City-dwellers can find adventure in dumpster dining

From the Center City high rises to the sidewalks of North Philadelphia, columnist Sarah Sanders thinks there’s a thrill to be found in the quest for second-hand food.

From the Center City high rises to the sidewalks of North Philadelphia, columnist Sarah Sanders thinks there’s a thrill to be found in the quest for second-hand food.

Philadelphia is no Amazon rainforest. The flora and fauna leave something to be desired. The only trees we see are those planted in the acres of concrete and asphalt, and Philadelphia wildlife is restricted to pigeons, squirrels and stray cats – none of which taste very good. sarah sanders

We’ve come a long way from our nomadic ancestors who hunted and gathered their food daily. The food on our plates comes from boxes packaged in far away factories, delivered to us instantly in grocery stores and microwaves. Eating is about as exciting as writing a term paper.

Where has our sense of adventure gone? Scavenging used to be a challenging mission for food that was scarce. Today, America has transformed hunting into a confusing sport where people venture out wearing bright orange vests over camouflage-patterned suits. The wilderness has become a controlled environment, surrounded by cities and highways. We’ve made it far too easy for ourselves.

For some, however, the hunt is ongoing. Once again, food becomes a treasure to be sought out. But in this jungle of concrete, we cannot rely on wild hogs or fruit trees. We have to take what we can get in a world where meals have become so isolated from their origins. Usually, this means eating garbage.

Maybe you’ve picked up an old couch or bureau sitting on the curb before. Wasn’t it great? You found furniture outside for free. I bet you bragged about it to your foolish friends who bought their entire bedrooms from IKEA.

So imagine if the couch were a pizza, or the bureau were a bag of day-old bagels. Dumpster-diving and trash-picking have become a way of life for those who take pride in finding their own food.

It’s really just a matter of allowing yourself to venture outside your comfort zone. Teachers and parents have taught you that the stove is hot, the knife is sharp and the garbage is icky. This might be true for the trash can in your kitchen, and probably for any of the cans on South Street. But so are things you touch everyday without thinking twice: ATMs, TECH Center keyboards and elevator buttons, for example. Trust me – the half-eaten falafel wrap sitting on top of the garbage probably doesn’t harbor any more bacteria than the picnic table you eat at every day.

Dumpsters are even better. Restaurants and fast-food stores tend to throw out whatever they have left at the end of the night. We’re talking untouched food. They might have to throw it out because it’s technically expired or because health regulations dictate accordingly. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat it. Some of the best pickings you’ll find will be behind your local grocery chain or Panera Bread.

But just as droughts and frost might have inhibited the nomadic hunter, there are things you should be warned of before planning your first dumpster-diving endeavor.

First, meat is not a good idea. Depending on how long it’s been sitting outside, meat from a dumpster could be your last meal.

Also, be wary of trespassing on private property. Throughout these adventures, you will have to use your own judgment as to what seems lawful and what doesn’t. Let it be clear that picking from the trash is never illegal. Just don’t go jumping any barbedwire fences.

So the next time you see people rummaging through the garbage, don’t have pity on them. If anything, they should take pity on you. They’re taking advantage of one of the only real adventures left in this modern world – the quest for food.

Sarah Sanders can be reached at

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