Somerville is on the verge of getting a brand new restaurant unlike any other that exists here now. The Gleaners’ Kitchen will serve fresh, wholesome food like vegetable quiche, roasted chicken and pesto spaghetti and all of the food is free. It’s also made from ingredients found in local dumpsters.
Maximus Thaler, a student at Tufts University, is behind the project, which plans to open at the beginning of June and will be run out of his apartment in Powderhouse Circle. Thaler learned the art of dumpster diving while living at the Crafts House, a Tufts cooperative housing unit for students.
“I learned to dumpster dive freshman year from others in the house,” Thaler said. He added that communal living is “conducive to dumpster diving and sharing. We cook for each other at 6 p.m. every night. I’m taking that model over to the Gleaners’ Kitchen when we open in a couple of weeks.”
While some may squirm at the thought of eating food from a dumpster, videos and photos on the Gleaners’ Kitchen website reveal fresh, ripe produce, herbs, eggs and so much more being harvested from area dumpsters. The images of what Thaler prepares with the ingredients are even more appetizing–roasted purple potatoes, fresh fruit salad and curried cauliflower and peppers. Instead of getting the necessary ingredients for a recipe, Thaler makes dishes that incorporate food he has on hand.
“It’s a very different style of cooking. Most people ask themselves ‘What do they want?’ and we ask ‘What do we have?'” Thaler said. “I look at what I have and what’s about to go bad and what would make a balanced meal and choose the meal based on those parameters. I always make sure that my food is healthy and always get a protein, carb and green vegetable. I cook what the dumpster tells me.”
Thaler started dumpster diving after learning about how much food goes to waste in a traditional grocery store where shelves must be fully stocked at all times to the point where many items go bad before they are purchased. And in a world where most people are wary of eating food past an expiration date, a lot gets tossed at the end of the day.
“All stores need to overstock. They need to look full. People get nervous when the banana tray looks half empty. So the stores buy more than they need and then throw out the extra bananas that are going ripe after the new shipment comes in,” Thaler said. “Food expiration dates aren’t very meaningful. They’re not even a legal requirement. They convince people that their food was fresh, but people are interpreting that to mean that the expired food will poison you.”
That’s not to say that Thaler takes bad food. He is very diligent about only taking good items that he can use. And he is careful about certain products, like sliced meat, which is more prone to going bad quickly because of its increased surface area.
In one of the videos on the Gleaners’ Kitchen site, Thaler and his friends find a whole carton of perfectly good eggs with one missing that had been tossed out. They also uncover a large box of beautiful peppers and many other pristine, fresh items.
“Food gets discarded because stores aren’t selling food, they’re selling products,” Thaler said. “The goal isn’t to get food into stomachs. The goal is to get money into the cash register.”
Dumpster diving resides in a legal gray area, so Thaler is careful about where he frequents. As for the food coming out of the Gleaners’ Kitchen, he can do with it what he pleases because he’s giving it away for free.
“The goal of the kitchen is to create a community space. It’s not a business model at all. I’m inviting people into my home and sharing food with them to create a community,” Thaler said. “The Gleaners’ Kitchen is designed to facilitate a different conversation about value.”
So far, Thaler said the response to his project has been very positive. And he’s hoping to tap into some of that excitement by engaging locals to help in the Gleaners’ Kitchen. He’s looking for Somervillians or others in the area who have cooking skills, appliances to share, art to donate, music to play and so much more.
“Somerville definitely lends itself to doing something like this,” Thaler said. “The culture of Somerville is very much in line with what I’m doing.”
Images courtesy of The Gleaners’ Kitchen.