A dumpster decorated with tea lights may seem like event planning gone wrong. But for Josh Treuhaft, it’s the ideal location.
Treuhaft wanted to draw attention to food waste and encourage cooks to get creative, so he launched the Salvage Supperclub in New York in 2013. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, some of it simply because it’s ugly or bruised. Treuhaft’s group aims to help reduce this wastefulness by creating engaging food experiences with menus featuring broccoli stalks, aged bananas, and bruised beets.
This idea of making food waste fun was partially inspired by his girlfriend’s juicing habits. “I noticed the container of juiced ‘remains’ and wondered if [they were] edible. So I sat down with a spoon and tried to eat it. Pretty gross eating it plain. So I snapped a photo and put it on Instagram and asked anyone if they had good ideas for what to do with it. I got a bunch of interesting ideas. That for me was a point where I started to realize that there was a powerful opportunity to leverage the idea of creative food experiences rather than focusing on waste minimization,” Treuhaft says.
It became his thesis project—looking for ways to use design to address the issue of food waste—while studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Eventually it evolved into a series of pop-up dumpster dinner parties in cities like Brooklyn, New York, and Berkeley, California.
Treuhaft says the guest list—from 75-year-old grandmothers and high school students to corporate types and lots of curious foodies—varies from dinner to dinner. “Because of the price point for most of the events, there is a minimum in terms of our economic and income diversity, but hopefully we'll change that over time as we find new ways to feed great meals to different audiences,” he says. A recent set of dinners in San Francisco was priced at $125 each and included a multicourse veggie-tasting menu by chef Pesha Perlsweig. A portion of the profits went to Food Runners, a local nonprofit that rescues excess food from the city's restaurants, corporations, caterers, and hotels to feed the hungry.
Past menu items have included bruised beet tartare, which consists of bruised baby beets with a creamy cashew cheese, served on a bed of shaved rescued radish; sweet weeds spanakopita, which is made of lambsquarter, chickweed (aka discarded chickpea water), and beet greens; and shaved broccoli stalk and blanched organic carrot peel with a soy-ginger drizzle, topped with black sesame. “We always have killer desserts,” Treuhaft says, “[since] luckily fruit often gets sweeter as it gets more mature.”
He works with local farms, food co-ops, culinary schools, hotels, caterers, and commercial kitchens to secure supplies. In California, his team has worked with grocery stores, Imperfect Produce (an organization that sells “uglies”), Cerplus (an online marketplace for surplus produce), and Good Eggs (an online farmer’s market that delivers). “We're really agile and able to pick up in a lot of different ways since we're small and our events tend to be only around 16 people each,” he says. Since many of the items aren’t necessarily the most visually appetizing, they’re usually transformed using common cooking and preserving techniques, such as pickling, toasting, and making soups or spreads.
As for the venue space, Treuhaft coordinates with an unusual vendor: hauling companies. “We typically pay them to deliver and remove the dumpster. In most places, haulers charge by weight when they pick up at the end, but we obviously leave them with an empty (and clean) bin, which is probably very uncommon for them.” He explains that in New York the hauler is responsible for obtaining a street permit from the city’s Department of Transportation, which allows them to legally place the dumpster on the street for a certain amount of time. Treuhaft says he converts construction dumpsters, which are usually used for sheet rock and wood, not food waste and smelly garbage, so the raw space is easy to transform into a makeshift dining room with wooden benches and a table. The food is then typically prepared at the home of the host (each dinner has one), with the dumpster parked out front.
While there are no confirmed upcoming events yet, Treuhaft says there's an event in the works in Los Angeles to coincide with Earth Day in April, as well as a collaborative fund-raiser in Las Vegas.