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  • Keith McHenry Interview

    i recently had the opportunity to interview Keith McHenry, one of the original founders of Food Not Bombs,
    on his relationship with the dumpster and the development of Food Not Bombs. this is what he had to say:

    So I suppose I should start by asking if you’re still a regular dumpster diver?

    I do recover many discarded items but since 1980 I often talk with workers
    and ask if they have produce, bread or other items they can’t sell and let
    them know I would be happy to redirect their future trash to provide food
    for the hungry. At times if it is not possible recover food by speaking
    with workers I will visit dumpsters. I also find stuff just sitting on the
    sidewalk or on the sides of highways that can be great scores. So free
    discarded stuff is not limited to dumpsters only.

    What came first for you, dumpster diving or FNB? Was one a logical
    progession from the other? How important was dumpster diving in the
    creation and development of FNB?

    I did do some dumpster diving many years before starting Food Not Bombs. I
    found food in dumpsters while hitch hiking throughout the west. The coolest
    score that became food was the discovery of 30 45cent Martin Luther King
    postage stamps. I was walking out of Santa Cruz, California on my way down
    route 1 when I saw a bright image in the sand. I pulled it from the dirt
    and wow it was a sheet of stamps. I was really hungry so I took teem to the
    Denny’s at the Route 1 ramp and talked a waitress into buying them from me.
    I told her she could get some glue and they would work fine. She agreed
    and I had enough for breakfast and coffee.

    In 1980 I trimmed organic produce at Bread and Circus in Cambridge,
    Massachusetts and filled several large boxes of less then perfect produce
    every morning. This seemed to be a real shame and as I was considering
    seeking out people who might be interested in taking my discarded food a
    young man stopped by and asked if we had anything to donate. I gave him
    several boxes that he took back to Broadway House, a Catholic Workers
    Shelter in Cambridge. Soon I was working with my friends taking my surplus
    to community centers at local public housing projects and to Rosie’s Place
    Women’s Shelter.

    The one thing I did get out of the dumpster that changed my life happened
    around the same time I was helping start Food Not Bombs. A friend told me
    he saw some paper in a trash can in Harvard Square that he thought I might
    want for art materials. I drove down to the trash can, retrieved the items
    and brought them home. As I looked through the materials I saw that they
    were the originals for IBM’s annual report. This was before computers were
    used for graphic design. The backs of each board were printed with the
    words Letramax 2000 and the fronts were marked in light blue lines for the
    outside of an eleven by seventeen sheet of paper with margins for the type
    and images. Red boxes were “windows” for photos and there were thin black
    “cut” lines. Each page was covered with tracing paper and that was covered
    with a nice sheet of writing paper. I had already taken a few things to be
    printed so I knew right off that I could be a professional graphic designer
    by removing the IBM type and replacing it with my own. The next day I
    started Brushfire Graphics and a couple of years later I was designing
    publications for the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and winning Cleo

    Dumpster diving is probably the easiest way to acquire the large
    quantities of food required for FNB, however I’ve found that not
    everyone is comfortable eating food that’s been reclaimed from
    dumpsters. Whilst serving in Toronto, people often wanted reassurance from
    us that the food was not dumpster dived (luckily all of our food was
    donated to us at local farmer markets). How do you think FNB groups can
    deal with this problem? Is it a problem at all?

    I found that the easiest way to get lots of great free food is to talk
    with produce workers, bakers and other food providers and ask them if they
    every throw anything out. They all do and they hate the waste so they will
    often agree to set their surplus food aside for you to collect. They will
    need for you to be reliable so you shouldn’t agree to more pickups then you
    can really handle. In San Francisco I would start my day at the House of
    Bagels picking up four huge boxes filled to the top. This happened seven
    days a week for years. Then I drove my truck over to Thom’s Natural Foods
    and picked up five or six cases of organic produce. My truck was already
    over flowing so I had to unload that at the morning kitchen. Then off to the
    produce warehouse district in Bayview Hunters Point. Veritable Vegetable
    would refill my truck with more then I could hold most days but if there
    was room I could stop at the other warehouses and in one or two more stops
    be loaded down with organic produce. Other volunteers were filling the Food
    Not Bombs van with produce from Rainbow Grocery, Other Avenues and bakeries
    all over San Francisco.

