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Creator Q&A: Alex Mallis from Spoils

Every evening, long after rush hour, a series of dumpsters are rolled out onto the sidewalks in front of a high-end grocery store in a wealthy neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.

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Spoils: Extraordinary Harvest by Alex Mallis.

Spoils is a short documentary about a subculture that is a punchline to some of us — but a political act, a weekly ritual, a way of life for some. The film follows three different groups of New Yorkers — an aging artist, a Puerto Rican woman, and a 20something kid from Bushwick — who all up for the same thing: free food, still in its package, swept off the supermarket shelves just minutes before.

When I found out that Alex, the film’s director, has been a regular diver for years, I had to reach out and ask him a few questions about how it all works.

The first time you went — were you nervous? What made you finally take the plunge, so to speak? 

I was excited. I had heard lots of stories about people getting obscene amounts of great food. I wanted it too. A friend of mine told me where to go (Atlantic and Court St.) and when (around 11pm). I went alone. I waited across the street from the loading dock. As soon as the dumpsters came out, a dozen or so people came out from the shadows (including myself) and started to take whatever we could carry. Almost every time I go, there is way, way more food than any of us divers can manage to take.

I usually go with friends once or twice a month. We have a nice routine of biking over together. Its much more enjoyable in the warmer months. On one occasion, my roommate and I took the bus. We filled a very large suitcase with enough food to last a month. Had we purchased those same items in the store a few hours earlier, our bill would have been over $200.

What’s the fanciest thing you’ve gotten from the dumpster? Have you ever gotten anything home and it was gross / old / etc?

My most prized find is probably Black Hawaiian Sea Salt. That stuff is amazing. As far as grossness goes - it depends. Sometimes there can be cracked eggs or mushy food or whatever. But generally, its all food. Trader Joe’s doesn’t mix their food trash with their trash trash. So yeah, it can be gross wiping smushed banana off a bag of potatoes. But as soon as you wash it off (always rinse!) you’d never know it was in a dumpster.

Does your mom know you do this?

My mom was surprisingly supportive. She even came with me one time. I thought she would stand by and observe, but when she saw how much food there was she got right in there with me. My mom rules.

Do the Trader Joe’s people know this happens? Do they support it?

My feeling is that while they don’t support it, they do look the other way. They have tried changing the times when the dumpsters come out to close the gap before the dump trucks come. They have tried telling people to “shoo.” But as long as the food is there, we’ll get it.

In their defense, I should say, a large quantity of food is donated - but not all of it. And the culpability does not lie firmly in the hands of grocers. Our own standards, as consumers, contribute to the food wasted. We don’t accept produce with blemishes. Our society is obsessed with packaging and sanitization. The slightest crack or tear causes massive amounts of food to be discarded every day.

Personally, I see dumpster diving as political act. Beyond the obvious - free food, it is a critique of a wasteful culture. The fact that I, along with many others, can eat, and eat well, entirely off the excess of a society says a lot about what we value and what we don’t.

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