A Comprehensive Guide to Dumpster Diving And Alternative Food

By Allyn Farach

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buzzing out to Walmart for a can of spaghetti in red sauce, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with making the food you’re eating yourself. Taking it a step further – going out and acquiring the food yourself can be even more rewarding than picking it up at a grocery store or restaurant. Forget convenience: Below are ways to get creative with alternative food sources. Before we begin, let’s address that some of these methods are not for the weak-hearted.

Dumpster Diving

To be clear, Dumpster Diving doesn’t involve actually diving into dumpsters.

“You can open the lid and gingerly pull out goods or jump in and dig deep. If you’re grossed out by the idea, wear rain boots and bring gloves,” writes Vanessa Alvadaro, native Floridian and dumpster diver. Furthermore, what you pull out probably won’t be overripe produce and rotting meat.

Approximately 40 percent of food bought in the US goes to waste, so what may be found in a dumpster may be okay, if not in perfect condition (unless it’s covered in mold. Don’t eat anything covered in mold.)

Luckily, the dumpster diving community is pretty open to new people, and almost always ready to help. R/DumpsterDiving is full of people giving advice to newbies, people planning to make runs together, and even a map that lists good diving spots. With an engaging community, free food and stuff to resell, what could possibly be the downside to such a concept? The law.

The owners of the Miami Produce Center were cited after video cameras captured people going through their dumpsters for food, some of which was later resold to restaurants. Furthermore, some business owners may set up cameras, dumpster locks and signs warning people not to trespass or go through the garbage. If they catch anyone, they may have them taken in by police.

So what can potential divers do? They can travel in groups to be safe, be discerning about what they pick out so that they don’t get sick, scope out spots before they leave, ask business owners before they dive and be wary of cameras!

Urban Farming

If Dumpster Diving isn’t your cup of trash, gardening might be a more appealing route to alternative food sources. A community garden offers people who register a small plot of land to grow whatever they want, from decorative flowers to bountiful fruits and vegetables. Laura Lafata, who runs social media and organizes meetings for the South Beach Community Garden, elaborated that the garden offers all kinds of things for people.

“It’s a piece of paradise in a very densely populated part of the city that allows one the pleasure of digging in the soil and the joy of producing one’s own food supply,” Lafata said. Indeed, the benefits of a community garden are being allowed to pick what you want to grow and owning a little plot of land in the urban jungle.

“Everyone can grow whatever they want, but we encourage gardeners to grow what will grow best in our climate with a focus on heat tolerant varieties, Asian and Caribbean vegetables, lettuces, sprouts, okra, sweet potatoes, radishes, beans, tomatoes, snow peas, eggplants.”

So there’s no risk of getting bored when it comes to food and the garden, Miami Beach Parks and Recreation Department offers a budget for hoses, trash cans and water, so the simple parts of taking care of a garden and growing your own food are covered as well.

Growing your own food isn’t always easy. The Garden covers the basics, but the gardeners have to bring their own soil and seeds, build their own boxes and maintain their own plots. The prices of soil, seeds and wood are steep, so the cost of urban farming can easily add up.

Gardeners are left to the whims of Mother Nature when it comes to the fate of their plots. Frosts can kill a crop, hurricanes can tear them down, heat can dry them up, and rain can drown them.

“Heat is a bigger issue here, along with rain, sometimes not enough, sometimes too much.” Lafata said.

With Miami having an average of roughly 60 inches of annual rainfall, along with a dry season that runs throughout winter, the best that gardeners can do is prepare and prevent for the worst. Gardeners have to prepare against pests such as the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper and even iguanas, all which want to chow down on fresh garden greens. Finally, simply, and most importantly, running a garden takes a lot of work.

“The biggest problem we have at the garden is commitment,” Lafata said. “You need a lot of time to nurture and care for your plot to successfully grow anything.”

Smaller plants such as radishes and cucumbers can take up to three weeks to grow, while larger plants like pumpkins can take even longer. The combined factors can easily wear anyone down, but reaping your own delicious rewards in the form of a salad or a fruit tart can be a great joy at the end of the day.

“Everything grown tastes sweeter and better when it’s just picked,” Lafata said.

If the messiness of Dumpster Diving and the arduous labor of gardening threatens you, Farm to Table (FTT) is an alternative food source that you don’t have to work for.

FTT is a movement primarily for getting food locally and serving it to local customers. It also keeps customers informed about where their food came from.

Jensen Eddings, the director of Media & Marketing for Batch Miami, explains the benefits of those contacts: “Farm to table and using fresh ingredients benefits everyone: the supplier has the client, the restaurant enjoys the lower costs, and the customer gets fresh, local food. It’s a win-win-win…Through strengthening relationships with regional purveyors and highlighting local ingredients, South Florida cuisine has a chance to set itself apart from the rest of the country.”

Eddings also said that FTT is an easy, effective way to get fresh food. The quick access to local suppliers means that food can be used the same day that it’s picked, caught or slaughtered.

Like the rest of alternative food sources, FTT doesn’t come without its costs. Using local suppliers means that FTT restaurants can only use what grows in the area, and it can impact what gets cooked.

“Using local ingredients definitely forces flexibility,” Eddings said. “Sometimes people just run out of things. We do our best to stay ahead of slip-ups and make up for when it does happen with fun specials.”

Essentially, diners probably won’t be seeing things like cherries or Atlantic salmon on tables at FTT restaurants. Furthermore, some people are beginning to see FTT as a fad that’s quickly fading. Vanity Fair published an article titled, “Is It Time To Table Farm To Table?” dissecting how FTT is merely a fad popularized by good PR – a buzz word for fast food companies to use to prove that their food isn’t processed.

Eddings writes that FTT is more than just jargon to turn heads-it gives people the information that they want about the food that they want to eat.

“People love to get more out of their dining experience than ever before, so it’s raising the bar for everyone,” Eddings said. “In turn, we’re getting higher-quality restaurants. It’s awesome and an exciting trend to embrace.”

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Cover Photo Credit: Wei Tchou/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Correction (9-17-2015, 12:27 PM): The original version of this story incorrectly identified the person who runs social media and organizes meetings for the South Beach Community Garden. Her name is Laura Lafata. We regret the error and are happy to correct the record.

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