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How to Dumpster Dive for Free Food

How to Find Free Food — Immediately prior to stepping foot off the farm for my first journey, my grandfather – who lived much of his life on the Road — took me aside and imparted some wise words of advice that have subsequently gotten me out of more jams and saved me more money [...]

How to Find Free Food —

Immediately prior to stepping foot off the farm for my first journey, my grandfather – who lived much of his life on the Road — took me aside and imparted some wise words of advice that have subsequently gotten me out of more jams and saved me more money than I could ever calculate:

“If you ever don’t have enough money to get food, find a donut shop, go in back of it, and there you will find more free food than you can eat.”

My grandfather had thus introduced me to dumpster diving.

I took his advice on that first journey, and eventually molded it into a diminutive science. In countries like the USA, which pathologically dispose of otherwise good food, a traveler can live well off of that which is left in those big green bins behind donut shops.

How to dumpster dive

Dumpster diving works on the premise that certain types of businesses dispose of perishable food that has not been purchased during day, packaged goods that are near their expiration date, or food that had its packaging damaged beyond the point of being salable.

To liberate this discarded food the only thing a prospective penny pincher needs to do is take it.

Chaya eating dumpstered food in Colorado

Chaya eating dumpstered food in Colorado

How to get free food from a dumpster

  1. Be as discrete as possible – I have been arrested for dumpster diving before. In court, the judge threw my case out as being nonsense, but it was still a hassle . . . and the arresting officers beat the shit out of me before hauling me off to jail. Was not fun.
  2. Approach a business after working hours or at night – Most dumpster diving is conventionally done at night. You do not want the business to know that you are taking their discarded food, and the dumpsters are generally filled up with fresh food as the businesses close down for the day.
  3. Be quick – Try to limit your time at a dumpster.
  4. Use a red filter lens for your flashlight – A flashlight is often necessary equipment for dumpster diving, but an unfiltered light may attract unwanted attention. Use a red filter lens or cut out a translucent piece of red plastic (like the kind in 3-D glasses) and stick it over the light end of your flashlight.
  5. Go for the closed trash bags – when at bagel or donut shops, dig into the trash bags for the fresh fill, rather than in the loose crap that are just thrown in the dumpster.

Food to look for

Bagels, donuts, pizzas, boxed goods, canned goods, food in packages.

Food to avoid

Table scraps, anything that smells bad, food that is mixed with garbage, food that is not in a container.

Good locations for dumpster diving

  1. Bagel or donut shops
  2. Pizza shops
  3. Supermarkets
  4. Factories that either make or package boxed or wrapped food
  5. Bottling plants

Not good locations for dumpster diving

  1. Restaurants – It is oftentimes just not worth it. Believe me.
  2. Trash cans – In most circumstances, I try to avoid trashcans full of table scraps.

The arts of dumpster diving have saved me more money than what I could ever calculate. Eating packaged goods, bagels, and pizzas from dumpsters is an optimal way to keep your costs low as you travel, or as you save up money for traveling.

Ever dumpster is a treasure chest of surprises: sometimes its contents fill your belly, and other times it just makes your hands real gross. You never  know until you dig in.

To save money to travel the world, most people need to cut their usual expenses. By trying to obtain a human’s three basic necessities —  food, water, and shelter — for free, a lot more funds are opened up for traveling the world.

Related pages

This travelogue entry is part of a series on how to make and save money for traveling

How to make money to travel

Filed under: Budget Travel, Cheap Food, Food, Save Money for Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3422 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

11 comments… add one

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  • Bob L July 23, 2009, 11:32 pm

    Great idea. I have dove, er.. diven, er dived er.. whatever, I have gotten, and still get furniture and other “things” that are being thrown out, but never tried it for food. David Barr did this as he traveled the world on a very old Harley and a tight budget. Helped him make it through.

    Just please be VERY careful. Sometimes dumpsters are sprayed for bugs or rats. I had a neighbor that fed his trout pond with scraps from the dumpster at his work place. They sprayed it without him knowing it and all the fish died. Of course, this was table scraps, mostly bread, but use it as a warning.

