Living in New Haven, a town without a full-service grocery store (since Shaw's closed its doors in March 2010), can mean a daunting and dire food access situation. But for some, it can also be a blessing. We are made to cultivate a food landscape that is varied and interesting, and stitched together in unusual ways. I look to my own house and community for inspiration. Homemade jams from my housemate's mother are spread atop a day-old bagel, with a cup of milk from the farmers' market. Local honey goes into a dressing with balsamic vinegar and salt from an organic food store, along with olive oil salvaged from a dumpster. Needless to say, grocery shopping for the week is a rugged, drawn-out, but ultimately satisfying adventure.
Dinner parties, when catered out of a dumpster with a lot of helping hands, are of little financial and logistical consequence.
At around 12:01 a.m. on a newly-minted Monday, we pull into the empty parking lot of some large-scale grocery store or other and run across the parking lot toward a dumpster. Employees have left for the evening, and a bounty of fresh detritus awaits us. Squeezing ourselves through the chute, we are knee-deep in a field of societal food access dysfunction. Sunday morning has seen the removal of a week's worth of questionable waste; Sunday night has brought us the freshest produce, merely hours past its expiration date. Shed of its context, the food is good, plentiful, and very ready to eat. Humble scavengers, we thank the Food Deities as we bring home a bounty of still-edible Ezekiel bread, broccoli, strawberries, cheese, oranges, bean dip, tortilla chips, whoopie pies, cookies, and chocolate cake.
During the week, we make many tamer but necessary trips around the neighborhood. We stop regularly at our local cafés and coffee shops, picking up bags of day-old bread that have been donated to the sidewalk. Someone goes to our corner store for milk and eggs, or to a nearby organic food store for bulk items if need be, such as seeds, grains, and beans. If one of our Yale Sustainable Food Project employees is lucky, he or she brings home a small bounty of Yale Farm-grown organic and sustainable veggies.
Saturday morning arrives. My housemate saddles up our bike-cart to his bicycle and the two of us hurtle down Chapel Street to pick up our Stone Gardens Farm CSA from the Wooster Square farmers' market. Then, on Sunday afternoon, my neighbor drives to Edgewood Market to help one of the farmers dismantle his stand in return for leftover produce, which is shared among some local student houses.
Living a life of alternative food access abundance, we have discovered, is a great antidote to stinginess of every kind. Sharing among neighbors is common; we over-represent at every potluck; we can feed any guest at any time of the day. Group cooking experiences in the neighborhood (usually homemade pizzas) will yield enough for at least two dinners.
The cost of dinner is lowered, too: at least half of the food in our house comes at no cost to us, and often we are so inundated that we willfully pass our labored fruits along to our like-minded neighbors. Our 12-week CSA, at $600, brings the cost of groceries in our six-person household to eight dollars per person per week, and usually there is some produce left at the end of the week to freeze for when CSA season is over.
One might ask how all of this food is accounted for, and turned into meals, in a house full of students with a fridge full of mismatched ingredients. The six of us try to eat together at least four nights a week, usually with guests, supported by a rigorous (and successful) rotating dinner roster, which keeps us in good meals and leftovers, and gives everyone the opportunity to experiment. The scramble is a popular choice, as is the stir-fry; some of our more food-inclined housemates have been known to treat our fridge as a battleground, and emerge triumphant with pilaf, homemade gnocchi, or pierogies. During the summer, our dinner table hosted between nine and 13 people a night. We have discovered that dinner parties, when catered out of a dumpster with a lot of helping hands, are of little financial and logistical consequence.
Onlookers are keen to observe the fullness of our fridge and the well-fedness of our bellies after a successful dinner; they remark at the apparent ease of it all. Any veteran of the alternative food access wars, however, is quick to relate his or her own horrific battle story of choice. My housemate estimates that around half of his dumpster raids involve some encounter with the police. Often, he hides silently in the darkness, nestled among food and trash, until foreign footsteps become inaudible. Occasionally, he is followed by a police car, pulled over, and interrogated. One friend was ordered to remove the groceries from his trunk, only to throw them back out into the dumpster, going home with nothing. Although trash is considered public property by law, the dumpsters themselves are usually found on private property, forcing us to commit the trespass of trespassing.
I have wondered whether our household food access patterns would change if a full-service grocery store returned to New Haven. Certainly, we intend to become members of Elm City Market, the grocery co-op in the works as part of a development on nearby State Street. Furthermore, we are not completely free of the commercial food system: items that cannot be acquired easily through our standard methods are usually written on a shopping list and bought en masse from Peapod, Stop & Shop's online food delivery service, once every couple of months. One could argue, therefore, that our household would, hypothetically (albeit occasionally), buy from a full-service grocery store in New Haven, as some of us have done in the past. One thing is certain, however: The presence of the Shaw's dumpster is not missed in the alternative food access community. It was a gated and locked compactor, surrounded by barbed wire. Good riddance!