Give Now

Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Calling All Dumpster Divers

Dumpster divers may share ideals and good dumpster locations, but they maintain minimal contact, loose structural organization and, as a result, secrecy.

man hunched over looking inside a dumpster

Photo: sea turtle (Flickr)

There seemed to be a pattern emerging. Dumpster divers are indeed a secretive bunch.

Where Have All The Divers Gone?

After learning about dumpster diving practices across the country, I wanted to connect with divers in my own town.

My search began as conversations with students at Indiana University. I was referred to the Bloomington co-ops, where I might find a few residents who have some diving experience.

Kelly and Sandra did not know any divers personally, but Sandra admitted to occasional dumpster diving as well as frequent foraging.

Following their advice, I biked to the co-ops and found only two residents — neither had ever gone dumpster diving. One resident directed me towards another co-op, where I might find a dumpster diver or two (her co-op was “not that hardcore”). Unfortunately, no one from that co-op was home.

Disappointment growing, I approached the fourth and final co-op, catching a resident just as she was exiting the house. After explaining my intentions, she replied that yes, in fact, she did know someone. This someone, named Tim, was unfortunately not home at the moment, but I was welcome to email him. I did email later, but he did not reply.

I next brought up dumpsters with a friend, Neil, whose house neighbors one of the co-ops. After hearing inquiries about the elusive dumpster divers, he confessed to never seeing one but promised to keep an eye out.

Rachel, a student from Indiana University’s anthropology department, knew not one but two dumpster divers, Matt and Abby. Rachel had once eaten a dessert baked by these friends containing pineapple from a dumpster, but admitted nervousness has kept her out of dumpsters herself.

Two weeks after my initial questions about her dumpster diver friends, however, still no contact. Rachel had breached the topic with Matt, but she learned that he only went dumpster diving with an outsider man, upon whose name or identity was never elaborated.

Emily, a fine arts student, likewise had known dumpster divers, but they had all moved out of town within the past year.

There seemed to be a pattern emerging. Dumpster divers are indeed a secretive bunch.

Nearly every individual I had spoken with seemed to know of someone who actually dumpster dived, but not one individual could initiate direct contact with a dumpster diver. Moreover, no one I spoke to had actually gone dumpster diving themselves, save for one graduate student.

Where, exactly, was this food subculture and who was truly involved?

Success Story

Keeping eyes and ears open, I finally came into contact with a dumpster diver, one who had gone out of necessity.

A fine arts senior from Indianapolis, Cody had known high school friends who would often go dumpster diving. One friend, he recalled, always seemed to have a large garbage bag full of salvaged bagels. Cody, however, had not gone dumpster diving until two summers ago. Hungry, broke and jobless, he had been visiting the food pantry regularly but with two others to feed, the provisions were not enough.

A student at Indiana University had introduced him to a small group of regular dumpster divers, and although Cody did not dive with the group, he discovered their locations and eventually went with two of his own friends. He considered his first few attempts unsuccessful, but subsequent trips resulted in an abundance of bagels and boxed cereals:

  • During one midnight trip, Cody’s small group had encountered a delivery truck; they waited until it pulled away before jumping the gate to scrounge for bagels.
  • On another trip, they had found packages of meat but decided against keeping any, anxious about expiration dates.
  • A separate dive was abandoned completely due to awful smells wafting from the dumpster.

He chose locations that were both near to home and easily accessible; some were larger grocers while others were specialty food chains.

Having gone dumpster diving out of necessity, Cody emphasized inequities of retailer policies that prevent dumpster access. Food should not be wasted, he says, and dumpster diving is a resourceful option even for those who have adequate resources.

The ‘In’ Crowd

Even though Cody had gone dumpster diving several times, he still did not consider himself a part of the culture.

Based on my observations, here appears to be some distinction between those who dumpster dive out of necessity and those who occasionally dumpster dive to counteract consumer culture. Perhaps, then, there are smaller subgroups within the subculture of dumpster diving.

Still, those who dumpster dive regularly and those who have only gone dumpster diving on occasion are brought together through the salvaging of edible “waste.”

This is the second part of a trilogy of posts about dumpster diving. (Read part one here.) The facts and interviews presented are from a semester-long food journalism project, which involved researching and locating a food subculture within the Bloomington community. Names of individuals throughout this short series have been changed for research purposes.

Sarah Ostaszewski

Sarah Ostaszewski is a student of anthropology and fine arts at Indiana University. She dreams of fresh summer tomatoes from her family's garden, and she loves tasting unique ingredients, learning culinary histories, and tracing foods back to their roots.

View all posts by this author »

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Earth Eats:

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Earth Eats

Search Earth Eats

Earth Eats on Twitter

Earth Eats on Flickr

Harvest Public Media