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Dumpster Dining and Roadkill Gourmet

ben hewitt

“What’s that?”

Erik leaned forward to peer through the windshield. It was night, and a searing, cold wind swept snow across the roads, turning patches of Vermont’s Interstate 89 to ice. The landscape looked lunar and foreboding — and deadly. Already, barely 20 minutes into our quest, we had passed a Toyota truck lying on its side, reflecting the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle. A few miles later, we passed an overturned sedan, its nose pressed against the ice-rimed surface of a rock face. I thought I saw one of its wheels still spinning; the passenger door hung open.

I followed Erik’s gaze. Ahead of us, illuminated by the wash of our headlights, a deer lay crumpled against the guardrail. Erik turned to me, and although I did not know him well, I knew him well enough that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking.

Our car shimmied on the ice as we came to a stop at the highway’s edge. We stepped into the glacial air, our breath pluming in the dark. I bent over the deer and tucked an ungloved hand into the fold of fur where leg met body. Still warm. This was a fresh kill, a coveted prize. We grabbed legs, Erik at the front and me at the rear, and hoisted the deer into the back of my car to lie atop a pair of jumper cables and a rusty tire iron. “What a blessing,” Erik said as we slipped back into the car and its welcome cocoon of warmth.

We had our meat. It was time to find some cheese.

When my friend Erik Gillard first revealed to me that nearly half his food came off the roadside or out of dumpsters, I was intrigued. It wasn’t so much that I needed the calories; despite three consecutive years of sharply declining income due to the recession, my family is in a better place than the record 38 million Americans who currently receive food stamps. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get a glimpse of a thriving global subculture known as “freeganism.”

I was born to ’60s-era back-to-the-land parents, and reared in a two-room cabin with neither running water nor electricity. It was an upbringing that imbued me with a certain degree of anti-capitalist tendencies, though I should note that I’ve got nothing on Erik: In 2009, he happily grossed less than $6,000 and is intent on earning even less in 2010.

Food waste enough to feed another nation

I’d long been aware that 40 percent of food produced in America is discarded — a 50 percent increase over the past quarter century. Indeed, Americans throw away a shocking 1,400 calories per person per day, which is almost enough to sustain the average Haitian, where the national, pre-earthquake allotment was a mere 1,730 calories. If the wealth and hubris suggested in such statistics is a national embarrassment, I’ve seen little evidence of it.

Our nation is currently mired in the worst economic downturn in a generation. In a single year, from 2007 to 2008, the number of Americans living in food insecure households rose by nearly 13 million to a total of 49.1 million. The statistics for 2009 won’t be available until later this year, but given the torpor in the economy, it’s unlikely they’ll show any improvement.

What does it say about our nation, about our culture, about us, that we throw away nearly half of our food in the face of these numbers? How do we reconcile our overheated garbage disposals with the sad fact that nearly one in six of us struggles to get enough food to meet the basic needs of good nutrition? If there’s a silver lining to any of this, I suppose it’s in the fact that it’s not food we’re lacking, it’s will. But to me, that lack of will is the saddest thing of all.

After the dumpster diving, the food sharing

On that frigid January night, Erik led me on a circuitous loop of his favorite dumpsters where we discovered cheese, butter, organic strawberries and salad dressing. “I love condiments,” Erik told me unnecessarily, after wedging four boxes of Italian Vinaigrette between the deer and the dairy. To the committed freegan, taking more than one needs is anathema, so Erik would keep only enough to sustain him for a few days. The rest would be distributed among a small circle of friends whose devotion to gleaning or simple need overwhelms any lingering fear that perhaps there was a good reason someone had tossed a few dozen pounds of brie.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that dumpster diving and freeganism in all its forms (which can include bartering or simple gifting) present a viable, large-scale solution to issues of food waste and misallocated resources. It certainly does nothing to address the cruel inertia of our habits. For all kinds of reasons — fear of food-borne illness, fear of altercations with the law, fear of stigma — it will likely remain the province of just a few, some out of necessity, some to make a statement and some for cheap thrills.

I suppose I fall somewhere between the latter two, yet, I found myself inspired by my friend’s commitment to sustaining himself on other people’s castoffs. There is something willful in it, a purpose that suits our times. And I was roused by his devotion to sharing. Just a few weeks prior to our outing, Erik had liberated more than 30 new-but-blemished winter coats from a nearby dumpster. He’d sent the bulk of them to a friend in Philadelphia, who had distributed them to the homeless.

Admittedly, there is sticky juxtaposition between Erik’s disdain for capitalism’s inevitable waste and the fact that it enables his coveted low-on-the-hog lifestyle.

“It is important to me not to get so attached to the trash that I don’t want to bring the system down,” he told me the next day, as we butchered the deer on his kitchen table. Parliament Funkadelic thumped from a pair of high-end Advent speakers that he’d found in a dumpster a year prior. They buzzed only a little.

That sounded noble, and I nodded my head. But the next day, as I pulled a chevre-crusted roast of venison loin from the oven and placed it before my family, I wasn’t thinking in such virtuous terms. I just wanted to hit the trash again.

Ben Hewitt writes and farms in northern Vermont. He lives with his wife and two sons in a self-built home that is powered by a windmill and solar photovoltaic panels. To help offset his renewable energy footprint, Ben drives a really big truck.