What I Learned (and Found) Dumpster Diving, Part II, by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“I had known that dumpster diving is subversive….What I hadn’t considered previously is its arguable feminist and biblical precedents.”


The following is a continuation of a two-part blog. Read part I for what prompted me to go dumpster diving, what freeganism is, and what three things surprised me the most about dumpstering beyond the sad and shocking reality of tremendous waste. 

My Dumpster Dive Haul

After sorting through several trash bags of edible food in the approximately 10 minutes that we spent at one site in my first ever urban scavenging trip, this is what I ultimately brought home.


(Reminder: As explained in part I, I have intentionally photoshopped out the store’s name and the use-by/best by dates).

(1)  Five ears of unhusked corn: it wasn’t obvious to us why these were discarded (they are pictured here husked only because I forgot to take the photo before shucking them)

(2)  Microwavable baby broccoli: while not expired, a few of the tips were starting to yellow and the “use by” date was the next day

(3)  Grilled eggplant wrap with tahini sauce: the “use by” date was the next day (it’s pictured empty here because I ate it for lunch before I snapped the photo)

(4)  Nature’s Path Organic Raisin Bran: its cardboard packaging was damaged, but the (unexpired) cereal inside of the plastic bag remained intact and uncrushed

(5)  One dozen eggs: my companions graciously let me have the cleanest carton. The unexpired eggs were still cold when we found them, although two of them had minor exterior blemishes.

(6)  Avocado’s Number Guacamole: we could not determine what was wrong with this—it had not past its expiration date and the packaging was fine

(7)  6 clementines: I opened a package and just took what my family could reasonably consume in the next few days

(8)  Vanilla and Blueberry Yogurt: the expiration date wasn’t for three weeks, but the cardboard packaging was dented and one yogurt cup was missing

To be sure, there’s an increased risk in taking animal products. In this case, the top of each yogurt cup was slightly raised, suggesting that the yogurt had thinned and expanded from warmth. But because I have occasionally fed my children the exact same kind of yogurt under comparable conditions (e.g., yogurt that had warmed to room temperature—a consequence of neglecting to refrigerate their unopened lunchbox yogurts until 4-5 hours later upon discovery), they became part of my haul.

(9)  Apples: I took one of the many bags and made a plan to cut off the bruised parts before baking with them.

Within a week’s time, my family and I had consumed without incident about 2/3 of this haul (including the yogurt and eggs, the latter only after they passed the egg test). Everything was delicious!

I should add that my two dumpstering companions were returning to a horde of eager housemates and accordingly took larger quantities of some of the things shown previously. They also scored major finds like a few packages of heirloom tomatoes, packaged cashews, packaged pomegranate seeds, and individual Chobani yogurts.

Nonetheless, it’s sobering to know that our collective total was only a fraction of all the good food that remained in those dumpsters. Unless other scavengers came later, the rest would eventually end up rotting in already-clogged landfills, only to produce methane—a major source of greenhouse gases.

Concluding Thoughts

I had known that dumpster diving is subversive—it often violates laws about private property and trespassing or, in contexts where urban scavenging is not prohibited (as per Supreme Court case California v. Greenwood (1987), at least deeply ingrained socio-cultural beliefs about where food should come from and what is proper to eat.

What I hadn’t considered previously is its arguable feminist and biblical precedents. While I don’t have the space to develop these points here, various feminist movements in the 1960s that challenged inequities in the distribution of resources can be thought of as precursors to the freegan strategy of dumpster diving. Foraging for the sake of feeding those in need can also be conceptualized as a type of gleaning, as per Deuteronomy 24:19-22 and Leviticus 19:9-10.

Finally, I find it interesting that the federal law that protects food donors and nonprofit feeding programs who act in good faith from civil or criminal liability (if the food they donate/serve unintentionally sickens its recipients) is called the “Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act” of 1996.

Having satisfied my curiosity, the question remains whether I will dumpster dive again.

I’m resolved to learn more about my local, Pitzer College-based Food Not Bombs chapter (it’s a freegan group that serves warm vegan and vegetarian meals that would otherwise go to waste to anyone who wants it while “working to expose the injustice of a society where fighting wars is considered a higher priority than feeding the hungry.”)

I’m also convicted enough to seriously reconsider the ways that I either directly contribute to or am nonetheless complicit in the 34 million tons of food waste that Americans generate each year according to a recent EPA study.

For reasons that both pre- and post-date my dumpster dive, I’d also like to explore the possibility of opening up a permanent free store/space on my campus. (The thought had crossed my mind that if our dive had taken place during the school year, I might have taken all of those packaged salads and sandwiches and then made them available in our campus community center for our graduate students to enjoy, with an accompanying explanatory note of course).

