How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Dumpster

reprinted with gratitude from my blog at shareable.net)

Would you climb into this? What if there’s good, organic food for your family within?

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 atneighborhoodfruit.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 spend a lot more time searching through 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.

8 thoughts on “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Dumpster”

  1. Your last paragraph summed it up all perfectly: when so much is going to waste, purchasing organic this or pesticide-free that doesn’t matter at all.

    I used to collect food from dumpsters to feed my ever-growing guinea pig population. Then one day someone stopped me and asked me if I was intending to eat what I was collecting. Well, I hadn’t been, until he put the thought into my head. The food was perfect. but he wasn’t going to let me have it if it was for myself. So i took it home, cut it up and cooked the best bits for myself and the guinea pigs got the scraps.

    It is utter madness that we are not allowed to eat food that is perfectly ok but the bag is opened, or maybe one leaf has gone brown. That, above all else, will be the downfall of capitalism: overtaxing our land to grow more food while we through out thousands on tonnes of it every day.

    I have just discovered your blog today and I’m loving it. I’m in Australia so I’m not familiar with the welfare conditions in US. Do you have a regular welfare income as well as food stamps? I’m on welfare here for a permanent disability and it is tough to make ends meet when you have kids but we manage by not having the expectations that the majority seem to have. Thrift shops are my Mecca. We have chickens and 22 fruit trees and vegies in the garden. I make a lot of clothes for the kids or we are given handmedowns. I’m in total agreement with you that this makes for a richer life. I look at the school parents and wonder about their priorities and what they are teaching their kids when they spend $100 on a pair of sneakers for a 5 yr old.

    Anyway, going back to reading more now!

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  2. Another amazing article. You are a fabulous writer, young lady!

    Because I’m a ‘junque dealer’ I’ve been thrifting for years and finally womaned up to ask if I could buy second hand things for my granddaughter. Not only did I get an affirmative her Mum joined the party. My son, needless to say, was trained from his tweens so he was more than pleased his suburban wife said OK., more surprised than I and I took to my fainting couch when I got a yes.

    A lot of the stuff is basically rented as it goes on to other needy causes like shelters or back to the Sally Ann after herself has grown out of them. It’s the right thing to do especially since even if you lay down mega cash you’re still supporting slavery in China.

    Food that can be stored I buy on sale every week so that I never have to pay full price.

    Anyway, good for you and all the others out there who are fighting corporate waste the hands on way. Baby steps are successful quickly and to everyone’s advantage!

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  3. I was on WIC for several years and also struggled to find things that I would eat that were healthy. I used the juice vouchers for V8 low sodium tomato juice and used that for soup base.

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  4. I live in Oklahoma City. We live in a shack that we paid $17000 cash for. (holes in floors and running everything on extension cords). My husband has a small internet marketing company and I am a stay at home mom of one beautiful redheaded homeschooled daughter. During the recession, we haven’t had that much steady income. We had made too much money the year before for food stamps, but this year we qualify. Also my family eats a rather expensive paleo diet, which is the only thing that has helped my husband lose weight.

    So last year, to put food on the table, I did a variety of small jobs. I volunteered at the Oklahoma Food Cooperative in exchange for food credits, approximately $100 a month. With this I bought grass fed beef, pastured poultry and pork. We invested in a flock of ducks that our friend keeps out on his land and we help pay for feed, and we get approximately 2 – 3 dozen eggs a week. We have garden plots at home, in the community garden down the street. There is a project in which the old produce from a national food chain is given to the community garden director to be composted; about 75% of that is edible for humans. Just recently I have begun working at an urban CSA, volunteering so that I can learn more and get the “rejects” that aren’t pretty enough to sell. So with all of these activities, I am able to eat fairly well, without resorting to HFCS laden foods and wheat products.

    For clothes, I attend a clothing giveaway occasionally at a local church down the street from MIL’s where I do laundry for free every 2 weeks. I cull the vintage stuff that basically no one wants anyway and take it to a vintage store to sell for cash. I make anywhere from $60 to $100 every couple of months doing this. We also have a wood stove for heat and don’t use AC in the summer. For Gwen’s home schooling, I get castoff curriculum books, attend cultural events, use the library and apply for scholarships to summer camps and other opportunities.

    All these little things add up to a life, not a fancy one but a living. We try to have fun and enjoy ourselves with what we have. I don’t think your kids are going to remember being poor or worry about it as long as you all are still having fun.

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  5. I have a very aggressive compost system for my garden that includes Eisenia Fetida worm composting bins. Given the demand for produce wastes, I have signed a waiver with a local grocery store produce manager to collect their culls – and it’s amazing… yes, I supplement our food with perfectly good food tossed away. In Russia, for example, they will discount produce/food before throwing it away at half price. Not in America.

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  6. I found you in More magazine and loved the article so much I found you on line..please keep writing and sharing your story. Your authenticity is refreshing.

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  7. Thanks for this article. I admire your honesty. well done for ‘coming-out’ I particulary resonated with ‘feeling hungry has been motivating and humbling’ I would add that it makes us creative, less pretensious, more aware of others plights and ultimately stronger. <3 That's not even mentioning that cutting down our consumerism and using what would otherwise be left to rot, is MUCH much better for the environment. Go girl..

    Keep up the good work, and hold your head high, there is no shame in being practical, creative, adventurous and brave.

    xx

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corbyn hanson hightower wrote

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