The practice of “dumpster diving” has been featured in reality TV shows and parodied on “Portlandia.” This summer, foods salvaged from supermarket dumpsters will play a central role in a very unusual Boston-area café.
A Tufts University student named Maximus Thaler is hoping to open an “underground restaurant and grocery store” in Somerville, Mass., this summer. It’ll be called The Gleaners Kitchen, and the menu will be determined by whatever discarded produce, herbs, meat, fish, and other ingredients he and other volunteers find in nearby dumpsters. What’s more, all food will be served for free to all comers.
A recently launched Kickstarter campaign to cover summertime rent and utilities for the Gleaners Kitchen has already surpassed its initial goal of $1,500. That led Thaler to announce a new goal of $2,500, with the idea the extra cash would pay for an upgraded “bike truck” that’d help his group gather goods during dumpster-diving runs. The pledge period ends April 18.
In recent years, some restaurants have been experimenting with pay-what-you-want menus. Most prominently, the Panera Bread chain has operated several cafes that only list “suggested” prices, and all of its four dozen restaurants in the St. Louis area just began offering at least one item—turkey chili—on a “pay what you want” basis.
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Thaler’s initiative is different. It’s not a new business model. Most people wouldn’t call it a business at all. “I’m not opening a restaurant,” Thaler states in the Kickstarter video in which he and other volunteers retrieve cartons of thrown-away peppers, greens, and eggs behind a grocery store. “I’m inviting people into my home, and I’m sharing space with them.”
Yes, the plan is for the café to be run this summer out of a Somerville apartment where Thaler, currently a senior philosophy of science major at Tufts, will live. It’ll be open 24 hours a day, with coffee, tea, and soup available at all hours. As Boston Magazine reported, a meal will be served daily at 6 p.m. The Gleaners Kitchen also expects to host special events on weekends (informal concerts, poetry readings, academic lectures), and orders for meals delivered via bike can be placed via text message. Everything will be free of charge, though donations will be welcomed.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Thaler said that everything gathered in dumpster-diving outings is inspected and washed, and all goods that are inedible are discarded. Beyond feeding hungry people, Thaler said the Gleaners Kitchen’s mission is to get people to think differently about food—and money, and what society throws away so casually:
“Food is not a commodity, it’s not this thing where you pay something to get something, it’s to share and build a community around,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do, build a community.”
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Thaler claims that he knows what he’s getting into with The Gleaners Kitchen as well. He told Boston Public Radio that he’s experienced at cooking for large groups, he’s been “dumpstering” for several years, he’s aware of what’s legal and illegal regarding the practice, and he’s well-versed in the area’s best supermarkets for the gathering of food that’s been thrown away but is still safe to eat — and perhaps even tasty.