If things look a little greener around here this April, there's a good reason. Our editorial staff is busy expanding the ideals of Earth Day into a month-long celebration of energy conservation, alternative transportation, recycling tips and about a million ways you can be a better friend to the planet. Welcome to Green Month, Milwaukee.
Perre Kerch eats a Trader Joe’s pizza for dinner that looks, smells and probably tastes a lot like the frozen pizza you ate last week. The difference is, just a few hours earlier, Kerch’s pizza was in a dumpster behind the specialty grocery store.
"I ‘dumpster dive’ a couple of times a week," says Kerch, 25. "It depends on the weather."
Kerch is one of a growing number of people who eat mostly packaged, still-fresh food that grocery stores and restaurants throw in the trash. For years, such people were referred to as "dumpster divers," "urban foragers," "alley surfers" or "junk pickers," but in recent years, the term "Freegan" emerged.
According to the Freegan Web site, "Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources … After years of trying to boycott products from unethical corporations responsible for human rights violations, environmental destruction and animal abuse, many of us found that no matter what we bought we ended up supporting something deplorable. We came to realize that the problem isn't just a few bad corporations but the entire system itself."
Eating discarded food -- sometimes called "waste reclamation" -- is just one aspect of the Freegan lifestyle. Many Freegans also embrace eco-friendly transportation, rent-free housing (squatting) and working less / voluntary joblessness.
Kerch, however, works a full-time job as a drywall installer, and dumpster dives by choice. He regularly checks the garbage bins at the Outpost, Aldi, Sendik’s, Lena’s, Breadsmith and Trader Joe’s.
"So much food is going to waste. It doesn’t make sense to buy food when I can get good food from the trash can," he says.
Micah Johnson agrees. He says he spends about $10 a week on food -- mostly cups of coffee -- and the rest of his diet depends on what he finds in the trash.
"I think I eat better than most people. A lot of slightly bruised fruits and vegetables. Boxes of crackers a day over their expiration date," he says. "It's gotten to the point that scads of people can now live off of what others toss away."
Kerch says he only buys vegan food, but when retrieving food from the trash he’s open to most edibles, including meat. "Other (dumpster divers) are more picky, but I’ll take just about anything," he says.
Kerch doesn’t pay attention to expiration dates. Instead, he determines for himself through sight and smell if the discarded food is fresh or rancid. On a recent Trader Joe’s visit, he scored the aforementioned frozen pizzas, a few packages of cheese (one was slightly moldy, the others completely mold free), miscellaneous produce and loaves of still-fresh bread.
Trader Joe’s around the country are known among Freegans as good places to score trashed food, but Kerch says employees at the Glendale location have yelled at him and shooed him away.
"We take the safety of our customers and donations very seriously," says Mochizuki.
According to Cecilia Gilbert, communications manager for the Department of Public Works (DPW), it is illegal to dig through trash in the City of Milwaukee. According to city ordinance 79-5.5, Unauthorized Removal of Contents of Waste Containers, "no person shall remove any material from a waste containers that has been furnished by the city for collection of solid waste."
"The city is silent on private waste dumpsters," says Gilbert.
Many businesses have policies against dumpster diving because they are concerned about their liability if a diver were to get hurt in the process of retrieving food or sick from food eaten out of the trash. Some speculate that businesses do not want people digging through their trash because it’s potentially bad for business.
"No one ever said getting food from the trash is a pretty sight, but look beyond that, people," says Johnson. "Or look away."
Despite its strict laws, Kersh says Milwaukee is much easier on dumpster divers than other places. "Milwaukee is friendly to dumpster divers compared to Madison. Living there was rough. It seems (dumpster diving) really weirded people out," he says.
Rescuing items from curbsides or alleys is also a popular pastime and way of life for lots of Milwaukee folks. Katie Maedke-Hall says a lot of her furniture was found curbside or in dumpsters, and that office supply box stores often throw out return items
"The chair I'm sitting in right now came out of the dumpster at Office Depot on Hwy. 100, along with two electric pencil sharpeners, a box of unused DVRs and a zip drive," says Maedke-Hall. "The desks we found in our alley and on the curb. The filing cabinets came off the curb. We have a white board and a corkboard that were found in the trash, along with the lamp in the living room, my dresser, the guest bed frame, some flower pots, picture frames, the TV stand. I could go on and on."
Office manager Wendy Mesich routinely walks East Side alleys with her daughter and husband, checking for discarded food and items.
"I’ve found every kind of food including pizza, vegetables, donuts, packaged goods, juice and bagels, bagels bagels," says Mesich. "It just seems plain wrong to see anything perfectly good or in need of repair thrown in the dump. We need to use the resources available to us."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.