Originally published April 3, 2016

 I've been homeless and unemployed for a long time. So I started scavenging out of necessity. But I would keep doing it even if I had were employed and dignified, to save money and prevent waste. It's smart and cool, like all forms of frugality.

I write this because it's not something that occurs to even the thriftiest of tightwads, and because even they reject the idea out of hand with some rationalization. "It's unhygienic," they say, but I've never gotten sick, even when all the food I ate was from trash cans. I'm on food stamps now. I can't spend that on anything other than food, so it doesn't cost me anything to scavenge less.

It wouldn't even have occurred to me if I weren't obsessed with not letting things go to waste. It started when I was hanging out alone in a dormitory's lounge, and some group walked in with a bunch of food, and then threw it away, with most of it untouched. "Americans. So wasteful," I thought. No one else was around, so I decided to unwaste it. I was newly homeless and not yet in the habit of scrounging, so I was hesitant for a bit. But it was great.

For several months, I fed myself by sneaking into that same building or the nearby one at 5am, and going to the lounge on every floor and picking out the good food. There was always enough that I could be picky about what refuse I consumed. There was good variety. Occasionally there was even alcohol. I stopped using those buildings after a few too many encounters with the cops. But that only happened when I was lazy and actually loitered in the building instead of looting the trash cans and splitting. It was hard not to, since the lounges were nice places with outlets, bathrooms, and free very fast wifi. Everything I needed!

After that I started using outdoor trash cans. This was a lot less fun. They were much farther apart, the amount of good stuff I could find was a lot less guaranteed, rain could fall and ruin stuff, and it was cold at night. Plus there was a much higher chance of being seen. Some part of me retained this irrational desire to appear dignified, so I only did this at night in the wee hours of the morning. I did it so much that I learned when janitors would be snooping around (annoyingly, essentially all the time), when students would be around, what days of the week were the best, and an efficient route that I could instantly modify depending on how much I wanted, how much I'd found already, which entrance to the campus I used, and so on, which ended somewhere that had an outlet and wifi. UCLA is nice enough to provide free wifi everywhere on campus.

When you're a veg*n1 and homeless and thus have no place to cook or store food, food stamps alone isn't enough to feed you. Scavenging was nice because it allowed me thus to not dip into my real money in order to eat enough, without eating nothing but raw ramen, raw oatmeal, and bananas. I could splurge on canned soup and cans of cold refried beans.

My original idea for this post also included some guidelines for what discarded foods are good and what are bad, with the obligatory "your health is your responsibility, not mine, use your judgement" and tips for how to avoid being spotted, and other things I learned over years of scavenging, but whatever. I'm not going to convince anyone to try it, so that would be pointless.


[1] My dietary restrictions are to not economically incentivize suffering. So I can't purchase eggs, dairy, or meat from things that can feel pain. I still buy clam products, because I'm pretty sure clams can't feel anything. For game-theoretic reasons, I can't accept gifts of these things either. But there's no reason for me not to eat meat that's been discarded and was going to be discarded regardless of my decision to eat it. I don't trust "cage free" bullshit about how some animals are in less horrible conditions than others. It's all probably pretty horrible. Anyway it's annoying that there's no short word for this, since in my view it should be the most common dietary restriction. "Vegetarianism" is stupid, since it tends to produce more suffering by way of replacing meat (small numbers of animals in Hell-conditions) with eggs (large numbers of intelligent animals in Hell-conditions).

1 comment:

  1. Someone anonymously commented asking for details, and I replied:

    it's been a while since I did this on a regular basis, but here's some stuff from off the top of my head:

    stay way the hell away from avocados
    rice and french fries are will typically be dried out and aren't worth trying
    don't go further down in a trash can than the first layer; anything below that will typically be too old
    orange chicken is usually good
    (for outdoor cans) variance is high; sometimes you find enough stuff to last a day or more and sometimes you find almost nothing
    if you pick up and a bag and it's light, it's empty. food has weight to it. banana peels are surprisingly heavy
    if there's a rat in the trash can, rescue it no matter how much effort it takes. don't be evil
    never think a particular can is "good" because you once found something great in it. those are unlikely one-off events
    the aftermath of a party is *the best* time to find lots and lots of leftovers thrown away for no reason

    most of the tastiest meals of my life have come from scavenging.