When we meet up with Josh (he asked us to keep his last name a secret), it’s 10 p.m. in front of Organic Avenue, a cold-pressed juice boutique on the Upper West Side. The light from the store casts an inviting yellow glow on the pavement outside, but tonight we have no interest in actually walking through the door. We’re waiting for the store to finishing closing and the employees to take out the trash. Josh is here to forage.
For the past three months, Josh has lived almost exclusively off the food he finds in their trash. He’s not a freegan trying to make a political statement and he’s not homeless. In fact, before Organic Avenue, Josh had never dumpster dived. “I was definitely a find-things-for-free kind of guy, but that’s more like going to an event where there is free food or finding furniture on the curb. I’d never looked through trash bags or dumpsters.”
Even now, he’s never collected free food at any place other than Organic Avenue. (He started after a friend told him about her own positive experience.) But, as a graduate student without much of an income, he’d rather not spend money on New York City’s overpriced groceries. By Josh’s estimate, he eats upwards of $200 worth of Organic Avenue products a week, including the salads and wraps he finds unopened in the trash, as well as their signature juices.
4 Super Green Mylks ($10 each)
2 Spicy Avocado Soups ($9 each)
3 Oregano Candida Cleanses ($4 each)
2 Quinoa and Kale-Collard Salad ($12 each)
2 Veggie Tahini Wraps ($9 each)
1 Thai Collard Wrap ($9 each)
1 Cold-Pressed Café Latté ($8 each)
1 Japanese Sweet Potato side dish ($5.50 each)
It’s enough food to last Josh a few days before he’ll have to return to his hunting grounds. “Not bad,” he says. “But not great, either.” As we’re digging around, a scruffy, possibly homeless man comes by and has an amiable discussion with Josh about their preferred sorting processes. He claims that he’s had trouble keeping the salads fresh in the past, but loves the juices.
Asked if he’s worried he’s taking food from others in greater need, Josh carefully considers the implications of what he does. “Sometimes I worry that I’m taking too much and there won’t be enough for the next person who comes along,” he says. “I feel a little guilty, but I’ve never been here where there’s no food — even when I come at midnight or one o’clock in the morning. My guess is that every day, some food makes it into the garbage truck. I only take what I’m going to eat.”
So, this has radically changed the way you’ve eaten for the last three months. You’ve probably had more Organic Avenue than just about anyone, ever.
“Other than breakfast, this has been my primary source of nutrition, calories, and energy for the last three months. I’m known in my school for just showing up in class and during our breaks whipping out one of these neon-colored drinks and chugging it as if it’s nothing. Everyone wants to look and no one wants to taste.”
Oh, so they know how you get it then?
“They don’t quite know. I do tell them I get it for free. I don’t tell them that the bag has been sitting on the sidewalk for a number of hours, probably been urinated on by a number of passing animals, that I go through it with my hands, and that sometimes I have to rinse off the containers when I get home before I consume it.”
“No. There are some of them that, even when I get home, I can taste that they’ve already gone bad. I can tell pretty quickly and I pour it out. When they go bad the bottles expand. One time, I opened one of those and just left it on my counter and it volcanoed over. It was miraculous to watch. Believe it or not, I actually took a sip of it to see if it was drinkable — as I expected, it was not. But, I wanted to be sure before I dumped something down the drain.”
The actual food seems a little bit more suspect, but you eat that too…
“Their food is all sealed. All the salad is sealed, so it’s reassuring to know that the seal is still on. Those last for a while, too. Actually, today, I had saved a wrap for dinner! I took the wrap from here around eight days ago, which is far too long [laughs]. I had the first half four days ago which was already a little…ehh. But, luckily, I’ve never had any intestinal or bathroom issues relating to this.”
Are there often other people here when you arrive?
“The only other person is ‘E’ [a woman we saw searching the trash before us.] I haven't seen anyone else twice. There have been times where I’ve been doing my search and some people have walked by and they’ve looked for one or two things, or walked by and asked me, ‘Are there any juices tonight?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah! Do you want this one or this one?’ and I hand them one. In the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘I’m the only one doing all the work and they don’t even attempt to help out at all!’”
Do you feel self conscious when you’re looking through the trash?
“I did the first couple of times. There’s this moment where I’m just standing on the sidewalk near the trash, to where I’m now going through the trash. Somewhere in there there’s a significant transition — a very significant transition. I was wary about it and so I’d often keep my hat on and I’d often keep my bike helmet on just as a slight form of disguise. I always have my head down at the task at hand. When I pass people looking through the trash, I think and feel certain ways, and I imagine that when people pass by me, they’re thinking those same ways, too.”
“Yeah. Well, my first thoughts are always very little picture. Like, this place could disperse their food much more efficiently. There are organizations that would come pick it up. My gut reaction is that this is food that’s going to waste. That this is someone’s meal right there. And then I zoom out a little and say, to be fair, this place is not throwing out 10 percent of the food that a restaurant throws out on a given day. This place isn’t throwing out even a fraction of the food that gets thrown out in the city on a given day. Or at massive corporate events. And, even if all the food thrown out on a typical day was given to a person that could utilize it, that still doesn’t get to the root of the problem, which is: Why do some people need food in this way, period? This is a symptom of a much bigger issue that needs people who are much wiser about why homelessness and hunger exists [to address]."
What was your reaction when you finally went into the store and learned what the actual prices were?
“I had heard what the price of the juices were. And, I kind of believed it, but I also really disbelieved it. Some of these juices are $12! I would not even pay a $1.50 for some of these $12 juices. That says more about my spending habits than it does about the juices. Some people live on this stuff for 10 or 15 days straight — how much money is that!? Sometimes I go home with 15 juices and 5 salads. Doing the math, that’s more than $200 retail of food. I’m like, 'Oh, wow! I’m really getting something here.'"
What’s your view of the people who do choose to buy it?
“My reflexive view is to be judgmental and say that they’re wasting their money, but then I take a step back. Everyone has their own reason for getting it. Some people have health reasons, some people want to be trendy, and some people just want good quality food. And, it is good quality — it’s all raw, organic stuff. There is, in any 15 ounce bottle, like a pound of spinach or chard, or whatever. If you buy a pound of lettuce, it’s going to cost a lot.”
Your skin looks great — you look like a pretty healthy guy. How do you feel after three months of eating almost exclusively Organic Avenue?
"Well, to be honest, I don't feel much different than I did before. But, then again, my diet before was already pretty healthy — it was almost all vegetables, beans, brown rice, etc. I do feel really good, though, in general."