Food & Drink

Filmmakers say to the diver go the spoils

Food reclaimed from the trash, from Alex Mallis's film Spoils.

Last month we featured an article on foraging in Prospect Park for food (read: living like a rabbit) that casually besmirched Dumpster diving as an inferior means of procuring free eats. If trying to determine which berries and fungi in the wild won’t seriously disrupt your digestive system or poison you is a little too much work (hey, it worked for the guy from Into the Wild, right?), then maybe selecting the edible parts of pre-screened throwaways may be the way to go.

Dumpster diving is nothing new, particularly for fans of counter-culture literature from the 60’s and 70’s. Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman endorses it among other survival skills for “Amerika,” but filmmaker and inveterate Dumpster diver Alex Mallis has repackaged diving as a different sort of political act in his new film, Spoils: Extraordinary Harvest.

Spoils follows three groups of divers over the course of one night as they travel to the Trader Joe’s on Court Street in Cobble Hill and bring their loot home. The film itself provides no commentary, preferring to let the images, the people, and — most importantly — the food, speak for themselves. The freegans come from all walks of life: people living on a budget, looking for free high-quality food, or those who want to make a statement about society’s waste. Mallis told us that rather than trying to explore a sub-culture, Spoils instead seeks to demystify the act of Dumpster diving, perhaps waking the dormant diver in you.

How did this movie come about?
I had been Dumpster diving for a year, and it occurred to me that people needed to see how much waste was being created, and there’s an interesting sub-culture of people who do this right under our noses. And the majority of people who hear about it want to know more. The approach I decided to take was to meet people at the Dumpsters, befriend them, explain what I was doing, and then accompany them with the camera as they traveled from their house to the Dumpster, and back home.

There are three different main characters: an older artist, a grandmother with her grandson, and a young hipster, and they all live in Brooklyn. They all get to the grocery store in different ways, and I follow them, without a lot of commentary. I really just want to show people what they can see any night on a Dumpster dive. People are meant to come to ask their own questions and come to their own conclusions.

Divers on their nightly ritual at the Court St. Trader Joe's. Still from Spoils.

We all probably have an idea of it, but how do you define “Dumpster diving?”
Dumpster diving is living off of the excess of society. It can be furniture, toys, clothing, but what it is in the context of my film is food. To put it in perspective, you go into a grocery store and you look at the bananas. The ones that you don’t choose are blemished and brown. So those are the ones that go out the door. And there are different standards, especially at a place like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.

You go out after the store is closed, there’s this 50-pound bag of bananas, and maybe they’re a little mushed, but they’re perfectly good. Or if expiration dates are reached, or will be expiring the next day. Trader Joe’s has a lot of prepared foods, and you can find ones that will expire by the next day. It’s not like you’ll blow up when that date is reached.

If someone wanted to do this, do they have to become their own FDA? Don’t you have to know the difference between a dented can and a dose of botulism?
Well, yeah, there are rules with cans. If it’s dented inwards, there’s probably no problem. If it’s dented outwards, that could be a problem. For other stuff, you can look at it. Does it smell ok? Is it warm? Is there mold? Use your common sense. In general, I spend 20-30 minutes cleaning everything off.

How does it work with your personal lifestyle?
There’s a stigma to it, sure, but nine times out of ten, you tell someone about it and they say, “Gross.” But you show someone, and they say, “Holy shit.” They’ll jump in there with you, too. I brought my mother with me one time, and she got in there with me.

Mallis says there's an art to knowing which items to take. From Spoils.

How much can you save Dumpster diving?
In a night you can bring back about $200 of groceries in a suitcase. But it’s also about quality. When I go shopping at a store, I buy the cheapest stuff there is.

Alex is currently working on post-production for Spoils, which he plans to submit to film festivals nationwide. Visit Alex’s Kickstarter page for more information and to learn how to contribute. The page offers to donors, among other things, a guided tour of a Brooklyn Dumpster dive.


  1. Tim Donnelly

    Fun AP Style nerd fact: Dumpster is a trademarked name like Ziploc or Velcro, and therefore is supposed to be capitalized and used as a proper noun. This also led to this great Simpsons joke for the “Otto Show” episode.

    Bart: Otto-Man? You’re living in a dumpster?
    Otto: Ho, man, I wish. Dumpster-brand trash bins are top-of-the-line.
    This is just a Trash-Co waste disposal unit.

  2. Special update on Alex’s Kickstarter project: he’s reached his goal, and will be finishing up the film and submitting to festivals. I’ll be keeping in touch with him for possible updates and potential screenings down the road.

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