    Bob L

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  • Baron July 24, 2009, 9:52 am

    There’s an entire movement based on raising dumpster diving to an art form. Check out:

    http://freegan.info
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeganism

    I’ve personally never done it. But I would before I went hungry.

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  • admin July 24, 2009, 9:50 pm

    Hello Bob, you are right on . . . sometimes dumpsters are poisoned or the food intentionally ruined (bleached). . . especially if the business knows that “homeless people” are digging through them. Though this is not very common. I have never hit upon a dumpster that had food that was intentionally ruined or poisoned.

    Baron,

    Haha, yeah, the movement behind “reclaiming” discarded goods is pretty interesting. I suppose I was once a little more idealistic about these sorts of living strategies, and myself and friend use to try to live entirely off of dumpstered (or shoplifted, scammed) food . . . It is an interesting way to live, for sure.

    Thanks,

    Wade

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  • The Longest Way Home July 25, 2009, 4:34 am

    Hey Wade,

    Great article. I had a sniff around some Filipino dumpsters, but am afraid the rats and heat got there first. They don’t waste much!

    I remember seeing a dumpster by subway in London being filled with clear bags of vegetables and cheese. Unfortunatley they’ve started using massive padlocks now to prevent all this.

    Massive shame as their’s many needy on the streets. Not just vagabonds. Government regulation make it not possible to use expired food to give away, so eateries can’t give it away even if they want too. Why the padlocks though? I don’t know.

    Good work on WP transfer by the way! You might want to change your name from “Admin” though! 😉

    Dave

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    • admin July 25, 2009, 9:56 pm

      Hello Dave,

      Those locks appear on dumpsters in the USA too haha. Part of the philosophy of the Garbage Liberation Front is to carry bolt cutters . . .

      It is a sad day when businesses hoard their garbage away from hungry or otherwise thrifty people who want it.

      Thanks for the feedback on the WP migration. I appreciate it.

      Link Reply
  • Emery July 25, 2009, 2:08 pm

    Regarding Bob’s comments on obtaining home furnishings and what-not from other people’s discards, I saw a mother and daughter walking along the street this week. The teen-aged daughter was holding a dirty but functional child’s scooter and the mother was picking up a longbow as tall as she was from a pile of trash at a neighbor’s house. I thought to myself, it’s not every day you see people picking up longbows from street corners.

    As for finding your meals in dumpsters, just try and make sure to get your vegetables. It looks like Chaya has found some apple sauce there in the photo, so that’s good. I’m just saying the donut diet is not an altogether healthy choice.;-)

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    • admin July 25, 2009, 9:52 pm

      Good observation, Emery,

      Much of the safely edible food that is readily available from dumpsters is highly processed and packaged. But sometimes good vegetables and fruit do appear. In all, discount grocery stores tend to be the best place for healthy food.

      Link Reply
  • Pamela September 3, 2009, 8:28 pm

    I’m going to have to start doing this just because the Food Stamp department cut me off. There is supposedly now a lot more money going towards food stamps but then the various counties that administer it do not adhere to federal regulations on anything else and so hungry people who can’t get jobs to save our lives, wind up having no food stamps either. My problem is that I live in an area where there aren’t a lot of food-serving businesses around – only two supermarkets within a 2-mile radius, one coffee shop, nothing but houses mostly. It’s mostly residential and considered “upper middle class” (I live with my brother who earns enough to keep the roof over our head but not enough for any food or spending money after that). And to take a BUS to someplace where there ARE more food establishments…I know this has to be done after dark after the places close but buses don’t run after 6pm around here!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com September 3, 2009, 9:37 pm

      Pamela,

      We use to tie plastic milk crates onto bicycles and ride to dumpsters at night. I have found that this is the perfect vehicle for dumpster diving.

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  • Despina Neveu December 29, 2010, 9:49 pm

    Wow! Thank you! I constantly needed to write on my blog something like that. Can I include a portion of your post to my website?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 30, 2010, 1:51 pm

      Thanks. Feel free to quote a paragraph or two, and please include a link to the original page.

      Walk Slow,

      Wade

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