On Dumpster Diving: Living Off of Waste by Cameron Rath

In 2009 I was taken on my first dumpster dive and was astounded by the amount of food that was being wasted. It completely altered the way I think of the industrial food system and sent me on a life altering path. Since then, not only have I turned into a regular diver but I have studied the industrialized food complex, started gardening through teaching and learning, taught a food justice class at Chuco’s School of Social Justice in Inglewood, and participated with RAC’s weekly free food distribution project as well as Food Not Bombs. I also have studied through documentaries including The Gleaners and I, Dive!, Food inc, and readings such as Grassroots Postmodernism, Food Politics, The World According to Monsanto, and Food Inc.

It’s half past twelve as we pull into the empty parking lot of Trader Joe’s. The air is sharp and keeps us awake and the bright fluorescent sign above the door is like a beacon of salvation. During the day, the sign hardly looks lit as shoppers fill up the now abandoned parking lot. They slowly move through each aisle filling their carts with a selection of the 5000 choices offered. Now the doors are locked and the lights are dimmed but the food prized on the shelves earlier that day is still available. We might not have the luxury of the variety, but the amount we can afford is how much we can carry. We take what is given.
We park on the side of the store and walk over to the dumpsters. The only sounds we hear are from the freeway a block away and the dumpster lid swinging open. The dumpster is pregnant with white 10 gallon bags and we waste no time sorting them out. The first layer is almost always trash. Quickly, we work past the devious first layer, throwing waste into the empty dumpster next to us. We pull one out and can tell by the weight that it’s worth keeping and then we realize: we’ve hit it. We pull 7 bags in total and start ripping them open in excitement and filling up the crates that we took from a Fresh and Easy earlier in the night. Within 15 minutes, my peeling red Honda Accord hatchback is packed solid. Bread of every variety, potato chips, a bag of meat, bananas, cookies, pre-packaged salads, yogurt, eggs, flour – and more than we can take. We place the remains back in the dumpster and make sure we leave the place cleaner than when we started.
It’s been three years since my first dive and I am always surprised by the amount of food that can be saved. Nothing beats the feeling of receiving and eating free food. It is incomparable to working for the money to buy the same food. Most times, I have to end up leaving half of what I find because there is simply too much for me to take. Most of it is still at least a few days–if not a couple of weeks or a month–away from the expiration date, but because stores get new product before all the old product has been sold, they have to put new product on the shelves due to limited storage space. This avoids interruption in product for the consumer but ultimately, a lot of perfectly good food ends up going to waste. In fact, about half of the food that is produced and consumed in the United States is thrown away (Jones) during a time when one in six families is food insecure according to the USDA and Roughly 96 billion pounds go to waste before it even hits the market.
Although many find it humiliating and disgusting to retrieve food that others have thrown away, this isn’t a new practice. The original divers are known as gleaners. A gleaner collects food from the fields that were not harvested with the majority of the crop. Nowadays, this comes from mechanical loss but can also be the second round of grapes that are too sweet for wine, food that wouldn’t sell on the market due to aesthetic reasons, or simply farmers overproducing. The practice of gleaning has been taking place for maybe as long as farming itself with mentions of it as far back as the Old Testament:
“‘And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not rid cleanly the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleanings of thy harvest. Thou shalt leave them unto the poor and to the stranger”
 Leviticus 23:22
Dumpster diving, although given an unpleasing name, is actually quite the opposite of humiliating and disgusting. It is liberating and freeing. To retrieve $500 worth of free food that people pay a good amount of the money they earn every day is to escape the shackles of capitalism, if just in a small way. Most times I have to seek out friends to give food to. We have the ability to no longer be under the control of wild speculative prices neatly tacked on a shelf of the exact same item priced differently for brand recognition. Marketing no long applies because we eat what is given. The illusion of choice disappears.
You are free to keep or give away whatever is found because you know there will be more to come and besides, you didn’t have to work all day to put food on your plate anyway. To dive is more than a way to save money when times are tough; it’s a choice to step towards real freedom and cooperation with each other; it’s a way to stand up against overconsumption, decadence, greed, and point out where our system has failed to connect. Living off of waste is what nature has always done. It’s how ecosystems continue to function. It’s autonomy and part of a perfect messy cycle.
It’s no wonder it has come under attack in recent years. The critics’ train of thought is that it is a direct threat to capitalism; a threat born out of its own dysfunction. To understand the sheer amount of food that goes to waste, we have to start at the field it grows in. As the industrialization of our food production has progressed, government incentives are given for farms to consolidate and get bigger. Modern machinery misses a lot of good food that ends up rotting in the fields. Traditionally, this food would have been collected by gleaners, previously mentioned in the Leviticus quote. In Europe, many families have been gleaning for generations but new laws have begun to outlaw the practice.
Finding bulk amounts of the same items time after time lead to other sorts of questions as well. Looking at ingredient lists, it starts to become clear that there is a pattern of over production in certain sectors. Products like corn and soy are so heavily subsidized that the cost of producing is now less than subsidy itself. This has led to the great majority of food products to contain these cheap fillers. “Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, . . . traced the massive amounts of subsidies received by corn growers – $73.8 billion over 15 years — to the rise of high fructose corn syrup, the fattening substance that Vice President Joe Biden said was more dangerous to Americans than terrorism” (Merkelson). These bloated subsidies are also comprised of $9 billion that is paid out to crop insurance companies – a measure tacked on during recent years in the revision of the Farm Bill which dates back to the Great Depression.
This can be seen as an analogy for most of our problems in today’s government and commerce with “… agriculture biotechnology giant Monsanto spend[ing] $8.8 million on lobbying in 2008, much of it on 22 specific issues contained within the farm bill (“Monsanto Co.”)”. Over 90% of GMO patents belong to Monsanto making the great majority of our food supply a bio-tech controlled monopoly. Now most of our economy is run in this totalitarian fashion, from banking to music.
For this reason dumpster diving becomes so much more than a way to get free food. It’s also not just a conversation about waste. This is a revolutionary act for politics and economics. It’s not just about throwing away good food when one in six Americans are struggling to put food on the table (“Hunger Facts”). It’s about who controls the food and who is profiting on such a corrosive system. It’s part of a system of modern day slavery. Our time is not our own and our lives aren’t made to fulfill us. The cost of living has increased dramatically since the 1970’s while wages have remained stagnant (Hanauer). “A new report from the US Department of Agriculture reports that 43.6 million Americans are now using food stamps, nearly 14% of the population, which is a record number” (Covert). This service, in a time when one in two Americans have trouble buying their own groceries, “brought in $5.47 billion in net revenue [for JP Morgan Chase] for most of 2010” (Covert), thanks to the government contracting Chase to provide debit-style cards in place of the old stamps.
All of this profiting off of the necessity of human survival and mass amount of waste created led me to the conclusion that dumpster diving alone would not be a big enough effect to change the bigger trends. Besides, with dumpsters filling up every night, I couldn’t save all of the food if I wanted to. With everything that goes to waste and all the land that we have in this country, it’s absurd that anyone has to go to bed hungry. We aren’t just giving up our time though; we are giving up our community and our connection to food and the earth as well.
When teaching a food justice program in South Los Angeles and again when helping with gardening classes with younger kids at elementary schools I was shocked to find out how many young people are baffled by the idea of picking food off of a plant to eat; that you can grow it and sustain yourself. It seems to me that this is the ultimate solution. The industrialized food system is unsustainable. Eventually the ground on which this industry grows on will be sucked dry of its nutrients, an economy based on speculation will lose its speculative value, and the food in the dumpsters will dry up. It’ll be time to stop imitating an ecosystem and start nurturing one.
To grow our own food, save our own seeds, recycle our own waste back into the ground we grow again; that is the ultimate freedom. Block by block, every piece of empty land could be free food for the sharing. This vision in fact, has already been adopted by the city of Seattle. Earlier this year, the city announced plans to open a seven acre edible forest for anyone to pick, bringing together a whole community from different backgrounds for a common purpose in a natural space. This might be the largest food forest in the United States but it is only the beginning of what liberating our food source could look like.
I find myself drawn back to the writings of Gustavo Esteva in Grassroots Post-Modernism, Remaking the Soil of Cultures and the culture of “comida” which celebrates the collective ‘we’. “Comida disappears where people buy, prepare and cook food to nourish the myth of the ‘individual self’. Regenerating ourselves means, among other things, escaping the prison of industrial eating” (63). In rebuilding our communities and reconnecting to the earth, we are able to break free from our sense of isolation. A piece of “comida” can be found in the dumpster when, without buying food, you are able to cook and feed all of your friends and neighbors.
Esteva recalls a story of native people of the Triqui nation in the small town of San Andrés Chicahuaxtla:
They have magnificent stories. They love to tell of the time when a terrible plague of enormous grasshoppers devastated whole areas of Oaxaca, arriving finally at San Andrés. There, the plague ended. For they eat grasshoppers in a thousand forms. They are experts in capturing them. The kids, particularly, know how to skillfully play the hat in the grass for the capture. An expert will complacently agree that the grasshoppers are rich in protein; but, apart from that modern concern, they are in fact very tasty. When the plague of grasshoppers came to San Andrés, the Triquis ate them all. Now they have a prayer, begging them to return (63).
In a way this is the same solution that divers have found to find food in the cities as well. With a small perception switch, a problem becomes a solution bringing together a source of free food and allowing us to think beyond the individual self.

