My first time dumpster diving was at the beginning of my freshman year. I’m not the kind of girl who’s afraid to get my hands, (or let’s face it.. shoes, pants, maybe even hair) dirty, so the idea of climbing into a waste receptacle didn’t really faze me. I see the reality of food wastage in our country as far more disgusting than any commercial waste receptacle. I remember how surreal it was to stand on an old milk crate, flicking on my camping headlamp, and gazing into the Trader Joe’s dumpster, only to see sealed bags containing pounds upon pounds of roses, baguettes, produce and dozens of other kinds of items.
I raved about my experience, but received mixed reactions from my friends. I understand that there is an unmistakable connection between “food” and “place,” but I didn’t think much of this until one instance my Freshman year; I placed a bowl on the trash conveyor at one of our dining halls. I realized right after that I wanted to finish something I had left on the plate. I reached ahead, and grabbed the plate. Of course, the action could not be completed without questionable glances from classmates. Nothing had changed about my food, but for some reason, as soon as that plate left my hand for the conveyor belt, it became trash, and you can’t eat trash, right?
Everyone always says that you are what you eat; I used to see it as a trite remark a parent might make to a child who is eating too much junk food or sugar. But my understanding of the expression has changed enormously in the past few years, as I’ve become involved in food activism and food education movements. Our relationship with food, and even our definition of good food can mean something completely different from one person to the next. For one person, good food might be the mixture of herbs and spices, the temperature when served, the variation of textures, the means of preparation, the name of the facility that is providing the food, the nutritional value, the rights of the people who harvested or prepared the foods, or the meal’s ecological footprint.
Dumpster diving is a part of a movement called freeganism, which comes from a larger anti-consumerist ideology. Consumers might not always realize that in buying, they are “voting with their dollars.” When you support a business economically, you are supporting their practice and politics. Freegans spare their change by avoiding participation in the conventional economy. Dumpster diving is best done in groups, so one or two can go inside of the dumpster and toss out the large plastic bags, and another can sort through for salvageable foods, which are usually plentiful. Some stores, especially bakeries, are well aware of the practice and leave their goods which are not fit for donation packaged outside of their stores where divers can pick them up. Other businesses might choose to lock up or compact their trash, making it inaccessible for divers.
I love food, but the more I learn about our food system, the more frustrated I become. I’ve learned that eating sustainably means much more than buying a bundle of kale or pre-made pizza from whole foods with a green, organic label on it. I think that the disconnect from our food system begins with the standard American supermarket. We’ve been trained to expect one thing when we go shopping for food, but that expectation has a huge disconnect from the reality of how food works.
Anyone who has grown their own vegetables or worked at a farm can tell you that fruits and vegetables in nature are far less homogenous than the ones you will see at a grocery store. Only about one third of the food that is grown in our country actually makes its way to our plates. Some is lost or damaged in transport, some gets thrown out because it isn’t attractive enough to stock on the shelves. Our grocery stores restock their shelves daily to maintain their images as hermetic, bountiful sources of nourishment.
Produce is constantly thrown away in order to make room for more attractive, slightly fresher, more attractive products. Refrigerated items are constantly restocked and replaced as they get closer and closer to their expiration date. Due to food safety and liability concerns, food rescue groups only take things like fresh breads that don’t sell by the end of the day, dented cans, or non-perishables with slightly damaged packaging. Everything else gets thrown in the trash.
Most recently, I was able to collect somewhere around 14 boxes of cherry tomatoes, 2 crates of basil, a box of lemons, a box of marinara sauce, and a few blocks of Cabot white cheddar cheese. These items were not clearly damaged. They were not past the expiration date. They had probably been thrown away for reasons relating to strict store policies, or had been overstocked. Along with some housemates, I was able to make an impressive batch of tomato basil soup, some tasty basil lemonade, among a number of other snacks. I know that the idea of eating from a dumpster is not the most appealing, but the prevalence of the practice raises some big questions about the sustainability of our food systems and grocery stores—a system which I strongly suggest others to think critically about, if they have the time and resources to do so.
Cover image source.