On The 'Restaurant' Menu: Food Salvaged From Dumpsters

Restaurants don't usually serve garbage to their patrons. Then again, most restaurants aren't operating on The Gleaners' Kitchen philosophy. The home-based bistro, conceptualized by Tufts University student Maximus Thaler, features a menu of food foraged from the trash.

Thaler, 22, and other members of his collective household, who have been "dumpstering" for years, make regular middle-of-the-night runs to grocery store trash bins to salvage edible food that's been tossed out, then cook it up for themselves and their friends.

This summer, they'll be serving their culled culinary creations to anyone who stops by. Food will be free; donations accepted. Thaler will be drawing on the food prep experience he got working in the kitchen at Bread and Puppet theater, a radical arts community based in Vermont.

He'll also be using his skills honed over years of finding free food.

"I made my first dumpster run my freshman year of college," says Thaler. "I was shocked at what we found. Stores, bakeries and other shops throw out unbelievable amounts of perfectly good food."

Statistics bear him out.

Grocery stores discard close to 43 billion pounds every year — about 10 percent of the total food supply at the retail level. Stores toss food that has damaged packaging, is blemished or getting close to its sell-by date. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion each year in unsold produce.

"If one egg is cracked, they'll throw out the whole carton," says Thaler. "If one piece of fruit has gone soft, the whole bag goes out. In most stores, there's no infrastructure in place to repackage, mark down or donate. That's not where the profit margin is."

To help underwrite the cost of operating a restaurant where everything is free, Thaler, who graduates in May from the university in Medford, Mass., launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month to try to raise $1,500. The effort was so successful, he increased that number to $3,500 and contributions are still coming in.

He won't say where he forages, but it's clearly in high-end places. You can see Trader Joe's and Whole Foods labels in the video he shot for his Kickstarter campaign.

"I'm not looking to oust grocery stores," says Thaler. "I'm just looking to stop waste."

Thaler says there's a subculture of trash-pickers, called Freegans who find furniture, clothing and household goods, along with food, in dumpsters.

"They know where the best ones are and the best times to go," says Thaler.

While he's run into other dumpster divers during some of his midnight runs, he hasn't run into, um, wildlife.

"I've never seen vermin," says Thaler.

Gleaner's Kitchen hopes that some businesses will donate items.

"We'd like to serve coffee and we'll need cooking oil," says Thaler. "You don't find much of either in the trash."

Thaler admits that the entire undertaking — cooking gleaned food in a private home and giving it away, along with picking though garbage cans on private property — skates into "a gray area of legality."

On his website, he cites the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which prevents food donors from being liable for the nature of their donated food, except in cases of gross negligence.

He also references the case of California v. Greenwood, in which the Supreme Court ruled that, in most cases, once something is thrown out, it's in the public domain and anyone can search through it.

"I'm not a revolutionary. I'm not robbing a bank," says Thaler. "I'm just finding value where others don't."

Thaler refers anyone squeamish about eating garbage can specials to the Gleaner's Kitchen website (GleanersKitchen.org), where photos of beautiful platters of fruit, gorgeous salads, interesting entrees are a great advertisement for a locally-sourced café.

Of course, in this case, "locally-sourced" refers to area dumpsters, not area farms, but Thaler hopes people will get past the initial ick factor.

"We're turning waste into wealth by making fresh, wholesome meals from food that others thought was garbage," says Thaler. "Then we're giving it away. We're creating community."

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