Covert, Bryce. “Food Stamps: JPMorgan & Banking Industry Profit From Misery | Next New Deal.” Food Stamps: JPMorgan & Banking Industry Profit From Misery |

Next New Deal. Next New Deal, 9 Feb. 2011. Web. 18 May 2012. .

Esteva, Gustavo, and Madhu Suri Prakash. Grassroots Post-modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures. London: Zed, 1998. Print.

Farmer, Blake. “Gleaning A Harvest For The Needy By Fighting Waste.” NPR. NPR, 20 Jan. 2011. Web. 14 May 2012. .

“Hunger Facts.” Feeding America. Web. 18 May 2012. <http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger- facts.aspx

Hanauer, Nick. "Here's The TED Presentation About Rich People That TED Doesn't Want You To See." Business Insider, 17 May 2012. Web. 17 May 2012. .

Jones, Timothy W. “Using Contemporary Archaeology and Applied Anthropology to Understand Food Loss in the American Food System.” Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (2004). University of Arizona. Print.

Kenner, Robert. “Food, Inc.” Magnolia Pictures, 21 Apr. 2010.

Leviticus 22:23. 21st Century King James Version. Print.

Merkelson, Suzanne. “This Is Why You’re Fat: The 2012 Farm Bill and the Real Obesity Lobby.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 May 2012. Web. 16 May 2012. .

“Monsanto Co.” Lobbying Spending Database. Open Secrets, 2008. Web. 16 May 2012. .

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