catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 3 :: 2007.02.09 — 2007.02.23


Dig in

Much of the discussion at last summer’s Practicing Resurrection conference surrounded food: growing  it, buying it, eating it, and recognizing its sacramentality. I enjoyed seeing Russet House Farm and talking with others who feel that the background story of the food that we eat is important. It reminded me that the little garden behind our house and our participation in a CSA and a local food co-op are part of something larger. I was also processing all of this in the context of another food-related topic—at the time, my wife and I had recently begun getting a large portion of our food from the dumpsters behind a local grocery store, a practice known to many as “dumpster diving.”

It might not seem at first glance that eating garbage would correspond to the belief that where your food comes from is important, but we’ve found that dumpster diving fits with our ideals very well, and is a win-win situation for all involved.

First off, the amount of waste generated by the grocery store and bound for a landfill is reduced. This was one of the first things that attracted us to dumpster diving—we saw it as a tangible form of active resistance against the surrounding culture of waste and over-consumption. In some cases it can even result in cost savings for the store if it means they don’t have to pay to dump extra volume. Dumpster diving also reduces the amount of energy and resources that we would have consumed (directly and indirectly) in the form of other food. Some of what we bring home we end up deciding not to eat (we can afford to be picky about what meets our “quality control” standards once we’re back home) and we’ve found that most of this has better uses than landfill fodder as well. Overripe vegetables can be composted, many containers can be recycled, and meat that we don’t trust can be fed to our friend’s dog.

Dumpster diving has given us a new sense of excitement about our food and other resources. While we could go to the store and buy whatever it is we desire that day, dumpster diving gives us a greater sense of anticipation about what we might bring home. “Give us this day our daily bread” has been a much more potent prayer to me lately, and the joy and thanksgiving that comes with the discovery of a good score is a gentle reminder of how much we take our food for granted. But I’ve found that it reminds me not only of my dependence on God, but also of my dependence on the regular cycles of the planet. Being in and around the trash is a reminder that it doesn’t simply vanish when we throw it in the garbage can. (The volume of food-related trash that is not simply vanishing is enormous. A recent CBC news story estimated that $100 billion worth of food is dumped in the garbage, and the Washington Post, quoting a figure from the EPA, claims that 96 billion pounds of U.S. trash is food—12% of all the country’s garbage.

Getting loads of free food has also enabled us to be more generous. We can now frequently offer meats and vegetables to our friends and coworkers to help spread the environmental and financial benefits. Other groups, like Food Not Bombs, also prepare food rescued from dumpsters and distribute it to homeless. Since we began dumpster diving, our home and table have become more open to guests to come and share in the bounty. We’ve also been able to set aside an extra chunk of money each month—the money we estimate we would have spent on groceries otherwise—and give it away to a variety of organizations that are doing important work such as hunger advocacy, environmental work, and so on.

Of course, dumpster diving is not without its dilemmas. We eat very well, so in many ways, all of the above makes the practice sound much more noble than it really is. In fact, we eat better than we would if we were not dumpster diving. It’s somewhat ironic that if the day ever comes when we cannot dive anymore, our standard of living will drop dramatically. Before dumpster diving, we rarely ate red meat due to a variety of concerns, from environmental to personal health to the treatment of the animals in modern factory farming. It has taken some adjustment to get used to the fact that we regularly pull out prime rib and filet mignon.  For reference, one night we added up the sticker price of the red meat alone and it came to nearly $700. Luckily we have a lot of people to whom we can distribute food.

We dive at a store that sells mostly organic food and we often find food that is drastically over-packaged. If I were buying it in the store I would be disturbed by all the plastic layers around the food. As it is, when we’re pulling food from the trash, those plastic layers make me feel a little bit safer and serve as good warnings as to whether the food may have been exposed to anything that we need to worry about. That said, we also want avoid becoming too comfortable with overly packaged, overly prepared, overly individualized foods. 

As you may be able to tell, I think that the benefits of diving far outweigh the concerns. I say, dig in with your own two hands…and don’t be afraid to get them a little dirty.

Note: Many dumpster divers are hesitant to promote the activity too much for fear that more divers will either mean less food for them or increased hostility to divers by the store owners and employees. In general my feeling is that the more divers there are, the less food will be wasted—with the caveat that they need to be diving well so that they don’t give the store reason to be upset. (If you’re interested in learning more about diving, I have a partial list of how-to’s posted on my site in the dumpster diving post that this article was expanded from).

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