Finally, I’d like to talk to the manager of the store at which we dumpster dived to learn what charitable food donations they already make (if any) and whether (s)he would allow me to enter through the front door (as opposed to their dumpster under the cover of night) to reclaim food they would otherwise throw away for those in need.

Whether or not I prove successful in those endeavors, what would deter me the most from dumpster diving again is neither the “gross” factor, nor the social stigma, nor even any concerns about food safety. Instead, it would be some combination of the unpleasantness (though not catastrophe) of potentially getting caught as well as the sacrifice of precious sleep that one generally must make in order to avoid detection.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. She is also co-editing a volume with Rebecca Todd Petersthat is tentatively entitled “Encountering the Sacred: A Theological Exploration of Women’s Lives.” You can learn more about her work on her website.


Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

8 thoughts on “What I Learned (and Found) Dumpster Diving, Part II, by Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

  1. Thank you for this incredible article and for having the courage to participate in dumpster diving. I am always amazed at the waste in this country. You have also made me more aware of my own waste. I hope you will write more about what you achieve as you pursue your goals related to this topic.


    1. Kathleen: thanks for writing. Our local “food not bombs” chapter starts again once school is in session, so I’ll have more to report then and I’ve already made contact with a staff member at our school to talk about putting together a “free store.” I’ll definitely blog more about this. If I’ve raised your consciousness about waste even a bit, I’ll count that as a good thing!


  2. This is such an engaging article on sustainability and waste. Many years ago, when first married, my former husband and I would spend a large part of our Saturday grocery shopping for discounts (he a medical student, we existed on one income). One store comes to mind, a can food store that sold only dented cans received in transport. At a fraction of the cost, they became a stable in our diverse and creative menus. We also belonged to a food co-op, working one Saturday month in order to purchase a variety of healthy foods at a fraction of the cost.

    By shopping at discount markets with “damaged” goods, belonging to a food co-op, and the radical idea of bagging our own groceries (hey, it’s the late ’70’s), we not only saved money, looking back, we too engaged in the subversive act of sustainability. Some kind of transition occurred with more money and children. The commodity of time became more valuable than careful shopping practices. Throwing out food deemed marginally soiled the norm, not the exception. Your article, while a focus on large food chains, gives me pause and self-examination of my own choices when grocery shopping.


    1. Cynthie – thanks for sharing. I can totally relate to your point about eventually valuing time over conscientiousness about waste. I grew up with a mom who didn’t cut off the dry parts of asparagus stalks, but would peel around them to preserve whatever edible food was left. She did this not because we were poor (again, I have a privileged upbringing), but because both of my parents grew-up in a developing country and they knew that food is just not something you waste. I largely kept that mentality, meaning that all leftovers were eventually eaten and all food purchased consumed before spoilage in our household, until I was pregnant with my first child, was extra sensitive to smells, and thus more of that food went into the trash. While no longer pregnant, I’ve managed to keep up those (bad) habits. I think it’s time for me to learn how to compost!


  3. Grace, this is wonderful, and I am inspired. I want to dumpster dive at one of my local grocery stores — what time do you recommend going? A half hour after closing time?

    I know that some people think that dumpster diving for food is disgusting, but I think it’s far more disgusting to trash edible food. It smacks of such disrespect — for the earth, for the animals who suffered to produce the food, for the workers who spend their days bent over to harvest the food, etc.


    1. Caroline – thanks for writing. I love the values shift in your response (that it’s more disgusting to waste edible food than to recover it from the trash) – it’s very feminist of you/us to break out of conventional thinking to see something deeper and truer!

      P.S. I’d be more than happy to convey some tips and share more details of my dumpster diving excursion with you over the phone. If you do go dumpster diving, I’d love for you to document your haul as well!


  4. Grace —

    Composting is extremely straightforward. We’ve done it for almost 40 years, even though we live in the city. All you do is dig a hole in the ground and then dump your vegetable waste into it, occasionally hoe-ing (spelling?) it together with some dirt. Since you live in California (don’t you?), you don’t need any extras. Here in Madison, Wisconsin, the city has yearly sales of inexpensive above-ground composters, and on our current property, one of these is necessary (since we don’t really have a backyard, living on the lake). We can compost even in the winter (except for January, and then it’s a matter of letting the waste freeze and waiting until spring to stir it into the compost). We don’ compost animal waste (even though we eat some fish and free-range chicken), because it attracts foraging carnivores (which we have as well — a fox, several mink, coyotes, and raccoons, even though we live in the city). If you go on-line there are lots of sites about composting.


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