How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dumpster

Today, I pulled some bags out of a dumpster and dug through them for food, and I plan to do it again. There’s lots of goodness going to waste, and getting what we can use from the castoffs makes a difference for my family while we struggle to cover our grocery bills. And although it marginalizes me, I would rather root through these dumpsters than buy my family the kind of processed, low-quality food that better conforms to our budget.

Two years ago, I was staying in hotels that were so fancy they had subtle “signature fragrance” wafting gently from the air vents. I strode purposefully through airport terminals with my high heels clicking, and pulled my carry-on bag while holding four-dollar coffee drinks. I admired leafy lobbies from glass elevators, and shook hands firmly with company presidents. My fingernails were expertly groomed, my hair elegantly highlighted and bobbed. I could get macadamia nuts and a mimosa from the mini-bar, on company dime. I resisted that most of the time.

The first month of the Great Recession, my commissions from working as a salesperson in the natural products industry were reduced by about two-thirds.  Within six months, I was making one-tenth of my typical income, and ultimately, the companies I represented abandoned the independently-contracted sales rep business model altogether. I scrambled and took what I could get to bring something—anything—into the bank account, but for almost a year, we were forced to live on our savings while we reconfigured. 

Some of the skills that served me in my professional incarnation have translated well to a life living on the economic edge: cheerfulness, ability to network, persistence, and being willing to turn over every rock to find the treasure. And surprisingly, it has been a natural evolution to this thing that I’m doing, this sifting through what is rejected as imperfect, in order to take care of my family.

I’ve gotten tips from those who have gone before me: check on the legality of dumpster diving in your town. Bring a box-cutter with you. Tuck your pants into your socks. Try to befriend a store employee for insider information, and you may have to be patient in your searching, as dumpsters that “give” are hard to find. Bring a partner to provide lookout, and a long stick for dragging out treasures. Don’t go behind a closed fence to access a dumpster, leave everything neater than when you arrived, and leave graciously if requested to by a store employee or a cop. Also, you can just ask at most places for day-old bread, no diving required. 

Other things to look for in addition to bruised and imperfect produce are just slightly out-of-date packaged foods. Much has been made about the arbitrariness of these expiration dates, and indeed, they are unregulated by the federal government. Terminology is so inconsistent as to be troubling: “best if used by . . . ?”  “sell by . . . ?”  The best rule of thumb is to refrigerate perishables as soon as possible, and utilize your common sense as well as your other senses in order to assess whether something is good to eat. Much of the risk is in deterioration of the quality of the nutrients in food, and less about true acute risk of illness.

Peering through a bag of rejected broccoli from the garbage for signs of brown or yellow patches is something I couldn’t have imagined doing just a few short years ago. Before my work got downsized, I was the kind of consumer who shopped with an eye for quality alone, without much thought to price at all. Back when I made an embarrassingly-good living, my view was that food is underpriced and undervalued in our culture, and that since I could afford it, buying the best was not only good for my family, but good for the farmers and manufacturers. I joined the Facebook page: “I’d Rather Spend More Than Shop at Wal-Mart.” Food, Inc. was my manifesto, and Michael Pollan and Morgan Spurlock my high priests. Nothing entered the house that wasn’t free-trade, free-range, sustainable, grass-fed, organic, or ethically-produced.  Oh, and of course, local if possible. If it could have been blessed by Tibetan monks, I’d probably have opted for that, too. 

And now, for the last two years, we’ve been living far below the federal poverty level. We sold our family car, canceled the cable and Internet, and stripped ourselves to the bare minimum of comforts to ride out these tough times. Even with that, we still rely on food stamps and the WIC program to bridge the chasm between our grocery budget and what is actually required to fill the larder. Until our youngest two are in school and I can find some sort of work that’s biking distance, this is our lifeline. Still, it’s nowhere near enough. Food stamps are only sufficient if you feed your kids ramen noodles bought in bulk quantities, cheap meat, Doritos, and non-organic milk. Giant, cheap crates of cereal, not those precious little boxes of flax flakes they sell at Whole Foods. The WIC program allows for a couple of organic and vegan choices, which is astounding progress. However, it’s all just a drop in the bucket for the needs of your average family.

What was once the territory of gutter punks and urban squatters, dumpster diving has become less-taboo for the parental set. One young woman I talked to says she dumpster dives with her mother; it’s become, for them, just another family resource for living a healthy lifestyle. And it’s not just about the free food, it’s about living in a way that’s in harmony with your values—saying “no more” to our culture of conspicuous waste. “I do it in Berkeley,” one diver tells me. “There’s a dumpster here that’s like diving into a big salad.” She took up juicing and eating a mostly raw diet to keep up with the cycle of abundance, not too bad for being “poor.” Others have a cooperative of sorts, where certain gatherers do the diving and then distribute. “Because it needs to be secret,” says Jessica R., “people only share information with close friends and those with whom they share food. I once lived in a household that survived largely off a weekly ‘delivery’ from a nearby store. But only the people who actually went to pick up the food knew where it was, and they wouldn't tell the rest of us.”

Dumpster diving is just one of the ways the New Poor are trying to survive. There’s also growing your own vegetable garden (food stamps pay for seeds,) and sharing information with your neighbors about local fruit trees (called “gleaning.”) You can trade harvests with each other, and many trees are even on public property. Some communities have informal groups on meetup or craigslist where they share information about local micro-crops. In our Northern California region, you could probably live on blackberries alone in late summer. And I have plucked pomegranates and grapefruit on walks to the park with the babies more times than I can count. We’ve registered our fruit trees at neighborhoodfruit.com, so that our harvest is available to share, and so that we might reap part of someone else’s.

