Sam Ceckowski has just returned from a Sweetbay supermarket in Sarasota, and he's offering his housemates a bag full of candy.
"Would anyone care for a white-chocolate-covered macadamia nut?" the lanky 19-year-old college student asks. A few takers extend their open palms.
Aside from the nuts, the guys' kitchen table holds a German chocolate cake and a cheesecake. Their fridge teems with hummus, salad dressing, artichokes, cucumbers, swiss chard, firm squash, mangoes, romaine hearts and asparagus so fresh it snaps. The only offensive items are some moldy strawberries and a carton of organic milk they let spoil.
Not a bad spread, considering all this food came from the trash.
Ceckowski and his roommates live as "freegans," people who can afford groceries but instead choose to live off of food they find in garbage bins, in an effort to reduce consumption and waste. The term combines the words free and vegan, though that's a bit of a misnomer, since many freegans eat and use animal products. (It's also called Dumpster diving, or Dumpstering, although any brand of waste receptacle will do.)
So far, Tampa Bay freegans are scarce. But ever since Oprah Winfrey did a show on the freegan lifestyle in February, several online Tampa Bay communities, including Yahoo and Meetup groups, have sprung up as would-be Dumpster divers try to form a viable local community.
Ceckowski and his mates, who share a two-bedroom house in Tampa near the University of South Florida, each spend about $2.50 a week on food, rounding out the Dumpstered loot they share with store-bought baking supplies, spices and butter.
"I don't eat garbage. I eat delicious food that happened to be in the trash can," says one of the roommates, David Japenga, 19. "Big difference."
'Free food. Let's get it'
Freeganism works best in a community setting, because many stores throw away unsold food in bulk. If you scrounge up eight boxes of cereal and your friend snags a few gallons of milk, then together you're golden.
Japenga and his roommates moved to Tampa from Romeo, Mich., on a whim in August. They already had experience scavenging up North after Japenga read a book called Evasion, the true tale of a man who Dumpster-dived across the country.
Two years ago, when the buddies began plundering bagels from Big Apple Bagels in Michigan, they had never heard the word freegan.
"It was just like, 'Free food. Let's get it,' " Ceckowski says.
The roommates scavenge about once a week, usually hitting three trash bins for about 10 minutes each. They like to go around midnight; one holds a Maglite while the other rummages through the garbage. The guys have a fleet of jalopies in their driveway, but they bike almost everywhere, including, often, to the trash. And they know where the getting is good: Winn-Dixie, 7-Eleven, Einstein Bros. Bagels. Suburban waste bins are lucrative, too, and there's less competition.
Much of the food the guys find is less than 48 hours past its sell-by date, and they've had some amazing harvests: Sixty-dollar cuts of ham, still cold. An entire dairy section, still cold. For Easter dinner, they ate stuffed mushrooms, made from Dumpstered portobellos and stuffing.
"One time I found a Dumpster full of frozen ice-cream cakes. It was up to my knees in ice-cream cakes," Ceckowski says. He shared them with the neighbors.
But it's not all mushrooms and ice-cream cakes. Dumpsters smell as foul as you'd expect. There's rotten food and bags of blood from supermarket butchers. They once encountered maggots.
But they've never come across anything repugnant enough to turn them off from freeganism — no rats, drug paraphernalia, feces or dead babies. "Stuff that most people think you would find, I've never found," Japenga says.
And despite their unconventional means of putting food on the table, freegans live otherwise normal lives.
They have mainstream friends. Twenty-four-year-old Quinn Hechtkopf, who grew up in St. Pete, is a leader in New York City project Freegan.info, the unofficial authority on U.S. freeganism. He'll go to a restaurant with consumer friends and sip water all night.
Freegans have children, feeding them the same food they eat and dressing them in clothes handed down from other freegan parents.
They have pets. Hechtkopf's cat, Kitty Squat, eats Dumpster-dived meat.
And yes, they date. Japenga says his girlfriend, Lily, does not go Dumpstering but will eat food he has found.
Moreover, freeganism extends beyond found food. The guys' house is full of used items, including thrift-store clothing and a table they built from lumberyard scraps. Ceckowski once found a working Yamaha keyboard while Dumpstering at a Sam Ash music store.
But they've never found anything they believe someone threw away by mistake. "We're never that lucky," Ceckowski says. "We never find gold bars."
Technically, Dumpster diving is not illegal. In fact, you could get in more trouble for tossing trash into a Dumpster — say, stashing your broken TV in a supermarket's trash bin.
"It is unlawful to put something in the Dumpster," says James Ransom, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Solid Waste Management Department. "I do not know of a law, and we could not find any law, that says you cannot go in and take something out of a Dumpster."
Of course, in order to Dumpster dive you have to trespass, which is a misdemeanor.
