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A Dumpster’s Spoils

Arts & Culture | November 17, 2014

Senior Rachael Kadish’s gloved hand sticks a magnetic light on the inside of a Trader Joe’s dumpster. Her hands dig around until they find a garbage bag that feels heavy and rip it down the middle. Three dozen loaves of Trader Joe’s Fresh Artisan Bread spill out.

“Usually we don’t even take this back because we have so much already,” she says.

Kadish has been dumpster diving for two years, ever since she learned she could feed an entire household by foraging through grocery store garbage every few days. Senior Rebecca Herman accompanied Kadish that November night on her weekly trip to Trader Joe’s. In 2013, they were both living in the Crafts House—Tufts’ cooperative living environment—when they began diving together. Now, it’s a weekly routine.

The two gather around midnight after grocery stores have closed, pile into a van, and head out to dumpsters in the Boston Area. Herman and Kadish claim that some weeks at least 70 percent of the food they consume comes from their diving trips. Their dumpster diving expeditions are possible because grocery stores throw out hundreds of unsellable food products every night. Unsellable could mean the product’s packaging is damaged, or that it has past its expiration date. But expiration dates don’t scare Herman, Kadish, and other dumpster divers.

“The expiration dates are not actually based on when the food will go bad,” Kadish said. “They give us the false sense of security that what we are eating is safe, and I think they encourage us to throw things out and buy more things. We could just trust our senses.”

When deciding what to take home and what to leave in the trash, dumpster divers rely on their eyes and noses to determine what has gone bad and what is still edible. While some critics of diving say eating food out of the dumpster can never be sanitary, divers argue otherwise.

“I’ve never gotten sick,” Herman said.

Over the course of the evening, Kadish and Herman brought home over 100 food items from the dumpster including apples, blueberries, cartons of yogurt, honey, a whole chicken, and fifteen blocks of brie.

Between 20 and 40 percent of food that is produced in the US goes to waste, according to Cathy Stanton, a professor of Anthropology at Tufts. She believes that this statistic is what motivates many to go diving and says divers not only make use of food that would otherwise end up in a landfill but also inherently make a political statement.

“At the bottom, it’s a protest against the corporatization and commodification of our food system which is effective at producing a lot of food at cheap prices,” Stanton said.

Stanton says that most dumpster divers are millennials who want to make a political statement.

“I think that dumpster diving is a choice rather than a necessity” she said. “There are people who do it out of necessity but they’re not necessarily a part of the food movement.”

Kadish herself acknowledges that the reason she and most others are drawn to diving is an invested interest in changing the food system.

“It’s an important way to highlight issues of food waste, of excessive consumerism, of viewing food as a commodity as opposed to a right, a necessity,” she said.

As Kadish rifled through the Trader Joe’s dumpster, she said that she is often upset when she thinks about the amount of food that goes to waste while many workers in the food industry struggle to put food on their own tables at home.

“The people who are directly responsible for bringing that food to the supermarket are people who—except for the CEO and higher-ups—are not getting paid enough to be able to support and feed their families. We’re throwing away 40 percent of what it is that they are working to bring to us,” she said.

Currently under the US food system, it is difficult to redistribute unused food to families in need or food banks because the law considers most expired food products unsafe, making it illegal to do so. In the cases where it is legal for stores to donate their food, most do not because of costs.

“Industrial agriculture has made food so cheap that it is more cost effective to throw it away than to pay the transportation and organization costs associated with food salvage,” said Maximus Thaler, a 2013 alumnus and prominent dumpster diver.

To dumpster divers like Thaler, Kadish, and Herman, diving is neither a trend nor a hobby: it is their alternative to a weekly trip to the supermarket. While they can afford to buy their food at the grocery store, they and most other divers rely on dumpsters not out of financial dependence, but out of a desire to make use of and draw attention to the waste the food system produces according to Professor Stanton.

“We can’t wish away the system that’s wasting so much,” she said. “I think conscientious divers would say it’s better to make use of it than let it go to waste.”

In 2012, with the support of fellow divers, Thaler started the Gleaner’s Kitchen, an underground restaurant and grocery store. The goal of the Gleaner’s Kitchen was to build a community space in which waste that Thaler and others found in dumpsters could be consumed for free.

Thaler also published A Curious Harvest last August, a guide to dumpster diving and cooking with found food products. The back cover of the book poses the question, “What do I have to eat?” Thaler believes Americans are conditioned to buying more food products, rather than using the products they already have or can find for free.

While much of what divers do aims to criticize the US food system and overconsumption, most divers also admit that dumpster diving in itself requires a reliance on the system’s tendency to turn food into waste. Without so much food being thrown every day, there would be nothing for them to take out of the dumpster. Kadish refers to this concept as the dumpster diving “paradox” and says that at the end of the day, most dumpster divers wish there wasn’t anything worth diving for.

“We wish we didn’t live in world where there was such ludicrous waste,” she said. “I want to work towards a world where dumpster diving can’t exist because you can’t find the waste in the first place.”

Along with most dumpster divers, Stanton also recognizes that while the dumpster diving movement is a protest against the US food system, it doesn’t lead to political action.

“I think dumpster diving is incredibly valuable as a thought experiment. But this isn’t a long term plan for the future because it doesn’t do a thing to change the system, it almost encourages it to go on.”

But Stanton believes that dumpster diving has been particularly effective at raising public awareness about the food waste the US produces on a daily basis.

“Dumpster divers force us to confront some of the worst excesses of the system that we’ve got,” she said.

And in some cases—whether or not due to the awareness dumpster diving raises—new efforts are being made to reduce food waste in the US. A recent Massachusetts state law that went into effect in October requires any institution (a university, grocery store, or prison, etc.) that produces more than one ton of food waste per month to compost that waste or donate it, according to NPR.

Kadish and Herman saw the new law in action for the first time at Trader Joe’s that November night. There was a new compost bin standing near the usual T.J. dumpster.

“I think it’s better for food to be composted than for it to be thrown into a landfill, but if the food is edible and can sustain people it should be doing that,” Kadish said.

She rifled through a pile of squash, pumpkins, bananas and apples covered in a coating of yogurt, olives and soil from potted plants discarded in the bin.

When asked what she deems safe to eat and what she will leave alone, Kadish picks up an apple and replies.

“You learn to know the sludge.”