“What is she doing?” I ask aloud, nearly spilling my coffee. My friends turn around just in time to watch the Starbucks barista dump an entire case of sandwiches into a plastic trash bag. At 4 p.m., nearly two-dozen delicious, fresh sandwiches are headed for the Dumpster. My first instinct is to ask if I can take them home — but then I remember Ralph Reese, the Whole Foods employee who got fired for “stealing” a day-old tuna fish sandwich. I should just head out back to the Dumpster.

In a country where fresh food is viewed as disposable, it is no surprise that some citizens have taken it into their hands to “reclaim the waste” by Dumpster diving. These “divers” literally wade through trash bins and bags to recover still-edible food that has been thrown away.

Sound a bit disgusting? So do the facts on food waste in America.

According to a USDA report, in 1995, 5.4 billion pounds of food were “lost” at the retail level (supermarkets, health food stores, etc.), and 91 billion additional pounds were wasted by consumers and the food service industry (restaurants, delis, coffee shops, etc.). Food organizations like City Harvest in New York help redistribute some of that food, but most of it ends up in the landfill.

Critics of Dumpster diving point out the potential dangers (glass, rodents, expired food) of rooting through the trash — and they are right. It is definitely not the safest or most sanitary way to acquire food. But to the committed, Dumpster diving is an important tactic in the fight against America’s food waste problem — not to mention a quick, adventure-filled way to get a potentially delicious free meal.

For the curious Dumpster diver novices out there, here are some useful tips to help keep your diving safe, respectful and bountiful.

Look before you dive

Scout out your options before heading out on your first dive — take a walk, bike ride or drive around your neighborhood. Note which stores, bakeries and co-ops seem like good places to stop, what time and where those stores put out their extras, and the best times to head there (hours with low customer traffic, just after close). If you are feeling extra organized, plot out a Google map of the stores or neighborhoods you plan to visit.

Keep an open mind

Dumpster diving feels very different than a traditional trip to the grocery or department store. (For starters, you avoid the front door completely!) If you head out hoping to bring home three pears, a dozen eggs and a kitchen table to eat them on, you will likely be disappointed. But if you view your dives as treasure hunts — for free stuff, mind you — everything you find will feel like a small victory.

 

Come equipped

Like any adventure, having proper gear is crucial. At minimum, be sure to pack a flashlight, rubber gloves and bags to hold your loot. A change of clothes is also a good idea (especially if you are heading somewhere after your dive), and a cooler stocked with ice packs will keep vegetables and other foods cold until you get home.

Don’t arrive with a crowd

There’s safety (and fun) in numbers, but Dumpster diving in a pack draws too much negative attention to the scene, which can lead to unnecessary problems. Find one or two trusted friends to dive with, and make an agreement beforehand to be discreet, quick and respectful to the stores you visit.

 

Trust your instincts – and your nose

Like the Starbucks sandwiches mentioned above, much of food thrown away by restaurants and grocery stores is fresh and safe. Still, according to the National Dairy Council, perishable foods (dairy, meat, etc.) that are allowed to come to room temperature -– between 41 and 140 degrees –- can start to grow harmful bacteria. Unless you know for certain that perishable foods have been out of the fridge for less than one hour (30 minutes, to be on the safe side), avoid them. Of course, foods that have any sort of “off” smell also should be left behind.

Foods that tend to be particularly safe include bread/bagels/baked goods, packaged products (chips, cookies), boxed juices, canned goods (avoid bulging or dented cans) and fresh fruits and vegetables.

When diving for furniture, avoid mattresses at all costs (the potential bed bugs just are not worth it) and take special care to inspect upholstered items like chairs and couches for stains or dampness. Consider getting upholstered items professionally cleaned before bringing them into your house.

 

Don’t dig too deeply

Dumpster diving requires a certain mind shift, including the understanding that just because something is put into a trash bag does not mean it is garbage. Still, Dumpsters can get a little gross. Decide in advance how far you are willing to go for that bag of organic black bean chips and respect those boundaries.

Meanwhile, if accessing a particular Dumpster requires breaking a lock, jumping a fence or otherwise “breaking and entering,” head elsewhere.

 

Learn to preserve

Learning basic preserving techniques (baking, pickling, making jam, freezing) will help you enjoy your bounty even longer and rescue less-than-perfect produce from the landfill. Turn slightly-too-old bananas into delicious bread or not-quite-crisp cucumbers into quick pickles, and freeze that pallet of strawberries to use in smoothies throughout the year.

Take only what you can use

The thrill of “getting stuff for free” can be intoxicating — and just like going to a buffet, your eyes can sometimes be bigger than your stomach. But before you haul off four bags filled with bagels and scones, think about your freezer space and re-evaluate. In the end, take only what you are reasonably certain you, your neighbors or a nearby soup kitchen can use.

Also, always share the wealth. In Eugene, Ore., (the home of my own first “dives”), there was one food co-op that generously and deliberately laid out its extra organic produce and natural food products at the end of the day. Within 15 minutes, the community’s homeless and less fortunate members would arrive to look through the leftovers. When they left, the people who dove for sport or principle (rather than need) would come and take anything that still remained. It was a beautiful arrangement — and a good model for other divers to follow.

 

Seek out your community

Are you a newbie diver looking for tips? Can’t convince your friends to go with you on your treasure hunts? The Internet is an ideal place to seek advice and connect with the divers in your community. The website Freegan.info collected a great list of blogs, community boards, e-mail lists and other resources for divers. The site also includes directories that provide invaluable insiders’ tips for diving at stores in different cities. For example, are you diving in Seattle? You might like to know that 10:30-11:30 p.m. is the best time to hit the Trader Joe’s in the University District.

Also by Leah Koenig: Guide to your first month as a vegetarian.

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