Then there are the health risks. Japenga and Ceckowski say they've never gotten sick from eating Dumpstered food, but Hechtkopf once ate some blue cheese that gave him diarrhea.
"Your body will get dehydrated if you don't take care of yourself. It can kill you," says Doug King, food and waterborne illness investigator for the Hillsborough County Health Department. Meat and dairy products, he says, are especially dangerous.
"They're moist, they're protein-rich, so bacteria thrive in those environments," King says. "Then, obviously, when they're not refrigerated, the food stays in the temperature danger zone, and the bacteria grow and multiply." And maggots are never a good sign, as they indicate something is decomposing.
King says the freegans are at risk for parasites, viruses, fecal contamination, salmonella and E. coli, a bacteria that can cause kidney failure and is potentially fatal.
But King also said Dumpstered produce is probably safe. And even the stores say Dumpstered food isn't necessarily bad; Sweetbay and Publix say that once their food passes its sell-by date, much of it gets donated to local food banks while it's still safe to eat.
"If you're smart — and they sound like they're smart — you can use our own standards against us," says Sweetbay spokesman Steve Smith. "Food safety is No. 1 at any retailer. Because of that, we will always put expiration dates that are before when the product actually would expire. You're always going to give yourself some padding. So they're smart in that you absolutely can eat that product — some products."
Still, there are other hazards, Ceckowski and Japenga say. Trash compactors. Angry managers. Some donut shops that used to throw out pastries by themselves have begun discarding coffee grounds in the same bag. A dollar store recently starting dousing its trash with bleach.
Stores have good reason to discourage Dumpster divers: If you get hurt while scavenging, the store could be in a lot more trouble than you. In 1992, two 9-year-old boys died from exposure to toxic chemicals after playing in the trash bin at Durex Industries plant in Tampa. A Durex executive pleaded guilty to a charge of storing waste illegally and had to pay each boy's family $400,000.
Smith, of Sweetbay, agrees that garbage bins are dangerous by nature, even for pros like Ceckowski and Japenga.
"In general, keeping people out of Dumpsters seems like a good thing," Smith says. "But I gotta tell ya, I love their resourcefulness."
Their life, their choice
Sitting around their back-yard fire pit on busted kitchen chairs they'd found on a curb, Japenga asks Ceckowski, "What's your mom going to say when she comes down here, Sam?"
"Oh, I dunno," Ceckowski says with a laugh. "She'll yell at me."
Ceckowski and Japenga live this way by choice. They have jobs and savings accounts and middle-class parents. "We don't want to give any false illusions of us being underprivileged. We're not bohemians, we're not pretending to be," Japenga says.
Quinn Hechtkopf, the New York freegan, graduated from Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Pete and earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from Wesleyan University, a private college in Connecticut. He isn't in school and has no full-time job. He spends much of his time volunteering with children and at a bike workshop.
When he needs money, he does electrical work for a few weeks and then takes a few months off. He, like Japenga, does not have health insurance. His only recurring expenses are his $300 share of the rent, utilities and razors. His last big splurge, in March, was a $20 bus ticket to Washington, D.C.
Hechtkopf calls himself a "waste parasite," living off the excesses of capitalism. He believes the U.S. economic system will soon collapse, so he and the others at Freegan.info are developing alternatives to freeganism. These include rooftop gardens and foraging edible plants in city parks.
"I guess what he's trying to do right now is find his way and what he can do to make a difference," said his mother, Bonnie Hechtkopf, who owns Kobie Marketing in St. Petersburg. "And I think that it's a bigger picture than saving some bread out of a Dumpster."
In October, Bonnie Hechtkopf — who is also a licensed dietitian and nutritionist —
attended a freegan community dinner while visiting her son.
"I certainly believe in reusing, recycling, all that kind of stuff, but going into this dinner I certainly was a little apprehensive," said Hechtkopf. "First I wasn't going to eat anything, but they had a whole table with a really lavish spread."
Salad. Baked tofu. Wild Brown Rice. Broccoli. Biscotti. Two kinds of bread. Apple cake. An Ethiopian flaxseed beverage. The only thing she didn't dare touch was the smoked salmon appetizer.
"It was impressive," she said. "It would've cost a fortune buying it in the market here, and the quality was really very good."
Bonnie Hechtkopf thinks her son will one day earn a salary as an advocate for homeless people or for he environment. Other freegans, like Ceckowski and Japenga, are content simply to spread the gospel, telling curious onlookers about their choice. It doesn't bother them when people offer them $20, mistaking them for indigent. And if you accused them of being lazy, of squandering their privileged upbringings, that wouldn't upset them, either.
"It is lazy, I guess," Japenga says. "But (the markup on food) is economic violence against me."
One way or another, he says, he'll live this way forever.
"I can't bring myself to buy a bagel at Einstein's," he says, "when I know there's a whole Dumpster full in the back."