I began dumpster diving after I moved into a communal house when I began college. So dumpstering and communal living have been linked from the very start. In 2013 I started a free dumpster fueled restaurant called The Gleaners’ Kitchen, making me a professional dumpster diver, if there could be such a thing. More information about The Gleaners’ Kitchen can be found at these resources: (thegleanerskitchen.org) (Interview) (Article). This web page however, is dedicated to the philosophy of dumpstering itself. What is the value of a good meal?
It’s not possible to hop inside a dumpster overflowing with good food and not be confronted with questions of value. What is the value of all that food? Is it worthless because it is in the trash? Pursuing answers to these questions has lead me to some unusual places. Below I explore some of the insight that can be found in the trash – that value is malleable and multidimensional – that at their best, food and community interpenetrate each other – and that the contents of a dumpster can embody all the numinousity of death and rebirth.
There are many reasons why good food ends up in a dumpster. One of the most common is packaging damage. Every grocery store dumpster invariably contains cartons of eggs with one egg cracked. When the packaging gets damaged, it costs more money to pay an employee to clean the eggs and replace the carton than it costs to just throw the whole thing away. No one will buy a carton with damaged eggs when pristine packages lie right next to it. So despite the fact that there might be valuable food inside, when a package is no longer sellable, for the grocery store it is worthless. This disconnect between value and sellability is the ultimate source of food waste. Sometimes ripe fruit ends up in the trash because a new, fresher shipment has arrived, and no one is going to buy the old stuff. The fruit might still be valuable, but it can no longer be sold. Grocery stores deliberately overstock their shelves – the logic being that if they don’t look like they are overflowing with abundance, then the desirability of all the products diminishes. Similar rationale goes into the marking of expiration dates. Consumers want their food ‘fresh’ – and that means making sure the right symbols are printed on the side of the package – the smell and taste of its contents are no longer sufficient indicators of its worth. What these managerial justifications of food waste reveal is that, surprisingly, grocery stores are not actually in the business of selling good food. Instead, they are in the business of selling convincing packaging. They sell the idea of freshness, the dream of satisfying desire. So grocery store aisles are painted with logos, with slogans, with mascots. Symbols upon symbols layered so thick that their original meaning – a representation of the quality of the food within – is lost in a virtual sea. A food’s ‘goodness’, once an objective quality to be confirmed by sight, scent and flavor, transforms into an amorphous property to be manipulated by advertisers.
But not so in the dumpster. On grocery store shelves most labels are circumspect. But when they are surrounded by trash, when they are ripped, torn, and soaked with slime, the price tags become utterly meaningless. Signifiers and signified all jumbled together, all deemed worthless. Considered worthless because all the things that used to make food valuable – its aesthetics, its utility, its emotional significance – have been compressed into a one dimensional measure: How many dollars can this thing be sold for? When the answer is close to zero, the food gets tossed, despite the fact that value is present in unperceived dimensions. The task of a dumpster diver is to reveal wealth that others overlooked – value that most people don’t believe can exist, even when it is right in front of their eyes. The value of an object in the dumpster cannot be perceived from its context, nor from the decaying descriptors that surround it. Its value must be reborn anew, grounded this time not in money, but community.
Dumpstering works best when you’re not just trying to feed yourself. The dumpster provides a preposterous quantity of specific foods, like 26 quarts of yogurt or 114 mushy tomatoes. There’s not much a single person can do with 114 tomatoes, but if you live in a group, tomato soup is for dinner. More abstractly, the necessity of sharing dumpstered goods facilitates a fundamentally different relationship with material possessions. That label on that filet mignon says it’s worth $16.99, but why would you covet it when it came from the trash, and there will be another one like it there tomorrow? The value of food becomes more directly linked to the effort of acquisition, to an items utility, and to the joy it brings when shared with close friends. One never need worry about rationing dumpstered items – they can be given freely without any financial repercussion. And the fact that they can be so readily exchanged without worrying about the money they could have been equated with ironically makes them more valuable. In addition to flavor and nutritional value, which are roughly equal to store bought items, dumpstered goods have the extra feature of facilitating the experience of giving.
I use dumpster diving as a way of building community around the act of sharing food together. There is something indescribably wonderful, almost sacred, about sitting down in the company of familiar faces, and looking around to see people eating out of bowls that look just like yours. It is a sense of connection, and of pride. I love cooking because the role provides me with a simple and meaningful place to occupy within this incredibly complex and perplexing world. When I cook, a part of me goes into each bowl. A community of eaters is unified by this physical, tangible, delectable thing – wholesome food to make us all feel whole. A web of connections is tied between farms and dumpsters and dinner tables. It sometimes feels too large to fathom, but at the same time it is as simple as the loop between my plate, my arm, and my mouth.
Death and Rebirth
In a thoroughly modern way, dumpstering allows me to connect to my food palpably, corporeally, just as our nomadic and pastoral ancestors did. The ritual of embarking at midnight into the darkness in search of food is not wholly unlike embarking on a hunting expedition. The dumpster allows me to feel like I have truly earned my food – earned in a way that is distinct from the symbolic currency exchange which dominates most nutrient acquisition today. I dig my hands into muck and slime and pull out new life. This is the promise of dumpstering – and the promise of our agricultural mythologies – death and rebirth. In the past, it was the plants that died. They withered in the autumn but through their seeds they were reborn in the spring. But this story was always understood to apply to far more than just our crops – it was we who died and were reborn anew. Jesus died for our sins, and was reborn on the first days of spring. The cycles of Samara are eternal, and death always gives way to new life. And so it is with dumpstering. I have found withered orchids which can be nursed into bloom. Abandoned herbs are replanted in the garden. Discarded food thought worthless is brought within my body and sustains my life.
Food comes out of the dirt. Life and death are intertwined. For the majority of human history this fact was intimately understood, as every individual’s life was devoted to the creation of food. But today that fact is systematically hidden from us. Like the young Siddhartha, whose gardens were pruned so that he could not discover a single wilting flower, we are paraded through grocery store aisles that are meticulously scrubbed of any signs of decay. Our food comes wrapped in plastic logos insisting that it should be nothing other than sterile and pristine. And ironically, the result of this process is our partial death. Never before has food been so abundant on this planet – and never before has so much of what we eat been so harmful to us. When we forget that food comes from dirt, and life comes with death, we also forget how to tell good food from bad. And so dumpstering promises rebirth on two levels. First there is the rebirth of the food itself – waste into wealth. But there is also a rebirth of the dumpster diver – a renewal of connection with what sustains us, a rediscovering of this ancient task, which for so long defined what it meant to be human.
And that is why I dive into dumpsters.