    The only dumpsters we every hit was the San Francisco Bakery because the
    owner was the president of the Police Commission and wouldn’t help and his
    dumpster was a block from my apartment and sometimes if we were late we
    hit up Odwalla but if we were on time they gave us crates of great organic

    I joined London Food Not Bombs in skipping at Coventry Gardens Produce
    Market. We filled a panel truck in less then an hour and hadn’t even
    visited but a few warehouses. In Tel Aviv we filled several shopping carts
    with great produce by walking from stall to stall at the produce
    distribution center. In Istanbul we found that if we asked the first stall
    at the produce bazaar they were sure to take food off their shelves. When
    the next stall saw their neighbor was making a contribution they were
    compelled to make an even larger donation. Not one produce merchant would
    give us any waste until we pleaded with them. For them it was important to
    donate the best quality they had.

    In Edmonton, Alberta I joined a punk band in dumpster diving behind a huge
    natural food grocery. I found a 250 pound wheel of cheese pushed it to the
    top of the dumpster and exclaimed “Why be vegan, lets be freegan!” The
    band got a good laugh from that. I shared the story through out the rest of
    the Rent is Theft Tour and an activist in Gainesville Florida thought the
    term freegan was creative and published a flyer on living Freegan. Thats
    how the term was coined.

    In some really suburban corporate wastelands it is necessary to tour the
    dumpsters for food but in most places you can get much larger amounts of
    better quality food by asking the shops to donate. Food workers really find
    it difficult to discard edible food.

    have you seen dumpster diving and FNB change in the last 30/20/10

    In the past 30 years there have become many more large national grocery
    chains and they have adopted anti donation policies. Not long after Food
    Not Bombs started cities started Food Banks and then Second Harvest and
    other corporate surplus food programs started up. Many food banks try to
    get our local Food Not Bombs groups to change our name “so they can work
    with us”. Most food banks focus on collecting processed and non perishable
    food. The other thing that has changed is that many large food chains are
    using trash compactors destroying all the edible produce and bread before
    it can be recovered,

    In your travels around the world, which countries have surprised you
    the most in terms of ease or difficulty in dumpster diving?

    The produce bazaars in the Middle East really surprised me. It turns out
    that many muslim people feel honored if they have the opportunity to help
    people in need. The pride and happiness they displayed when giving us their
    contribution was very inspiring. They made us feel we were doing them a
    favor and not the other way around. The other thing is I am always
    surprised to see how much food is discarded. The large produce markets need
    huge bulldozers to rid their warehouses of surplus food.

    I can imagine how people can have unfriendly encounters with the
    police whilst dumpster diving, but i can’t understand how you can be
    arrested for a FNB action. In general (I presume it changes between
    states, never mind countries) what are the laws that FNB members should
    be aware of and what are the most common charges brought against FNB

    I can recall a couple of times when the police confronted us for
    collecting food from a dumpster. One such time involved eight or nine cops
    in san Francisco surrounding us at gun point but most often the police just
    shim a light at you and pass by. The real problem has been when we share
    the food. They police made over 1,000 arrests in San Francisco. They
    claimed we were “making a political statement and that that was not
    allowed”. In the United States we have a constitution that includes the
    first amendment right to free speech but it turns out that is limited. We
    just lost an appeal to the eleventh circuit court of appeals in Atlanta.
    The three judges rules that the government could limit us to expressing our
    message to twice a year per location. I did over 500 days in jail in San
    Francisco, was beaten by the police and taken to police intelligence where
    officers lifted me by my arms and legs ripping my tendons and ligaments and
    then stuffed me into a tiny jail cell hanging from the ceiling of their
    office. It seems that the issue is money. Money for bombs or money from
    consumers and real-estate. Many times it is a combination of all three.
    With the economy in crisis the public might do something about wasting our
    taxes on the military while people go hungry and they aren’t so sympathetic
    with the wealthy sweeping the poor out of sight.

    You can learn more by visiting

    thanks for the interview Kieth!

    A Freegan Dumpster Diving Blog

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