Last night was cold, but the kale isn’t frozen. It’s still just a few degrees above freezing because Nathan Harrington put a gallon of water next to his radiator and used the heat to keep the kale, the collards and his entire assortment of root vegetables nice and toasty despite the winter chill.
Harrington, a mid-sized man with a bright red beard and black glasses, doesn’t maintain his garden as a personal hobby: it’s a mission. He’s built an “intentional community,” spending almost a year finding and learning to love his small gang of roommates.
Gabe, who’s moving in with a neighbor to help with her rent and George, who I find smoking on the porch in a robe and slippers, were the first to be inducted into the community. The newest member is Leslie, an outspoken animal-rights activist.
I’ve traveled across the Anacostia to Alabama Road, where the small home that serves as the group’s base blends in with the plainness of the run-down neighborhood. “We try not to be too flashy,” George tells me, taking a slow drag from his third cigarette, “We’ve already been broken-into like five times.” The last burglary was a group of kids, “and we just kind of chased them out,” he says.
Loosely politically affiliated with the usual suspects in the progressive movement, the community is on a mission to do good in the world. From mentoring children in the neighborhood, to picking up trash and restoring parks, Nathan’s community looks to be a beacon of peace in the city. But today I’m here to learn more about the dumpster diving.
That’s right: digging through commercial dumpsters from Food Lion to Starbucks to find food that the businesses are required to toss out – but might still be edible.
I didn’t join Nathan on his most recent dive; he made a few stops on the way home from his visit to a terminally ill family member. He dropped by the back alley an organic market, where he’s picked up some lettuce, and sorted through the garbage of a Panera Bread, where he recovered about forty bread bowls, at least fifty bagels and perhaps a dozen French baguettes.
The trash bags, filled with the evening’s spoils, are put in the middle of the living room. The smell of baked goods fills the foyer. All around are clay figurines and elaborately carved wooden masks. The room is filled with false identities. One of two community cats, Mama, investigates the bread bounty and is shooed away.
There’s a lot to be done before the group, joined by volunteers Danny and Deborah, serve the scavenged bread – along with a homemade chili – to the approximately two dozen homeless citizens at Shepherd Park, a formerly neglected area that’s fallen between the jurisdictional cracks of the Metro and Parks Police.
Vegetables are snipped from the garden for the spicy stew, made from donated canned beans and the lettuce from the recent “dumpstering.” The garden is a collection of a few large plots in the urban yard, surrounded by gravel parking spaces and broken glass. But what they’ve grown is astounding: an organic garden that’s climate controlled with the use of insulation tarps and irrigated with collected rainwater. There are four gutters along the roof that dump into ceramic reservoirs. Nathan tells me that their holding capacity hovers around 280 gallons.
The garden has been a work in progress: a peach tree, picked clean by winter, only produced three peaches in its first year. This year, its yield was over 150. Another cat, Stinky, digs near the collards and the failed strawberry patch. Neighbors pass by. They seem to like their white neighbors, the only Caucasians on their street, but refuse to believe that the community isn’t religious. The group is frequently accused of being Mormon missionaries trying to convert the homeless.
“Let the taste tests begin!” Amidst the chopping of baby carrots for the salad, a bearded volunteer presents a tea cup of steaming chili. Down the hatch. What was once in a pile of garbage tastes surprisingly delicious.
There’s still work to be done on the salad, so Danny is busy chopping away at the greens. Deborah is asking Nathan about dealing with rats in the garden and Nathan is going on about wanting to erect a chicken coop in the backyard. George is smoking another cigarette and WPFW Jazz and Justice is playing on the radio. Adjacent to the “Visit Palestine” poster and below the hand-drawn sign, “Workers of the World Unite!” is a map of the District, a strategic guide with markings like “Oxon High School” (where Nathan is employed as a teacher) and “Gabe works here,” marking a point a little ways down the road. The Occupy DC Declaration is framed and hanging on the wall. Nathan has kept in touch with the McPherson Square camp, helping out with food and laundry on a few occasions.
A short drive from the house is Shepherd Parkway. It sits beside the liquor store and across the street from the Popeyes. There’s a small crowd waiting for us. They are the regulars. In thick winter gear, sporting graying beards and hungry faces, they incessantly thank the crew. Nathan is beaming.
I help him tack a small banner to a nearby information board. It reads “Food Not Bombs,” the name of the organization that created this dumpster-to-plate phenomenon. It revolves largely around ‘freegans,’ folks who adhere to a vegan diet and (attempt to) only eat what is found for free. The community I’m with doesn’t hold strict to freeganism. “I pay for food all the time,” Nathan admits, “but I don’t like to.”
The chili runs out quickly. “Damn,” Nathan mutters, “we really didn’t make enough today.” He’s disappointed, but he goes on to make conversation with all of the patrons. There’s dignity for everyone; it doesn’t feel like charity. Maybe, as Nathan says, it’s just a picnic with all of our friends.