"Whoa, someone found the soy milk!" said Cindy Rosin, 31, a freelance graphics designer. "Good find."
Two men in dark dress slacks, button down shirts and shiny shoes approached the trash tourists. "Pardon me, what is this?" one asked. "Vegetable justice?"
"It's over-consumerism," said Gracie Janove, 19, an anthropology student with a crescent moon pendant hanging around her neck. Janove, who participated in her first dumpster dive during a trip to France, frequently searches the trash of New York bakeries for pastries and the garbage of grocery stores for fruit.
The two men walked away, laughing.
D'Agostino's, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods -- freegans' most popular dumpster diving sites -- donate edible food to agencies that prepare it for the poor, according to their spokespeople. But freegans and food experts say a large amount of edible food still gets thrown away. Smaller businesses don't always have agreements with food banks, they say, or they have not taken time to donate.
"We have found canned goods, completely wrapped pastas," said Nelson, who recently salvaged piles of parsley, lettuce, onions and a potted plant from a Whole Foods' garbage.
Sometimes grocery stores don't sell food because there was an error in the processing, and though the product may be edible, it is the wrong color or shape, said Beth Osborne Daponte, a senior research scholar at the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies who served on the Hunger in America 2006 task force.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans create 245 million tons of waste a years, about 12% of it food. Much of the food that stores throw out is still edible at the time of its expiration date.
"We shouldn't be wasting as much as we do," Daponte said. But, she added, "to go dumpster diving, you also have to be willing to take the risk. Some of the food might be great. Some might be contaminated."
Supermarket officials say food found in their trash should not be eaten.
"Food items are disposed of because they are inedible or not otherwise safe to donate," said Ashley Hawkins, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods.
The store's guidelines about what is edible, Weissman said, may be unrealistic, adding that at home, people wouldn't throw away a banana with a few brown spots.
As Nelson and Weissman helped guide the scavengers to their next stop on the trash tour, a D'Agostino's employee brought out a big bag of doughy, plump, sweet-smelling bagels.
The experienced freegans glanced at the bag and kept walking. Instead they led the group across the street to Daniel's Bagels, voted one of the best bagel shops in New York by one online site.
"We're picky freegans," said Deirdre Rennert, who would not reveal her place of work because of the stigma attached to living off dumpster groceries. She once took home a salmon carcass from D'Agostino's trash and made ceviche, and admitted she was somewhat surprised she did not get sick.
Daniel's had closed at 9 p.m. and its storefront was lined with black trash bags. The group sniffed and squeezed the bags. They opened the ones that felt soft and smelled of bread fresh from the oven. They discovered pounds of bagels: onion, pumpernickel, cinnamon raisin, sesame, sourdough.
"Usually you will find a bag that has got the coffee remains with the bagels," Rosin told the diggers. "If they are nice, they will separate them."
Nelson scooped up two bags of bagels to freeze for later.