Seattle folks are some of the most paradoxical mountain men and women you can expect to meet anywhere. Seattle, the place that I call home, hosts more overeducated baristas and philosophizing bums than any other city on the planet, I would guess. We wear gortex and ride fancy road bikes, all the while priding ourselves on our claim of a simple and organic lifestyle.

An odd but accurate embodiment of myself as a Seattle stereotype is alternative grocery shopping, not at a grocery store, but in the dumpster. Now, before you judge me for this, hear me out. The particular dumpster I am talking about is a bread dumpster. It sits behind a bakery, a bakery that has flourished locally by selling fresh organic bread. Every day they throw out $4 loaves of bread because they do not meet the high standard for freshness. They are not moldy and they are not thrown out with leftovers and other garbage. In fact, I can confidently say that this bread is more delicious and better for me than anything I would ever buy for myself at the grocery store.

It would be an absolute shame not to take advantage of this. Legend has it that the bread dumpster was discovered by a University of Washington student who was asking several local businesses to donate food for a soup kitchen. This particular baker did not offer any donations, but informed him of the consistent and abundant supply of bread present in the dumpster out back, marked “EDIBLE FOOD WASTE.” Something so remarkable could not be kept a secret and soon the word of free organic bread spread throughout a small and advantageous network of thrifty locals. Immediately after I joined this network, I lived exclusively off of bread for a week. There is something about walking 3 miles to get free bread from a dumpster that can make a person feel very resourceful. That is exactly how I feel every time I make the trek to the bread dumpster. This is how Seattleites like to feel.

From the legend of its origin, you might assume that the bakery employees do not have a problem with such foragings. At least, that was my own assumption. My first time rummaging through the dumpster in the daylight proved me wrong. As my roommate and I were looking for a particular loaf of bread, an employee came out back on a smoke break. Thinking nothing of it, we made no effort to keep ourselves hidden. We were easily and shamelessly discovered by said employee, who scolded us. Apparently it is a crime to look through other people’s garbage. We walked away empty handed and disappointed. Actually, we walked about half a block up the street and waited for the employee to finish her cigarette, then I quietly got my olive bread. This particular day at the bread dumpster added a whole new and exciting element to the alternative grocery shopping experience: stealth. My new options were to either go to the dumpster at night or find sneaky ways to get my bread in the daylight. Naturally, I chose to adopt a stealth mode and get my bread in the daylight (if you can even call the constant grey of Seattle daylight). We have now gone from alternative grocery shopping to stealth grocery shopping, and any stealthy endeavor requires strategy.

When approaching the dumpster, the four tattle-tales must be surveyed: customers entering and exiting the bakery, neighbors with dumpster facing windows, random bystanders, and, of course, bakery employees. If there is anyone around, the acquisition mission must be put on hold. Slowly tying shoes or making a fake phone call are good ways to kill time while awaiting solitude.

When a sense of privacy is reached, speed becomes key. The dumpster is about 5 feet high, so unless the dumpster is approaching its capacity, diving in is the only way to get what you want. After the lid is opened, it is a run and jump motion into the dumpster. This phase of the operation can easily be done in under a minute.

The search for the perfect bread is typically the most difficult part of any visit to the bread dumpster. With twenty different types of bread, I like to know which ones I want before I start digging through the selection. Otherwise I end up trying to pack home a dozen loaves of bread, which makes my stealth mode a lot less stealthy. It is good to target three different types of bread, perhaps with a backup in mind. I usually try to get something that will be good toasted for breakfast, something hearty to eat for lunch, and something that will compliment dinner. When searching for the right combination of breads, I keep in the back of my mind that the lid of the dumpster is still open and I could be discovered at any moment. If the pickings are good, I can get in and out in under three minutes. At least, that is my estimate.

The exit is much like the entrance. I ensure that nobody is around and I heave myself out. Just to be safe, I fake a phone call on my way back to the sidewalk to look as if I am engaged in something other than the dumpster I am walking away from. The next step is walking back home and enjoying the goods.

There you have it, folks. A nearly foolproof method to eating well – Seattle style.

Photo: Angela Tchou


  1. Hahaha- I love this article! A friend from Seattle just told me about bread dumpster diving at the local Natural/Organic store! Funny piece and very resourceful!


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