I search for deals on healthy food. I no longer have an aversion to Costco, where you can get a gargantuan box of organic raw spinach for three bucks or so, as well as apocalypse-sized bags of organic brown rice and steel-cut oats. It’s easy to preach against big-box stores and faux-organic agri-business when your family has plenty of food money, but when times are very lean, you have to make some hard choices. Though we used to get CSA delivery, we had to give it up due to the precipitous cost and the fact that we couldn’t use our food stamps to pay for it. We were also practicing vegans for awhile, but have let that go as well, in favor of what we can get more cheaply. My rationale is that, at least, most of what we bring in is fairly wholesome and minimally-processed. Well, okay, except for the Cheerios and government cheese.

There is a strange sort of shame in wanting the best when you have so little allotted for your family’s needs. I’ve talked to so many moms who’ve suffered reproving looks or even disparaging comments when they’re buying organic, high-quality food using a food stamp card. The judgment being made is this: how dare you opt for quality over quantity? How dare you want better food even if it means less food for your family? I think a lot of people want to see us cliché Whole Foods snobs get our comeuppance, now that the economic downturn has leveled the living standards playing field. They want to witness us realize that the way we’ve been eating is an elitist luxury, and that, indeed, it’s not feasible for a family that’s struggling financially to make these ecological, ethical, and political choices with our grocery shopping. I know that I was raised by parents who roll their eyes at what they perceive as organic snobbery, and that my years as a strict vegetarian were seen as youthful arrogance.

And I’m late to this party: there are communities, websites, and documentaries on the subject: notably, Dive! by filmmaker Jeremy Seifert, which has won accolades in scores of film fests and green events. Jeremy says, “Experience that initial rush, shame, fear, and exhilaration of ‘stealing’ trash and eating it will change you in good ways.” In an NPR interview, Seifert asserts, "if you Dumpster dive and actually eat trash, it becomes normal for you.” Waste is built into the food chain at all levels, so there is a connection to issues related to pollution, soil depletion, pesticide abuse, and utilization of fossil fuels. Put it all together, and, says Seifert, “the devastation to the environment is immense." In a short, entertaining forty-five minutes, Dive! also points out some hard realities regarding the shameful waste of over 96 billion pounds of food every year in the US, while so many families go hungry in our communities.

Today I was thwarted in my searching through a usually abundant dumpster by the addition of landscape compost on top of the normal refuse. This particular dumpster is beyond disgusting, make no mistake. It takes psychological coaching to overcome the streaks of grunge and rust that coats the walls. I wear gloves and change clothes the moment I get home, leave my boots outside, and scrub my hands thoroughly. 

For me, there was a gradual shift to what I found embarrassing as I went from being affluent to being poor. Of course there’s the waiting in government offices and applying for food programs, taking the bus, and shopping only at thrift stores. Many of us are sharing these experiences as we slide down through this Great Recession (oh, wait, isn’t it supposed to be over?)  But still, obtaining food from a dumpster is a radicalizing act, and I was excited to take that step. Our family has used this time to reassess our values, and I think we’ve been doing a better job teaching our kids to question our culture of waste and over-consumption. Much of the last two years has been about regaining perspective on our own family’s wasteful habits, and at how we took abundance for granted. You can make all kinds of politically-correct choices with what you choose to buy, but it’s the buying itself that is such a big part of the problem. Feeling hungry has been motivating, and humbling. Having the chance to learn about and talk with “freegans” made me more comfortable with crossing the taboo of scavenging for food.

My favorite dumpster today yielded a small haul: organic, fresh basil in a sealed package, and a bag of organic gala apples that was open at the top, but otherwise in perfect shape. I pull it out and head for home. I keep a brown paper grocery bag with me for hauling it in my bicycle basket. I investigate everything for evidence of bugs, mold, or spoilage. I arrange the produce in an attractive pile in the refrigerator crisper. 

I’m hoping that, ultimately, I can gather enough extra food to donate some to the homeless people who frequent our neighborhood.  We live in a little square of paradise bordered by the rail yards, a large shady park with welcoming benches, a greenbelt that runs along a creek with well-concealed homeless encampments, and a Salvation Army that provides food bank groceries, showers, and hot meals for those who are down-on-their-luck.  But what I’ve seen from this nearby food bank is all highly-processed, nutrient-poor, low quality boxed and canned goods.  We have pear-, apple-, and orange trees in our yard, and I bring bags of extras to the park; sometimes I leave them the grass near a sleeping body. There’s just so much.

Why can’t we gather and redistribute to those around us? Grocers should be taken to task for throwing anything fresh or high-quality into the dumpster. The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that President Clinton signed into law in 1996 was designed to relieve grocers of liability for any incidental harm that may come from sharing their food waste. I’ve printed a copy of it, I’m carrying it with me from now on, and I’m tempted to gently confront store management if I start noticing abundance in the dumpsters near us. I feel like I just might be waking up to true food activism: beyond the “locavore” movement, past Monsanto’s crimes and the battles for organic standards, there is the reality that our garbage cans are full of good food, while people—families, children—go hungry. 

It’s been a long, humbling road from driving my gorgeous, silver, piously “fuel-efficient” SUV with the leather seats and satellite radio, parking at fancy grocery stores and spending three hundred dollars on a cart full of provisions, the most exalted groceries money can buy. I’d toss in ingredients to make the world’s most rarified smoothie out of acai and goji berries, frozen wheatgrass juice, hemp seeds, a three-dollar organic peach, and raw cacao nibs. I thought I was voting with my dollar. I’m starting to realize that taking the dollar out of the equation altogether might be a better solution. Now I bike around to the back of those stores, and pull out from their trash what we can make use of. What might be useable to someone else, I take out and carefully place it alongside the dumpster. I have to be alert so as not to run into a raccoon or an angry store employee. And I pedal back home to my family.

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