Hard Times USA

Dumpster Diving in the Great Recession: 'I Did It Because I Was Hungry" (Hard Times, USA)

An excerpt from "The Book of the Poor: Who They Are, What They Say, and How To End Their Poverty."

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Johnny Habell

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Book of the Poor: Who They Are, What They Say, and How To End Their Poverty.A number of the interviews Heise did with homeless people eventually focused on their experiences in “dumpster diving.” The poor commonly employ the term to describe scavenging food from the large receptacles behind grocery stores or apartment buildings.

The next time you feel like complaining, remember that your garbage disposal probably eats better than 30 percent of this world.

—Robert Orben, Reader’s Digest, February 1979

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In 2012 Cornelius, an older homeless man who has been living in a suburb north of Chicago, started by telling me of the first time he ever tried dumpster diving.

I did it because I was hungry. I was proud and I did not want anyone to see me doing it. I went through dumpsters behind apartment buildings in Chicago. In the first block, I did not find anything, but in the next one I discovered a large pizza with only half eaten. I took it over to the house of a friend, who heated it up so everybody there had some. I did not tell them where I got it from.

I used to do it to find clothes. You would find a pair of pants or shirt and take it the laundry to clean it. I want decent clothing. I don’t want people to know I am poor.

Behind grocery stores, I’ve gotten polish sausages, hamburger meat, and even steaks. Often, I’d find corn, butter and milk and, recently, cottage cheese. I don’t like it, but my friend did, and I gave it to him.

Sometimes, he and I find a lot of food and we take what we can get and share it with others.

I never go to the bottom of the dumpster, but he does. Often, that is where the best stuff is and you have to go there after it, but I still don’t.

You find a lot of broken glass in there and you got to be careful.

There is one woman, who is a friend of ours, who just jumps into a dumpster and goes through it like nobody else.

If people want to throw away a television set or something like that, they know a lot of us dumpster dive and they will put it next to a dumpster. If they carefully place the remote on top, then that tells you it works.

We also go through the dumpsters people rent when they are moving and want to throw things away. You’d be surprised what you can find and then sell.

You find DVDs, furniture, jewelry, and other things you can sell. Once, I found a bag of coins in with a box that contained clothing. It only contained nickels, dimes, and quarters, but it was a big bag and the total came to almost $100.

Once you get into one of those dumpsters, you never know what you are going to find.

His friend added: “I keep what I need, and I share the rest with other people. I usually keep any meat.”

To get the following account of his dumpster diving in 1965, I interviewed Karl Meyer, a friend and a frequent dumpster diver. “Are there many people in the area in Chicago where you live who do it?” I asked.

His answer:

I think there are 100 people in the Cabrini-Green Projects neighborhood who go to grocery store garbage cans for food regularly. I would say 100 at least. A lot of them are really dependent on that food. When they come to the end of their welfare check, and if they dig diligently, they can live it out.

The ones you see are mainly the old people and the more odd types you see walking around with shopping bags. They always have the shopping bags.

The best time is Saturday night just before the store closes for the weekend or the night before a holiday like Christmas. When they have all the special food and can’t keep it. However, any time during the day might be good. They throw things out all day. When it gets really cold, there are not as many people hunting for food. We can tell. We get a lot more stuff.

From practically any garbage can in the neighborhood we can always get partial loaves of bread that doesn’t get stale real easy.

In the summer, the bottle gangs move in. They try to get a box of something and peddle it. The irresponsible ones dump the garbage all over the place. Others try to leave the place at least as decent as when they came.

You have to be careful and wear gloves. There are often broken bottles in the cans.

Here is a list some of the things we’ve gotten at different times:

8-ounce bags of shelled walnuts.

After Halloween, a bushel of Halloween candy.

Eggs on numerous occasions—as many as three dozen eggs as many as three or four times a day. One or two eggs in a carton break and drip down the carton and they throw them away.

Once, a bushel of apples in good condition.

Any kind of boxed commodity in which they slit into it when opening it with a knife—flour and dried eggs for example.

Any kind of can goods with a label.

Jelly or syrup from a case in which one bottle broke and dropped down onto others.

In summer, bushels every day of the outside stalks of celery.

Fruit—once six lemons in excellent condition.

Broccoli, bunches of it and often.

One winter night, a whole bag of onions, slightly frostbitten.

If they put the food in a special place instead of the dumpsters and garbage cans, it would become respectable and everyone would go there. Then, the really destitute wouldn’t get it.

Copyright © 2012 by Kenan Heise. Reprinted with permission of Marion Street Press, Portland, OR.

Kenan Heise is an award-winning author and journalist as well as an inductee into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. A retired reporter, columnist, and staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, he served for 17 years as the editor of the “Action Line” column and for 15 years as the chief obituary writer. He is the author of 25 books, including He Writes About Us and They Speak for Themselves: Interviews with the Destitute of Chicago. He lives in Chicago.