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Dumpster Diving, Gleaning Result In Tasty Apple Dessert

My investigative research into the subculture of dumpster diving culminates with my own dabbling into dumpster foraging and gleaning at an orchard.

Neglected apple orchard

Photo: Sarah Ostaszewski

Although some apples on the ground at the neglected orchard were bruised or leaking juice, many were still nearly perfect.

Reporting on others’ opinions and practices, while fruitful, cannot fully satisfy my understanding of the art of dumpster diving. Thus, my investigative research culminates with my own informed dabbling into dumpster diving.

I Fought The Law…

Foraging in dumpsters is positioned in a strange gray area, a middle ground in the legal system.

Garbage thrown to the curbs is a public good and may be appropriated by any member of the public. However, most dumpsters are located on private property. To forage would be trespassing, with all legal consequences applicable.

For my research, I had scoped out dumpsters with the hope of observing divers in action. Several dumpsters around downtown Bloomington looked promising for my own diving experience — all easily accessible from the road or sidewalk and without blockades.

One October evening, I rode my bike to a grocery’s dumpsters. Instead of witnessing fellow divers in action, I ran into a police officer. He informed me that no one would be taking anything from the dumpster that night. I told the officer that I was, in fact, writing a paper about the practice he was discouraging. He advised me to talk to the manager. Apparently the grocery store had allowed people to search the dumpsters in the past but no longer tolerates such behaviors, for fear of liability for contamination or illness.

Fruity Fortune

Undaunted, I visited another dumpster. I had seen a man rummaging in one of the grocer’s four bins while an employee was standing at the back door watching; he clearly did not mind a man sifting through the store’s discards.

With this encouragement, I returned later to see what I might find. The dumpster lid was completely open, and inside I found heads of lettuce, bell peppers and apples. Tubs of spring mix lettuce, pre-packaged apple slices and smashed pumpkins were further down. The vegetables and fruits looked only slightly bruised, and the packaged apple slices could surely make applesauce.

I only had my two hands to help carry the edibles back home, so I reached in, grabbed two apples and scrammed, feeling as though I had crossed some invisible boundary of social norms. Although I had only taken home two pieces of fruit, I considered the dive a success.

Gleaning Leads To Cooking

I decided early on to offer food reclaimed from the dumpster to my classmates as both an experiment and a treat. If I were to make a baked good with ingredients from the dumpster, would anyone eat it?

But before I started baking, I needed more apples.

I presented both the cake and applesauce to my classmates, who were not only eager for free treats during class, but also interested in the ingredients — and how I obtained them. The gleaned apples may have been too bruised for sale, but they served my purposes, and our taste buds, well.

Neighboring my family’s subdivision is an apple orchard, which is up for sale. This year, hundreds of pounds of apples were left to rot; branches drooped from the weight, and the ground was littered with yellow, red and green fruits. When I was home over Thanksgiving break, I knocked on the owners’ front door and asked to pick apples for my project. The man said, “Sure, have fun!”

Although some apples were bruised or leaking juice, many were still nearly perfect. With the help of some friends and family, I gleaned roughly 50 pounds that day. Gleaning refers to collecting leftover crops from fields after farmers have harvested foods for economic profit.

Eager to transform the haul into something delicious for my classmates, my aunt suggested a family recipe for apple cake. The apples, although bruised, created a dense, moist cake. As a bonus, I was also able to produce a tub of applesauce.

I presented both the cake and applesauce to my classmates, who were not only eager for free treats during class, but also interested in the ingredients — and how I obtained them. The gleaned apples may have been too bruised for sale, but they served my purposes, and our taste buds, well.

Orchards, gardens and farms are inevitable contributors to food waste, but next time you need some produce, try looking to the ground before heading to the grocery shelves.

And as for dumpster diving, with some courage to step outside the bounds (and into the bins) of society we can salvage perfectly-edible foods that would have otherwise been wasted.

This is the last of a trilogy of posts about dumpster diving. (Read part 1 here and part 2 here.) The facts and interviews presented are from a semester-long food journalism project, which involved researching and locating a food subculture within the Bloomington community. Names of individuals throughout this short series have been changed for research purposes.

Sarah Ostaszewski

Sarah Ostaszewski is a student of anthropology and fine arts at Indiana University. She dreams of fresh summer tomatoes from her family's garden, and she loves tasting unique ingredients, learning culinary histories, and tracing foods back to their roots.

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