The air was sweet on this late spring
night, and as many area high school students headed to proms, TJ Lamb
handed a bouquet of roses to Josh Cooke. Lamb wasn’t getting ready to
hop into a limo and dance the night away: He was standing shoulder deep
in a Dumpster situated in a parking lot behind Nedrow’s Aldi grocery
store, 6111 S. Salina St.
Cooke, who studies religion and public
health at Syracuse University, accepted the roses, a mixture of pride
and affection on his face. This was his friend’s first Dumpster dive,
and Cooke, a veteran with dozens of dives under his belt, was happy to
have him along on his weekly prowl. “The best things in life are free,”
says Cooke, smiling sweetly and holding up the bouquet of red roses.
In the course of a 15-minute excavation
in the Dumpster (which was well illuminated by security lights), Lamb
handed up salvaged treasures that would be composted or cooked to make
meals for hungry Syracusans. The Dumpster’s inventory made for an
eclectic menu: a half-dozen bags of scallions, an equal number of heads
of broccoli, seven loaves of white bread (no fishes), two packs of
cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, a honeydew melon and a cantaloupe (both too
soft for this reporter’s taste).
Arc of a diver: Josh Cooke goes airborne to find
goodies inside the Dumpster at the Aldi discount grocery store in
Nedrow. TJ Lamb awaits the plunder. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
There were also a few bags of celery
stalks, a fresh pineapple, two plastic cups of diced fruit salad and
two pale blue cardboard boxes of generic Golden Crèmes cookies.
What was his virgin dive like? “It
doesn’t smell that bad,” says Lamb, who lives with his parents in
Central Square. “Everything seems to be packaged.”
“I believe in beginner’s luck,” adds
ringleader Cooke. Earlier in the evening he had scored a major haul of
expired Flaxseed oil, bee pollen and a vitamin formulation labeled “The
Essential Woman” at natural food store Natur-Tyme, 5898 Bridge St.,
East Syracuse. “Do you know how expensive this stuff is?” asks Cooke
enthusiastically, holding the brown plastic pint of flaxseed oil in his
ungloved hands. “It’s kind of like Christmas morning,” he says, as he
returned to poking holes in plastic bags filled with packing peanuts to
find what lie within. “I think this is going to be a lucky night.”
A visit to the Dumpster at Panera Bread, 3409 Erie Blvd.
E., DeWitt, however, proved disappointing. Cooke strapped his headlamp
over his blue bandana and reached in, visions of fresh baked bread on
his mind, only to find white plastic bags filled with lettuce. “It
still smells edible,” he reports, “but somewhat slimy.” (This reporter
chose not to verify the scent, but can bear witness to the milky white
fluid collecting on the Romaine leaves.) “Last summer when I came here
I found garbage bags full of bread that was still warm. There was this
delicious rosemary bread; it smelled so good. . . ”
None of the managers at Panera wanted to
comment for this story, instead referring us to corporate headquarters.
An employee named Monica who answered the phone at the Erie Boulevard
eatery a few days later did say that the store had a policy of donating
leftover bread, but that sometimes when they couldn’t give it all away,
it did go in the Dumpster at the end of the night. “There have been a
lot of people,” she says, “going through the trash.”
Wondering if he might be diving in the
wrong Dumpster, Cooke ended his rosemary reverie and headed across the
loading dock parking lot to search another one. He peeled back the
black plastic cover, strapped his lamp on to his head, and leapt in.
“Oops,” he complains. “I definitely got Dumpster juice.” Dumpster
juice, in the diving world, is the fluid that runs out when foodstuffs
go bad. Vegetables, fruits, meats combine to make a stew that on a hot
day can stink to the heavens but on this night just made for something
that stuck unpleasantly to his sneakers. “The thing I hate the worst is
when they throw out meat,” says Cooke, a vegetarian and aspiring vegan.
Usually, according to Cooke, there isn’t
much of a gross-out factor when diving into a Dumpster, because much of
what he finds isn’t trash, it’s edible. Which is the point of all this
stealthy nocturnal creeping about—to demonstrate that we can live on
As for the food they collect, Cooke and
his cohorts take what they find and cook it every Saturday. They rustle
up soups, sandwiches and salads created wholly from society’s refuse,
then haul it to Hanover Square and pass it out to anyone who asks for a
bite. “The only thing we ask is that people not waste it,” says Cooke,
the oldest of four children raised in Nedrow and later, Cayuga County.
He grew up reading nature encyclopedias and working in his grandma’s
garden in Navarino. He graduated from Union Springs High School and,
yes, his mother raised him not to eat food that had fallen on the floor
without washing it first.
“My mother absolutely hates this idea,”
Cooke says. “She sees it as something sketchy. My dad was scared that I
would get arrested, but I took him along with me, and after a couple of
times he got used to it.”
Cooke doesn’t appear to worry about the
unsanitary nature of his workplace, either. He washes his hands all the
time, and claims he has never seen a rat in more than a year of regular
diving. “Rats can’t get into Dumpsters.” He has also taken his
16-year-old sister diving which, he says, prompted a death threat from
So, has Syracuse nightlife become so
mundane that it has come to this? “My reasons are complicated,” Cooke
explains. “It’s partly economic. I’m a full-time college student and
I’m poor, but I don’t need to do it. The real reason is that I have an
extreme distaste for waste. It’s a small form of direct action to make
a statement against consumerism.”
He does not label himself a “freegan,” a
person who will only live on what the rest of society has discarded. He
has a car and now, after months of pseudo-homelessness, couch surfing
and sleeping in Bird Library, an apartment off Westcott Street. Cooke
supplements his income by serving food to the residents of the
Nottingham, a senior living facility in Jamesville.
Lamb was pretty much along for the ride.
“I’m pretty much set for food,” he says pre-dive. “Anything I find I’ll
just donate to Food Not Bombs.”
Food Not Bombs is a 30-year-old
worldwide collection of anarchists who dedicate themselves to
redistributing the world’s wealth by turning garbage into fresh-cooked
kindness. As the name implies, they have strong ties to the peace
movement. They have run into legal problems in other cities,
particularly tourist meccas like Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas, where
some activists have been arrested for feeding street people, but thus
far in Syracuse none of the merry band of Dumpster divers have been
On their My Space site, Food Not Bombs
Syracuse describes itself as a “non-violent direct action collective
that works on immediately aiding those in the Syracuse community that
could use a helping hand. We try to pick up where governmental
organizations leave off, while raising awareness of some of the
problems affecting our local communities from such negligence.” The
local chapter has roots in the SU area dating back to the early 1990s.
The gathering place for cooking on Saturdays changes as participants
move, but most recently they listed a Westcott Street address.
This dive took place on a week when Josh
had just moved into his new apartment. His storage space was limited,
and he had to return much of what TJ rescued from Aldi back to the
Dumpster. “Usually we take everything we find, and if we can’t make
something out of it, we compost it.”
How long does Cooke intend to keep on diving? “Until I can’t find anything else, because it’s going somewhere that it belongs.”
Trash to treasure: Dumpster diving sometimes yields decent results, as this recent score demonstrates.
Full disclosure: Two days after the
Dumpster dive, this reporter ate cherry tomatoes harvested from the
dive. They were delicious sauteed with garlic, onions and kielbasa. On
the table as we ate was a vase filled with lovely rescued red roses.