It's after-hours at a small Mission grocery store. The green bins have just been put out and I'm sitting on a stoop psyching myself up. A seasoned dumpster diver would have waited a little longer, but I want first pick.
The bin is stuffed with bread, presumably about to expire. I take a bag from the top, easy enough. Then I untie a giant bag of compost; inside it looks a little like a refrigerator crisper that's been abandoned. Some of the food has seen its day, but some can be trimmed and washed to look like new.
Without digging very far, I retrieve a few wrinkly potatoes and a wilted bunch of chard. I could swear someone in the store has made it easy to get to the better food. Thankful, I take my loot and get a move on. Sure enough, just seconds after I've snapped the lid shut, I see someone I know on the street. I raise a casual hand in greeting as if I've been caught red-handed.
I grew up proud to be the head of the clean plate club; I've been known to take in discarded houseplants, and I'll eat right off the plates of friends who don't finish their meals. But taking other people's garbage feels vaguely criminal, even if reaching your hand into a dumpster on a public street isn't explicitly illegal in San Francisco. I'm not just here for the free chard, though. I'm exploring the underworld of the San Francisco food economy, and wondering what it takes to be a freegan in the city that fetishizes food and still leaves a surprising number of people underfed.
Dumpster diving requires you to cross a line," says Isla, a Mission district dumpster diver I'd met up with earlier in the week. "You might start out seeing it as gross, then at some point you cross over and never have that problem again."
Like many freegans, Isla has a job and a home and looks much more like a hipster than a gutter punk. And while saving money on food is great, she's also committed to the core values of freeganism, seeing resources in places other people have been conditioned not to.
Does Isla ever feel like she's taking food from someone who needs it more? She doesn't. And when she describes the sheer quantity of food waste she sees in San Francisco, I understand. Isla doesn't eat meat, so most of what she gets from dumpsters is raw produce that is pretty useless without a fridge and a stove – two things many hungry people don't have.
In one recent dumpster she found boxes and boxes of expired Girl Scout cookies. In another, a half dozen pumpkins that she took home to make a spontaneous batch of curry for a group of friends. There's more than enough food, she says (some say as much gets wasted in this country as eaten), but the bigger issue is the invisible line between food and garbage – one most of us rarely question.
"I can't tell you how many times I've seen people traveling between two jobs to feed their families and they won't stop to pick up food that's right there, available to them."
After seeing a cluster of dumpsters full to the brim with edible waste, myself, I can see how it might be motivating. Isla spends a lot of time acting as a conduit between excess food and the people who need it most through Food Not Bombs and on her own; it's not unusual for her to make sandwiches to hand out around her neighborhood, for instance.
The sun is out and the Parque Ninos Unidos teems with families. At the back of this small park is the Free Farm Stand, a great place to find fresh food if you're not crazy about dumpsters. The Free Farm Stand is like a booth at a farmers' market where no money changes hands and people don't just come here to shop, they run into friends, sit in the sun, exchange recipes and linger. They also go home with an impressive amount of food.
Up for grabs today is wild arugula, ancho cress and box upon box of deep green kale. Visitors fill bags with Eureka lemons, apples, and a giant winter squash that's been cut into wedges, for easy sharing and transport.
Tree, the Free Farm Stand's founder, is an activist who's been involved with community gardening for decades. He finds ways to stock the stand with surplus produce from San Francisco farmers' markets and community gardens, but he tells me that his goal was not to start a food pantry. "Our focus is in introducing people to local and seasonal produce," he says. "Not just any food." He also wants the stand to be a place for neighbors to bring the extra edibles they grow. Today, for instance, one woman has shown up with pile of clippings from her back yard aloe plant.
"I like that kind of subtle gesture," he says. "Even if you just bring a bunch of herbs you've grown to share, that's the spirit I'm trying to cultivate."
The farm stand is intended for people with fixed incomes and tight budgets, and from the look of it, a lot of people fit that category these days. One woman gathering a huge bunch of dino kale tells me she's going to steam it up for a friend who's fallen on hard times. Meanwhile a lavishly costumed drag queen shows up for a bag of salad greens and starts eating them directly out of the bag. "Put a little dressing on this and I'm good to go," she says.
After snagging some kale of my own, I leave vowing to bring something with me next time.
I strike out for free fruit on one of those stereotypically awful Muni nights. Only half the trains are running and I need a shoe horn to fit myself onto the N. When I disembark in the inner Sunset, it's drizzling and the late fall dusk long gone. I trudge up a dark, residential hill with an address in my pocket, and the first name of my hook up, Steve, at the front of my mind. I even practice saying it, "Hi, Steve? I'm here for the fruit," a few times as I walk up the block, until it sounds almost natural.
It's too late in the year for plums and figs, and a little early for citrus, so I'm lucky to have found Steve and his apple tree. When I searched the Neighborhood Fruit site, his was the only offering that came up. But when I'm invited in, I feel a twinge of hesitation. "What kind of apples are they?" I ask, testing the waters, as he leads my up the carpeted stairs. "They're just apples," he replies.
To my relief, Steve reaches to the back of his kitchen counter for a plastic bag filled with about three pounds of fist-sized fruit. "They look like Galas," I say. He shrugs.
I notice the apple tree visible from his computer; I picture him watching the fruit ripen and realizing that he can give them away instead of letting them fall to the ground. This is the kind of light bulb that's been going off in a lot of people's heads these days, and I am suddenly thankful, less for my own fruit than for this hopeful trend.
While I'm tempted to leave, I get the sense that small talk is in order. Steve hands me the card for a website he's started, and tells me I can thank him by buying one thousand copies of his self-produced CD.
"Okay," I say, "no problem."
When, at the door, Steve tells me he doesn't eat apples, I realize he really means he doesn't cook, so I go into some basic instructions for apple butter. And, for a second, he seems to want his bag back. Before he can change his mind, I step back out onto the wet street, clutching my hard-earned fruit to my chest.
DO IT YOURSELF
Is your food budget a little pinched? If you're feeling brave, dumpster diving is best done with friends, as most stores put out food waste between 9 and 10 pm. To partake in free local produce, make your way to the Free Farm Stand on Sundays from 1 to 3pm in Treat Commons Community Garden located at Parque Niños Unidos. Neighborhood Fruit is an excellent web tool that will also help you find and share fruit locally. If baked goods are more your speed, check out Sour Flour, a project by aspiring master baker Danny Gabriner, who works with volunteers to bake and give away everything from bagels to pizza crusts to baguettes.