'I got some strawberries!" Seth Graham's voice bounds off the walls of a dumpster as he settles unopened containers of fruit into a cardboard box that Ruthie Cole is holding. "Ooh, pomegranate seeds," Cole says.
Graham redirects his headlamp and snags another garbage bag. He sticks a gloved finger through its side, spilling a mixture of empty containers, rotten produce and brown slush onto his boots. Nothing worth keeping. Graham continues the search. Cole stands to the side, observing and advising.
"Seth, get the flowers," Cole says. "I'll put them in a bouquet."
Cole and Graham are dumpster divers. The two friends take food that appears edible, bring it home, wash it up and eat it. They are among a growing group of people who find sustenance in discarded food. Some, calling themselves "freegans," have a philosophy that shuns spending money and capitalism, and do it to protest waste.
Others just want to take advantage of free food.
The practice is rife with detractors, however, including food safety experts and most of the expiration date-abiding public. Taking food from dumpsters in public areas is not exactly against the law (at least no one has been prosecuted for it). Some cities, however, do have ordinances against dumpster diving, so most divers keep a low profile about their escapades. Besides, you don't want your best dumpsters to become common knowledge.
Soon after Cole, 23, and Graham, 25, arrived in the Twin Cities last fall, a local took Graham out on a dive.
"All the produce, just tons of green peppers and red peppers; they looked perfect," Graham recalled with not a small bit of awe. "This was the first time I was diving, and I couldn't believe it."
Since then, he and Cole have spent late nights stocking their pantry with dumpster food on a regular basis.
"If we go once a week, then I would say most of our produce for that week comes from the dumpster," Cole said.
The food Cole and Graham salvage varies -- produce, dips, eggs, cheese, bread. Sort of like a warped do-it-yourself CSA box.
"We had like seven trays of these cinnamon rolls," Cole said about the loot from a particularly sweet dive.
Nice food for free
The thought of eating food from garbage bins can offend public sensibilities, according to Valentine Cadieux, who researches agriculture and food systems at the University of Minnesota. "Food is such a huge part of our lives, wrapped up in our identities and cultures and habits, not to mention survival -- so we experience tremendous resistance to questioning the way we get this food," Cadieux wrote in an e-mail.
For Graham, dumpster diving is simple. "We don't want to spend as much on food," he said. "That's just a nice perk of this. If you can get nice food for free, why not?"
But eating from a dumpster can be a risk.
Ted Labuza, a professor of food science and engineering at the U, said the only foods that are potentially safe to eat are those that are in intact boxes, and he cautions that when warmer weather rolls around, eating food that has been sitting in a hot dumpster is "just absolutely dangerous."
Cole and Graham know that dumpster diving has health risks, but neither has gotten sick from eating dumpster food. They take the precaution of rinsing everything they take from a trash bin before eating it.
Diving to make a statement
Cole argues that they are "doing good" by dumpster diving. "I don't see that we're doing any harm," she said. "And I see that we're even kind of preventing some harm by taking care of this waste that has been created, so we're putting it to some use."
Even if they don't intend to make a statement, they are doing just that, albeit indirectly.
"Dumpster divers are demonstrating a way to call into question something that seems really legitimate and scientific [expiration dates or the convenience of throwing away food],'' Cadieux said. "The general guilt that we feel about how many people are hungry is exactly the kind of thing that adds additional meaning to what may not be intended as a part of a social movement -- but dumpster diving ends up being legible to people as a critique of throwing away too much food."
Grocery stores, both locally and nationally, try to avoid sending food to landfills. Cub Foods donates excess food to Second Harvest Heartland, an organization that delivers to local food shelves.
"It's food that is still good, but it's past its sell date, not its expiration," said Lilia Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Cub Foods. "It's rescuing that and making sure families are still able to eat it."
Seward Co-op donates food, as well. Store manager Nicholas Seeberger says that they dispose of food that has passed its sell date and is unable to be donated in a manner that is environmentally responsible. "The next day, it's available to our staff in the break room," he said. "All other food that goes beyond that date goes into our compost bin."
Despite grocers' best efforts to avoid waste, food still lies whole and arguably edible in back-alley dumpsters, a reality that Cole and Graham wish to set to purpose.
"I don't think we dive to really prove any big points or make a movement or anything like that," Cole said. "It's just we know of this resource, and it makes sense."
Around midnight Graham concludes, "I think this dumpster is done." He and Cole load the cardboard box into their car's trunk.
The haul is good -- asparagus, green onions, carrots, lettuce, hummus. All will be cleaned and used.
Peter Funk is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.