Looking into the fridge last night, I realized I was really low on food. The soup I had made last week was all out; what I had left by way of vegetables was a couple eggplants and a head of broccoli that were both turning a bit brown. Otherwise, I had nothing but bagels. This wasn't exactly enough to prepare a meal for the week.
I sliced the eggplants and added them to boiling water, turning the heat down. I'd make some soup, but first I needed more ingredients.
Up until just a couple months ago, getting a few more ingredients would be a grand ordeal. I'd grab my plastic bags and take the subway from Washington Heights (168 or 175 street) down to Morningside Heights (96 or 116 st) to forage the trash bags at Absolute Bagels, Dunkin Donuts, Health Nuts, and a few others. The locale with the best yield was usually Morton Williams at 115th street, so I'd head down there at least once a week.
On several occasions I was harassed by their security guard until he finally resolved to call NYPD. The officers coolly responded "there's nothing illegal about this" and allowed me to continue foraging the trash bags
I was vindicated and I intended to continue rescuing there.
One day I brought a roommate with me. He was interested in my food acquisition methods and wanted to see how I did it. We went down to the Dunkin Donuts around 100 street, rescuing dozens of donuts of all varieties. He was stunned. We stopped at Morton Williams as well and grabbed what there was to find there. Then we made our way back uptown on the 1 train, getting off at 157 street, a few blocks from our Washington Heights apartment. We nearly walked right past the Associated grocery store on Broadway, but my roommate was on top of things. He pointed out the small dumpster bins on the curbside.
I had never walked past this grocery store, so I was not aware of its existence, much less the contents of their garbage. The bins had a sign reading ORGANIC WASTE. Could it be? Garbage bins full of organic waste only? Fruits and veggies? I popped the trash can open with pleasant surprise. I'd have to come back here.
A few days later I returned to Associated, only a block and a half from my apartment, and rescued a bunch of produce. I then walked down another block for some Dunkin Donuts. Then across Broadway and back uptown. I spotted similar organic waste bins outside of a grocery store on 163rd street called Liberato. I peeked into their three bins, again procuring several fruits and vegetables. This store is just across Broadway from my apartment building - indeed, I had just picked up nearly a week's worth of groceries without having to walk more than three blocks from my own apartment!
That was maybe a month and a half ago. I've rescued food several times since then, but the last two occasions have been particularly fruitful, and not just in a literal sense.
Last week I went on a food rescue mission to my usual destinations. When I walked up to Liberato's, I saw three men sitting and chatting outside the store. I had seen them there before and I'm certain that at least one of them works there - I always see him wearing a white coat, like a chef's or butcher's garment. The men had certainly seen me foraging there before but had not said anything to me. I poked into one of the bins which had a thick layer of leafy greens on top. I was about to dig deeper when I heard a whistle. Shrugging it off, I peeled off a layer of greens. Then I heard the whistle again. Looking up, I saw the man in the white coat standing behind another of the trash bins. He pointed down to it silently, like revealing a secret hiding place. I cautiously moved toward him and opened the trash bin to find a dozen green plantains and oranges and mangoes, among other fruits and veggies.
This was a big deal. Not so much that I'd found these items, but that this employee of the store was actually helping me to find what I was looking for! I suddenly felt a great sense of solidarity with this man. Overjoyed, I walked home with my night's findings.
By last night, those items were nearly all gone. I had a couple eggplants simmering on the stove, but I'd need to find some more ingredients for this week's meal. I headed down to Associated, where I found lots of zucchini, potatoes, peppers and onions. Then a block down for donuts and back up to Liberato's.
As I passed Associated on the upswing, I noticed an older woman - in her 60's, I'd say - rummaging through the trash bags and bins there. I passed quietly, hoping to avoid contact. My conscience got the best of me as I walked away - after all, I'd already taken most of the good produce in the organic waste bin. She might need it more than me and it's a freegan principle to share. Besides, it might behoove me to meet other food rescuers in the Heights! So I turned back to meet her.
I began speaking to her in English but she quickly interrupted, "No e-speaky Spanish." I tried Spanish next and we connected. I told her that I had passed a few minutes earlier and taken a lot of the fruits and veggies; she was welcome to take some of mine if she wished. She was reluctant, but I told her it was fine, that I'd taken more than I could really handle. She grabbed a few pieces of fruit as we talked about the various items she has found in the bags next to the bins (there's always a pile of bags there, but I'd never bothered checking them out myself). We talked for a while and she was very sweet. She explained that, as a Dominican, she hates seeing so much food go to waste; the importance of untying and tying bags at the knot rather than ripping them open; finally, she offered to bring some goods and leave them outside the store for me (I'll have to retrieve them tonight).
A teenaged girl walked past as we said our goodbyes and "mucho gusto". She must have realized that the two of us had met while rescuing food. She laughed audibly. Perhaps not at us. More with us, I think. I was still rather stunned to have met another food rescuer in the neighborhood myself! The woman's reaction to the teenaged girl was a comment on the crazy people that roam these streets in the Heights.
"you think they're crazy?" I replied in Spanish, "We're the ones getting our food from these trash cans!"
We laughed and parted. I look forward to bumping into her again.
I headed up to Liberato to have a look. More onions. I was peeking into another bin when the man with the white coat approached me again. This time he had a bag of bananas in hand, presumably a bag that he was about to toss in the trash can. He handed it to me.
This is a whole 'nother level of complicity, haha!
I brought my findings home and cleaned all the produce in the kitchen sink. I chopped an onion and half of a jalapeno to add to the eggplant stew still simmering on the stove. The rest went in the fridge.
I've noticed on the various freegan list servs that there's interest in more organized food rescue in the Heights. I'll be taking steps toward making this happen - group rescue missions, meetup, an uptown chapter of Food Not Bombs, and who-knows-what-else! If there are any freegans or prospectives in uptown Manhattan, from Morningside Heights to Inwood, or even in the nearby Bronx neighborhoods, please get in touch with me and I'll let you know what we're up to... I could also use your help!