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Headfirst Into A Scrounging Subculture

Dumpster diving is not a recent trend, but some new divers have caught onto the practice in response to recent food waste concerns.

dumpster diving

Photo: Wei Tchou (Flickr)

Also called urban foraging, dumpster diving is a means by which transient groups or individuals salvage food that would otherwise be wasted.

Thrown Away

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 50 million Americans do not have access to adequate amounts of food, yet the Natural Resources Defense Council has reported that as much as 40 percent of America’s food is wasted.

Food waste, though difficult to accurately track and calculate, is generated on the farm, during processing, transporting and distributing, and by retailers and consumers. Retailers throw away expired foods or surplus products. Slightly bruised produce is also tossed. One farmer claimed that nearly half of his crop was left to rot in the fields because it had not met grocers’ cosmetic standards.

Urban Foraging

Concerned about how Bloomington residents deal with food waste at the local level, I sought to learn about (and possibly attempt) dumpster diving.

Also called urban foraging, dumpster diving is a means by which transient groups or individuals salvage food that would otherwise be wasted.

The practice represents a food subculture whose members are connected through desires to reduce food waste and salvage perfectly edible food.

In the past, individuals resorting to dumpster diving may have done so more out of economic necessity, but today’s dumpster diving subculture maintains looser boundaries. Some dumpster dive only occasionally, others dive regularly for family sustenance. One might dive to counteract affluence, while others just wish to find free goods.

All Walks Of Life

Dumpster diving is not a recent trend, nor is it native to any one region, but some new divers have caught onto the practice in response to recent food waste concerns.

The New York Times documents the Grubsters, an anti-consumerist New York City group, which organizes bi-weekly dinners from grocery dumpster treasures. Everyone contributes any foods they were able to salvage. They serve the meals in ever-rotating locations so as to avoid fire codes and regulatory issues.

The Perennial Plate documents one man who dumpster dives at Trader Joe’s weekly to provide 75 percent of his family’s meals.

Students across the United States have turned to dumpster diving, too.

The Indiana Daily Student narrates late-night dumpster excursions by two freegan students hoping to score a few free goods. (Freegans are individuals who use alternative strategies for living. They consume minimal resources and lead lives of limited participation in the conventional economy.) At the time, one of the students had not purchased food for nearly an entire year; rather than pay at stores, he preferred to wait until a dumpster yielded his dinner.

Avid dumpster divers say that all your senses are required for good binning. One must go by smell and “the feel for it.” Attention to detail — packaging, expiration dates — is key, especially with meat. Produce and boxed goods are considered safer items, easily incorporated into baked goods.

According to one dumpster-diving mother, the practice requires aptitude; she suggests bringing box-cutters, a long digging pole, and a lookout partner for backup.

Diving Prohibited

Although many might agree that America is a wasteful society (pdf), some feel that dumpster diving is not the best solution.

Consumers obsessed with cleanliness or concerned with food-borne illness won’t likely go for food scrounged from a dumpster.

Steve, an Indiana University senior who works at a Bloomington Kroger’s, admits that managers do not want responsibility for people becoming ill as a result of consuming foods from their dumpsters — hence enclosures and locks on the store’s trash bins. Restricted access to dumpsters also reflects the social stigmas of rummaging through someone else’s trash.

This is the first of a trilogy of posts about dumpster diving. 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.

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