I’ve been a decently avid dumpster diver, particularly in my college years. I find no shame in refurbishing my home with the excellent items that the more wasteful see fit to throw out. But I have always drawn the line at furniture. Clothing I’ll pick up from giveaway boxes and Goodwill specials, but that’s about it. Personal items? Only from people I know. Food? Only from the Olson Hall mirror box, where the chronically anorexic put their delicious offerings before their magic mirror, tempting the other painfully skinny bodies on their way to the gym or class or late-night makeout session. How many boxes of cookies, chocolate bars, brownies and chips have I gained because of their guilt??? And how many times have I passed by a full giveaway in the afternoon only to find it completely empty by madrugada, perhaps falling prey to the same poor soul who put it out, a sort of food hypocrisy? But the sick food habits of co-eds aren’t the subject of this entry...creative ways to eat for free, however, is.
The May issue of Sojourners had a delectable article about the joys of dumpster diving for food. Yes. Food. Not a tribute to the starving homeless, but an apparently middle-class magazine scribe and a like minded band of others who find paying for food too much of a concession to a consumerist, materialistic supersystem.
I understand the thought process. I too, prefer to buy brand name clothing at Goodwill, as it fits both my style, pocketbook, and desire for quality but also my ethics. Shopping second-hand supports smaller businesses, letting me know the money is going into my community, and it gives the consumer the joy of a great bargain, knowing all the while that Abercrombie or The Gap isn’t receiving a penny. Thus I am slightly exonerated of the charges of being complicit in their (probably) shameful business practices.
But. But. I’m not sure that I ever made the connection to extend to dumpster diving. I hate wasting of food. It drives me crazy that at my local deli they frequently throw away the cheese or ham scraps that don’t come out perfect from the slicer. I try to explain to the workers that I don’t really care if the cheese is pretty or not, as it tastes the same square, triangular, or slightly ragged, but they must have other orders. And I make soups out of the food that gets lost in the fridge. (The other day I made a fabulous curried carrot and apple soup...it was like a Souphouse fall evening in a bowl!)
“But why run the risk of harassment, embarassment-and yes, illness-to scavenge food? Reason number one-you get a lot of really, really good food really, really free.” *** His description of sprouted wheat berry loaves, fresh foccacia, lobster bisque, sushi, pounds of smoked salmon, jars of caviar and bags of pastries...well, it is enough to make one’s mouth water. And lest you worry about the safety of such treasures, our Sojourners author declares: “Fortunately, most stores are diligent about dumping food when it reaches its “sell by” date-three hours earlier, they’d have sold it to you. So the only guesswork is in deciding whether or not it has gone bad in the meantime...Dumpstering isn’t for the dainty-that bag of smoked salmon may be hiding under a pile of overripe avocados. But excessive packaging usually keeps the food itself grime-free...”
Grime. Hmm. In Colorado, I once worked at a food pantry distribution center and digging through the donations was a rather unpleasant experience: label-free cans (some wacky legislation requires them to donate canned goods sans descriptions of the contents) that occasionally burst open to reveal peas or soup or unidentifiable canned meats; refrigerator-sized boxes full of almost fresh vegetables. It was the non-fresh ones that made for a sticky night. And at the Missionaries of Charity in Rio de Janeiro, their donated food often must be sorted among the following criteria: use today, store for tomorrow, or wash off your now-slimy hands. Rotten foods have varying bad smells: carrots and potatoes are among the worst, but grapes manage to be some of the nastiest to touch. Give me a box of rotten apples any day!
May 2006 issue of Sojourners, people. Dumpster diving. It's the way of the future!
***Speaking of free food, I’m reminded of my grandmother’s disgust ridden voice as she tells a story about some hippies who ran out of food on their West Virginia commune. Not to be dismayed by a little lack of cash flow, they arrived en masse at the local chain supermarket and hung out by the vegetable stalls. When the water sprayers came on to mist the food, they hung their dreadlocks under the misters and WASHED THEIR HAIR over the vegetables! This, apparently, hadn’t yet been outlawed—who else but commune hippies would do such a thing—and so the supermarket merely expelled them from the store. And threw out the “contaminated” vegetables, which were then gathered from the dumpsters out back and turned into a nice, pagan feast back home. Not that the supermarket cared much about what goes into making fertilizer...or that vegetables are probably exposed to much nastier things than a little hair water...but I for one, was thrilled by their ingenuity. I remembered this story on the bus today and laughed out loud, like a little crazy person...