Dumpster Diving

I assure you that this is not what I did or ever will do.

Time waits for no one…every moment counts. Make it matter, right?

Yeah, I know. I need to keep all of this in mind. The blog entry you’re about to read was supposed to be written several weeks ago, but it was late…then, I was getting up early…and it happened all over again.

No more excuses.

So…dumpster diving. Considering the response I’ve received when I tell people this story, I might want to start with a definition of dumpster diving. A more accurate designation for the concept is called “urban foraging,” a tactic commonly used by freegans and homeless everywhere.

According to Freegan.info, “this technique involves rummaging through the garbage of retailers, residences, offices, and other facilities for useful goods. Despite our society’s sterotypes about garbage, the goods recovered by freegans are safe, useable, clean, and in perfect or near-perfect condition, a symptom of a throwaway culture that encourages us to constantly replace our older goods with newer ones, and where retailers plan high-volume product disposal as part of their economic model.”

One Friday evening, me and my companion VISTAs were enjoying frozen treats at Amy’s Ice Cream when Tina suggested we find a Panera and try dumpster diving. I was all in. Paul was hesitant, but more than willing to observe. We drove around in a circle for ten minutes before we finally found the Panera and started sleuthing around to find their dumpsters. We found a few different sets of dumpsters that, naturally, smelled atrocious and effectively killed the idea of eating, should we actually find anything.

Ready to give up, I suggested we ask where the dumpsters are, already expecting the answer to be no. We decided that Tina, being white, would ask…even if she couldn’t keep a straight face. While we were clean and well-groomed, I’m black, Paul’s Filipino, and we didn’t want to be negatively stereotyped.

We approach the set of front doors, now being wiped down by an employee since it’s past 10 and they’re closed. We motion for her to open the door. She tells us they’re closed. We persist, so she comes to the door. Tina, in her best efforts to be serious, blankly asks, “Yes, we’re wondering where your dumpsters are.” The lady doesn’t speak English very well, so Tina starts speaking in Spanish.

“This is even better!” I tell Paul.

The lady leaves to get the manager and I notice that the bags of bread we’re searching for are in the front of the store. The manager approaches with this confused and slight grin and asks how he can help us.

We explain that we’re AmeriCorps VISTAs and we’re wondering what they do with their bread at the end of the day.

“Well, we normally donate it. The lady who usually does our weekend pickup hasn’t been by in a few weeks. I’m not sure if she’s still on vacation or what, so you’re more than welcome to take what you want.”

Smiles immediately come to our faces.

We walk in and see four huge bags of bread on the floor. The manager disappears for a second and returns with a box of pastries, telling us we can have those too. Considering that they’re going to throw it all away, we agreed to take it all. All four bags and one box that we later guesstimate at about 80 lbs.

Fortunately, Tina was apartment sitting for a former co-worker of ours, so we took the bread to his place to sort out what we wanted and decide what to do with it.

We get to the apartment, wash our hands and open the bags. Bagels galore! Asiago, cinnamon crunch, Dutch apple and raisin, chocolate chip, plain, and sesame. There’s also cake, cookies, sourdough balls and bread bowls, whole grain miche, and loaves of tomato basil and Asiago bread. I could even be forgetting something, there was so much.

After choosing what we wanted, we planned to go under the bridge at 9 am the following morning. If you’re not familiar with San Antonio, “under the bridge” is where a lot of homeless people aggregate to take advantage of the services there: two shelters, a free dining hall, and a church aptly titled Church Under the Bridge.

We got back late and rose early (hence this blog not being written that night at the height of my excitation). The car smelled like Asiago cheese. Interestingly enough, on the way to taking the bread downtown, there was someone at the light asking for food. We tied the bags too tight to open fast enough, so Tina gave the man a few granola bars, a practice of hers she immediately grew to adore. Once we got downtown, we parked the car and went to the St. Vincent DePaul Dining Room to see if they could take the bread. They could and they did. All of it. After we gave it to them and got back in the car, a feeling of dissatisfaction overcame us.

“I wanted to give the bread out,” I said.

Paul and Tina echoed my sentiments. I jumped out the car, rang the doorbell, and asked them to give me back a bag of bread. They obliged.

We drove around the building and parked under the bridge, pulled out the bread, and started asking passersby if they wanted some bread. Some were hesitant, but many accepted. I noticed that there were a lot of people looking at us, but they weren’t going to come over and ask for the bread. I understood. Pride. We’ve all got some. I grabbed a loaf of bread out the bag and started going around to people to see if they would like any. No one was rude. One man told me that he didn’t want any, he was just going to stand there waiting on his socks to grow. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I smiled and told him to have a good day and continued down the line.

Eventually, I had three slices of bread left. I approached this woman and asked her if she’d like some bread. She was very appreciative and felt the need to give something to me as well.

“Don’t ever change,” she said. “I may be homeless, but I volunteer too. I work. I clean. Sometimes, I counsel others. There’s always something you can do.”

She spoke to me for a good ten minutes about life and how important it is to give back because everyone needs a helping hand. She thanked me, I thanked her, and that’s what we call a “‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re welcome’ moment.”

