Thursday, September 27, 2012 / 11:55 AM
Editor's Note: This is the second of three articles on today's farm and today's farmer. Part one was published in Relish here.
During our initial visit to YellowTree Farm, when we learned that Justin Leszcz and Sam Ashlock regularly participate in dumpster diving, we wanted in. An email from Leszcz inviting us to dine at Blood & Sand followed by diving had us simultaneously excited (we hadn’t been yet to the members-only restaurant) and perplexed (what does one wear when the evening will entail fine dining and dumpster diving?). Our editor suggested a raincoat and wellies, but we went with standard dinner attire, deciding that this first time, we’d simply watch.
Stereotypes connected to dumpster diving abound, and many who practice do so in secret. Shame keeps some mum about diving, and others don’t want to reveal their favorite places for fear of increased competition. A growing number of practitioners, however, go out of their way to share tips on best practices. While Leszcz and Ashlock remain open about their involvement (to feed the farm’s chickens), the others we met that night wished to remain anonymous. One man (we’ll call him “Bill”) dives to supplement his own and others’ diets, and another (“Ed”) was there to feed his dog.
Fans of the IFC series Portlandia may already have seen the above sketch, which humorously parodies diving, while others might have heard the term “freegan” in reference to an entire lifestyle connected to alternative methods for procuring food. Whereas the Portlandia spoof indicates an oversaturation of diving culture in the northwest, the fact that the St. Louis Meetup group for dumpster divers remains devoid of members suggests that we haven’t caught on yet—at least not in an organized sense.
The dinner at Blood & Sand proved to be one of the best we’ve had in a while. Leszcz chose the restaurant because he regularly supplies Chef Chris Bork (at right) with some of his goods; that night, he made a delivery of chamomile-Moroccan mint and tulsi teas for Blood & Sand’s tableside tea service. Bork has also been using the chamomile-mint tea in a Cornish hen dish, which is drawing raves from customers. Our dinner included Leszcz’s pears and apples. “Chris is the next Gerard Craft,” Leszcz noted, and after tasting his Taleggio Cheese Agnolotti, we’re convinced he’s indeed in a league of his own.
As we traded the elegant environs of Blood & Sand for the grittier surroundings of the dumpster, the irony of being able to eat at such a place and then search for food for animals, while others were looking for themselves was not lost on us. Regardless of why one dives, the fact that so much edible food is thrown away daily should give one pause. As a recent NPR article reported, although food scraps can be a great way for farmers to feed their livestock, particularly during drought conditions, the “red tape” surrounding food regulations often prohibits the practice. Locally, many grocery stores secure their dumpsters with chutes and locks, while a few chains leave their trash in plain and open view. Bill, an experienced diver, believes that those stores’ dumpsters are accessible because it reduces their waste costs.
Certain nights of the week are better than others for diving, and one person often scouts a location and calls others if the pickings are good. The evening we went yielded some food, but it wasn’t the kind of night that produces a “fever,” as Leszcz calls it, when the bounty at one dumpster leads to adrenalin-buzzed visits across the city in hopes of a similar haul.
Armed with a long, telltale stick (when one person sees the stick, he knows others have already been there), Bill climbed into the dumpster. Sometimes he wears gloves, but that night his hands were bare, which was unfortunate because fabric softener coated much of the trash. The men suspect that some grocery employees purposely contaminate the trash with sticky liquids like softener to discourage diving; another diversionary tactic involves securing the best items in a bag and burying it deep beneath the pile. When we asked Bill why he doesn’t use a shovel, he wisely remarked that he doesn’t want to get too far down.
We hung over the side of the dumpster, pointing out potential finds. Our excitement over several cans of Vienna Sausages quickly turned to disappointment when the small flashlight’s beam exposed their empty contents. Plums, celery, watermelon, and cauliflower were pulled for YellowTree’s chickens, while bacon, cheese ravioli, and shrimp would go home with Bill. We wondered at the meat’s freshness factor, but Bill proclaimed the packages “still cool” as he cupped them; moreover, he owns a cookbook dedicated to wartime food preparation that instructs how to detect spoiled portions and cook accordingly. Perhaps the greatest find that night was a large bag of cat food most likely discarded because of a small hole in the corner. Bill, who feeds stray cats in his neighborhood, carefully set aside the bag, pleased at his good fortune.
Other trips have yielded oats and intact, clean loaves of bread, which the chickens love. Leszcz has been able to reduce his feed costs 30-40% by supplementing the chickens’ feed with fruit, vegetables, and grains from the trash. For Leszcz and Ashlock, dumpster diving provides rewards, multiple and sustainable: free animal feed, recycling, and a sense of community. We have to admit that it was fun—an adventure that felt slightly transgressive but also instructive, as it reminded us to curb our own waste in the future.
One night, the group found a dumpster overflowing with hams. On a more recent visit—one, alas, we missed—the farmers scored a box of individually wrapped Toblerone bars and a number of non-food items, including an electric leaf blower, two safes, fans, a milkshake maker, a pressure cooker, and several food dehydrators—most still in boxes and in working order. It seems the key to successful diving is to go often and at the right time: just after perishable items are dumped but before competitors arrive.
We learned from Leszcz that Bill later called us “prissy” for not taking any bacon, and we’re okay with that. What we undoubtedly would have taken is one or two of those Toblerone bars— just as long as they were fabric-softener free.
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