Ever Tried Dumpster Dining? This is What It's Like to Eat at One of the Wasted Food Pop-Ups

An Edible SF writer decides to try out dumpster-dining for herself.

It’s a balmy Sunday night in late June, post–Pride parade in San Francisco, and I’m about to eat dinner in a pristine blue dumpster in a dead-end SOMA street. The event, Salvage Supperclub, seeks to draw attention to food waste and encourage home cooks to not throw out less-than-ideal-yet-still-edible stuff. 

A glance at the menu and the evening looks promising. The hosts are gracious, the guests friendly and the organizers earnest. The dumpster is simply but tastefully decked out: glass tea lights, long wooden benches, bar towel napkins.

But the bottom line: a dumpster dinner better be delicious or I’m out of here. On tonight’s menu: wilted basil, bruised plums, past-their-prime tomatoes, vegetable pulp, surplus squash, whole favas (we’re talking even the tough outer layer), garbanzo bean water, dairy whey, sweet potato skins and overripe, peel-on bananas. These ingredients, some of the most frequently tossed food items in home kitchens, don’t exactly whet the appetite as advertised.

With the exception of the banana skin—it was hard to get past the slimy texture and scent of rot, even if the peel was reimagined as a crispy doughnut—it’s all finger-licking good. And not too fancy: the sort of dishes—fava, corn and lettuce soup; tomato, eggplant and squash ratatouille; mini veggie burgers with crispy potatoes—that modest home cooks might actually make, which is chef Pesha Perlsweig’s intention for the meal, the brainchild of New Yorker Josh Treuhaft, an industrial designer who has thrown dumpster dinners in Brooklyn and Berkeley. 

“The idea behind this multicourse, veg-forward tasting menu is for eaters to see the incredible potential many of us fail to see in our food,” says Treuhaft, who comes to the sustainability issue from a social-innovation-through-design perspective rather than a culinary one. Treuhaft’s appearance offers clues to his designer background: neat, tidy, efficient. He’s a problem-solver with a social conscience and hopes Salvage Supperclub might play a role in modifying people’s behavior for the greater good. 

“I want to engage people and get them excited about food waste prevention so we send less food to the landfill or compost,” he says. “The goal here is to broaden the scope of what is edible.”

Sure, the concept sounds gimmicky: bring together a bunch of food-obsessed Bay Area dwellers willing to pay premium San Francisco prices to get cozy at a communal table in a pop-up venue typically associated with trash and invite them to chow down on grub frequently destined for the green bin. But the assembled group of 16 seem less the sort in search of the next new foodie thing and more eager to eat well and save the world, or at least be more mindful about waste. There’s a retired high school math teacher and his family, a hairdresser friend of the chef and several guests with food-related jobs. 

The San Francisco dinners (there are two, back-to-back) also serve as benefits for Food Runners. The nonprofit that has rescued excess restaurant, corporate, catering, hotel, hospital and grocery store food for almost 30 years—long before there was an app for that—and ensured that perfectly edible perishable and prepared food finds its way to people in need in the city at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, group housing and senior and low-income apartments. 

Demand for this service has ratcheted up in recent years as the numbers of homeless and hungry have risen significantly. At the same time, the boom in SOMA tech companies with gourmet cafeterias has coincided with a dramatic uptick in donations from morally minded millennials who want to divert excess ready-to-eat fare to charity. About two tons of donations a week come from tech alone, estimates Food Runners founder Mary Risley. Food Runners delivers 16 tons of food a week, enough to make 5,000 meals a day. Impressive.

Ingredients for the supper clubs are sourced from emerging local players in the food waste movement. In the mix: Emeryville-based Imperfect Produce, whose mission it is to find homes for so-called ugly fruits and vegetables, both conventional and organic, through a delivery subscription box; and San Francisco startup Cerplus, an online marketplace that connects farmers’ and wholesalers’ surplus and secondary produce with restaurants and food businesses.

Also in the house, I mean dumpster: a little consumer education with that bruised-fruit cocktail, courtesy of the folks behind Foodstand, a relatively new mobile app player in the Bay Area with the lofty goal of serving as one-stop shopping for food news and events in the city. Foodstand hosted a month-long campaign in June to combat food waste, encouraging consumers to share their best food-saving practices. At each place setting: a #nofoodwaste cheat sheet and crowdsourced cards featuring tips from Foodstand users. 

To read more about what happens at the dinner, continue this article at EdibleSanFrancisco.com. 

"Wasted in San Francisco" by Sarah Henry was originally published in the Summer issue © 2016 Edible San Francisco. Dumpster dinner photo © 2016 Tanya Bhandari.

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