“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.
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.