Chances are if you live in a major metropolitan area, you’ve seen bakeries toss out trash bags of cakes and muffins once the store closes, or even seen grocery store workers throw away unopened jars of jams and condiments at the end of the night. Even inedible products with no expiration dates such as shampoo, bars of soap, and pads are thrown away and left on street curbs. In fact, a recent Recycle Track Systems article even noted that more than half, specifically 68% of food waste in NYC, is edible. 

Of course, this is a very obvious waste of resources. That’s where dumpster diving comes in. If you don’t know, dumpster diving is attempting to rescue perfectly good food and products to share with the community. Social media users such as @thetrashwalker, @glamourddive, and @letsreducefoodwasteNYC are letting viewers inside their journeys into dumpsters and trash bags in order to create a more sustainable future where their neighbors don’t go hungry.

With each trash bag, @letsreducefoodwasteNYC’s Malika Harris feeds her neighbors, supports nearby shelters, and ultimately aids anyone and everyone she can. Spoon University caught up with Harris — an author, journalist, and advocate — to learn more about her work as a food rescuer in New York City.

#SpoonTip: There are so many ways to reduce food waste right in your own college dorm or apartment, too. Check out our fave tips here.

Spoon University: How did you start your food rescue journey?

Malika Harris: Back in 2018, I remember just seeing YouTube videos. It kind of opened my eyes to every time I'm out and I see bags in front of a supermarket or cafe or bakery and thinking that it's all garbage.

Out walking, I would take a look in the bags and started opening them and just seeing an incredible amount of food. Like $15 jars of peanut butter were being thrown out [and] vegetables, fruits, and everything else. In my city, we have so many homeless shelters, homeless people, and people without food. I was trying to figure out why it was on the curb and not in a shelter or in someone's home. Gradually, I started going out every single night all around New York City, and I was getting all of this stuff and just sharing it. I started in my own building complex. We just started giving food out to everybody, putting bags in front of their doors. I discovered that people were embarrassed to say they were hungry.

I figured I had to make a system because I wanted to get the food somewhere. I started talking to [store] managers about this, and they said, "Sure, we close at this time and you want it, come get it."

SU: Through your work, what have you learned about food waste?

MH: We waste food every single day in New York. If there is wasted food, they all should be going to families. You know, it should be something like that without being stigmatized or shamed.

SU: When you first started dumpster-diving, looking through bags, did you ever feel that sense of shame?

MH: I did. It was challenging because I look “nice.” I think the stigma, the shame, comes from me not starving. I live comfortably. For me, it's the opposite. It's not like, "Oh, I can tell you're homeless, here's some money." They're like, "Wait a minute, what are you doing?"

SU: Do you have any tips for people looking to rescue food?

MH: There's no state in the United States where it's illegal to take food out of the dumpster or once they put it out [on a public curb]. What I would suggest is people be more vocal about it. I'm going to go out as me, and I’m going to introduce myself to the establishment and say, “Hi! This is who I am and this is what I'm doing.”

And change the language. I don't want to use the language “dumpster-diving” unless I'm hashtagging it. I say “food rescue.” You can say, “Hi. I'm here to rescue the food that you are discarding. You'll see me outside. I will be respectful. I will tie the bag when I'm finished. I will not leave things all over the place.”

If [the store] knows that you're coming, they know I'm going to bring my own bags, and they know that I'm going directly to a shelter to give it away. They understand what I'm doing and they can go to my Instagram so that they know that I'm a legit individual.

*This interview was edited for length and clarity.*

For more on Let’s Reduce Food Waste NYC, check out Harris’ Instagram page, and feel free to document your own food rescue journeys on socials, too.