi (shit aldi).
no photo because i'm tired and lazy. too much rain.
a list of what magically appeared in my kitchen this morning:
which looks something pretty like:
9 sweet green peppers
a rye bread
an olive tree
we'll be having fresh squeezed juice for breakfast again then.
struggling through amager with heavy boxes and carrier bags:
looks good in colour too:
2 boxes of new potatoes
box of cherry tomatoes
5 small gerkins
bunch of asparagus
10 avocado of varying quality
8 big sticks of rhubarb
1.25kg of cheese
3 rye breads
especially if you like carrots. was totally worth getting covered in yoghurt for.
but anyway, that makes up for our lack of dumpster diving whilst in north america. the raccoons and bears don't make it easy, yknow.
but we did see some dumpster diving in new york, a woman in china town saving fruit from garbage bags left out on the street
in the middle of day. she was awesome.
it's always good to get out and explore new burroughs, especially when you have a guide
to show you around the hottests dumpsters (someone who i want to get contributing
to this blog, but more on that later). it was about 10pm, one hour after the last store closes,
and it's a friday night so the streets are busy. you can barely walk along the pavement for all the bicycles parked up,
such is norrebrogade.
our first stop was a full-on cornucopia. mostly potatoes, but all kinds of everything else as well.
stacked deep and piled high, and out in the middle of the street for all to plunder.
we took what we needed and moved on to the bakery. the gateway to the courtyard might be locked,
but does it count if it's so easy to open the doors anyway? we grabbed what we needed (not much since
our friend had raided this dumpster the night before and had plenty to share) and went in search
of the next dumpster, again in a courtyard, but this one with easy access. there were a couple of people
already there when we arrived, but unfortunately nothing in the dumspter.
our final tally:
we'd have taken more but we were limited to what would fit in our backpack and on the back of my bike.
i'd already dropped a few breads and that's no fun.
0.5kg organic dried apricots
2 organic cakes
3 loaves of bread
it was a nice night so we thought we'd take a stroll out, have a casual look at the local dumpsters.
one of the most reliable supermarkets near us, undoubtabley the largest, has absolutely humongous bins.
they're like shipping containers. if you want to get anything out you either need a fishing rod or to jump in.
and climbing out requires the construction of a milk crate ladder, which is easy enough, but still.
plus a few cardamom buns for the walk home. we also took a large carton of juice but on opening i
could tell it was somewhat past the 'safe to drink' stage. the trick is the number of dark green
globs that flap out into the sink. you can't eat that.
4 rye breads
2 more normal breads
but this is nothing compared to what our diving partner regularly finds there. last time he came away
with lemon marinated salmon (if fish is your thing) and all kinds of root vegetables. another of our
friends is currently overloaded with potatoes. any ideas for dealing with a large number of spuds?
and so after a very succesful dinner we showed our guests over to our new favourite dumpster,
where we took something like:
and the best thing is that it's so well lit you don't even need a torch.
it'd be perfect if only it wasn't sitting on the corner of the busiest crossroads in our neighbourhood.
but then it 4 aubergine
tub of honey
3 litres organic milk
is always nice to get a few honks from passing drivers whilst diving. isn't it?
it's the middle of the day again. and it's raining. again.
but it's easter monday, whatever that means, and the supermarket is shut.
so why is there so much food lying there in a crate that's open to the sky and all that rain?
it must have been here like this since saturday. at least. so we're a bit cautious,
but the bananas are still good. and root vegetables spend most of their life outdoors in bad weather like this.
so they're all good too. we grabbed an empty milk crate and filled it:
we took a lot because some of it was clearly bad, and we weren't about to sort it out
infront of the busy gym. but getting it home, nearly all of it is good. this is especially
exciting because we're having a dinner party tonight and our guests are very enthusiastic
about dumpster diving. we'd 2kg parsnips
couple of bunches of spring onions
several bunches of daffodils
already planned to do a roast, with the potatoes from thursday night,
so this is just perfect.