The giving high lasted for quite a while…and actually, when I recount this story, I can’t help but to feel good all over again.

Those 12 hours taught me a lot and showed me the importance of the work I do here as a VISTA. Although I definitely don’t feel like I make an impact at my hosting site, there’s more I can do on my own, outside of my prescribed duties, to enhance this experience.

Lessons learned:
– Ask. Why not?
– Bakeries get rid of food daily and may not have organizations to donate to. It’s easy to get the perfectly good food they intend to throw away at the end of the day to give it those who need it.
– Giving is infectious. We immediately planned to return to Panera, and did the very next week. The organization they donated to has resumed weekend pickup, so we’ll be finding another bakery. Whole Foods is taken.
– There’s always something you can do.
– It’s really easy and convenient to keep a bag of granola bars in your car (hello, Dollar General) to give to those who ask for food or money for food.
– I don’t eat much bread anymore. I ate one of the bread bowls and a tiny slice of the middle, but that was it.
– “‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re Welcome'” moments” are phenomenal! (This I knew, but reminders are always nice.)

February 4, 2009 | filed under give time/money, inspiring 


11 Responses to “Dumpster Diving”

  1. Tina (yes, the same one from the adventure) on February 5th, 2009 1:31 pm

    Leandra, this is very well written! I think that I, too, will forever have a smile creep to my face when I think about that weekend. God is great, and I feel so blessed that He used us in such a way that night and that morning.

    Thanks for writing this all up, even if it does make me crave an Asiago bagel as I type…

  2. Denise Williams on February 6th, 2009 1:03 pm

    Leandra, there is absolutely nothing that you will do for the sake of helping someone else that will catch me off guard. This is just a continuum of who you have always been. May you always be considerate of others. Mom.

  3. Speaks Beliefs on March 17th, 2009 11:02 am

    In a recent fit of recent Holiday Season greed, I pre-ordered two fried turkeys for our family Christmas Feast. When I picked up the turkeys on Christmas Eve, I began to feel guilty. “Why did we need 2 fried turkeys?” I asked myself. On Christmas morning, I traveled to an organization that I volunteered for a few times, “Hosea Feed the Hungry”. They usually feed the homeless a huge feast on major holidays. I delivered the turkey to someone working at the door. He took the turkey and the same feeling you described came over me. I felt empty. I didn’t go back to get the turkey. On my way home, I thought about how good it would have felt to actually give the turkey to someone (or a family) waiting in line. I didn’t like the empty feeling, but never turned around. That was on my mind all of Christmas Day.

    Lesson learned. It won’t be much, but I plan to purchase two turkeys from now on. However, in the future, I will give the second turkey to someone who needs it directly. Perhaps I’ll go to the back of the line and give it to someone there.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  4. Leandra on March 17th, 2009 11:16 am

    It’s amazing how little it requires of us to help and be useful. Even in helping by giving away the turkey, it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough even though you’re doing something.

    The two turkey purchase is a good look. It’ll be a nice new tradition to create. 🙂

    Since we were shot down by the Panera folks to continue our giving, I’m going to have to find another company to get food from to give to an org. So simple and rewarding.

  5. Lizeth on March 17th, 2009 11:38 am

    It was an inspiring deed Leandra!! Keep motivating those who know you with your insight and proactive example! Call me for the next dumpster diving project! 🙂 Un abrazo!

  6. Jamie on March 17th, 2009 1:10 pm

    That was nice lady. 🙂

  7. The Star of David and Willy Wonka Hair - Paint My Words on March 18th, 2009 8:22 am

    […] is what  I use for my paint set-up area. I pulled this great find out of an apartment complex dumpster, added pine tar resin so that it could last a voyage at sea if necessary, and finally after the […]

  8. Pamela on March 22nd, 2009 10:24 am

    Practicing and living a love ethic for sure…

    I love that you love the world!


  9. Tina on August 16th, 2010 12:46 pm

    As a follow-up to this article, there’s an organization that is dedicated to the cause of rescuing food that otherwise would have been discarded and give it to those in need. If you are willing to donate approximately 90 minutes of your time one night each month, to rescue food that otherwise would have been discarded and give it to those in need, check out http://www.foodrescue.net. There are currently 48 Food Rescue chapters in 18 states, and a local chapter president will guide you through the whole process.

  10. Jason on December 28th, 2014 3:06 am

    God bless you guys! Im so glad and thankful for people that can overcome their fear! And do something that scares and in some cases grosses them out! And then do the right thing in return. If us a a society could awaken ourselves and take our country back! We could act like a society and be one people. We are all the same. However we are all different. One persons flaws are anothers strengths. God bless you again. Thow shall not judge less you be judged!! Thanks jason

  11. Leandra on December 28th, 2014 3:26 am

    thank you, jason! this is exactly my philosophy on life. what makes us human unites us, despite our differences. those differences provide us with opportunities to expand our perspectives and to understand that what’s real, what’s presented as “truth” is often a subjective experience. thank you for taking the time to read. 🙂

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