March 4, 2010

Dumpster Diving Discourse - Mother Speaks

What does my daughter do, you ask?
Well, ummm (pause) daughter is unemployed and eating out of garbage cans.
Admitting that my daughter, Rebecca, dumpster dives makes me... defensive.

Yet she writes so eloquently about the practice.
“Many people see dumpster diving as gross, degrading, dangerous, or something only for the really desperate and destitute.”

As I do and I am disturbed by the deed.

Rebecca goes on to say:
“I see it as a choice, a statement about who I am, an adventure, a way to save my limited financial resources for other priorities, a way of reducing the tremendous amount of food waste produced in this country, a way of reducing my own personal impact on the planet, and a chance to be an example to others.”

The fact is -- and isn’t this what the mother-daughter dance is often about? -- Rebecca’s position challenges me. Even when she and I seem to start on the same wave length, her path goes farther and deeper than my own. Here again she enters regions beyond my comfort zone. And so, I disapprove of her decision to dumpster dive.

But maybe I need to take into account some background information. I have recently learned how much food is wasted in this country daily and about food reclamation projects. Probably more info than you want to read here...but the numbers are really shocking. One account says that, “Almost 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in America each year. 700 million hungry human beings in different parts of the world would have gladly accepted this food.”

How many of my generation remember our mothers saying, “Eat what’s on your plate. There are starving children in China?” My mother was right, of course, there are hungry people. But it was so annoying – she couldn’t tell me how to send our leftovers to my Chinese counterpart. As an adult I obviously realize that the problems of poverty and hunger are not just “over there,” but start right here on our own street corners – and maybe we can and should do something to help.

Our family has continued to donate to the local food pantry, CHOW and Rebecca has recently introduced me to Food Not Bombs, a more radical international organization with a local chapter.

Food Not Bombs is an all-volunteer global movement that shares free vegetarian meals as a protest to war and poverty. Each chapter collects surplus food that would otherwise go to waste from grocery stores, bakeries and markets, sometimes incorporating dumpster diving, then prepares community meals which are served for free to anyone who is hungry.”
(read more at Wikipedia's Food Not Bombs entry)

I wholly support Rebecca’s volunteer participation with Food Not Bombs. Just yesterday she and a friend did the pickups at some of the participating groceries and small markets. These businesses donate food items which are close to their expiration dates or have blemishes, rather than discarding them. But the corporate policy of some supermarkets is to not donate but to discard edible but not still saleable food. The dumpsters of these stores are the ones most often targeted for food-reclaiming divers.

So what are my personal objections to dumpster diving based on?
First, this is not about health and safety. There are over 70 million reported food-borne illnesses in the US annually. I know that the chances of getting sick from food bought in traditional markets and eateries is on the rise. Reclaimed food is no more or less risky.
In fact, as part of her Food Not Bombs involvement, Rebecca recently completed a Food Safety class that the Department of Health mandates for restaurants and soup kitchens. Her personal kitchen rules are now stricter than my own.

Second, this is also not about dollars. I know that if I gave Rebecca more than enough money to overstock her cupboards or to eat out nightly, she wouldn’t stop the dumpstering.

In certain circles, dumpster diving is seen as hip, ethical, a mostly-legal form of recycling, community building, a creative hobby, and a frugal sport.

So, my reaction is visceral, not cerebral. I associate dumpster diving with disturbing images -- of homeless folks ripping open dirty plastic garbage bags and pulling out the remains of a sandwich, a half-eaten doughnut, a slimy piece of salmonella-ridden chicken and gobbling it hungrily, food oozing out of the sides of their mouths.

My daughter (like her parents?) has often defied convention. So I applaud when Rebecca reclaims items before they reach the garbage heap. I myself have been known to claim a curbside chair to incorporate into our home decor.

But food is a touchier issue. It epitomizes our cleanliness standards and ideas of domestic decency. I am pleased that Rebecca is one of the representatives who pickup food from Wegman’s and Health Beat to be cooked in a nearby church kitchen and served and eaten with any person who shows up for the meal. But then I think she crosses the line... My daughter’s dumpster diving disturbs my middle class sensibilities. And this issue made me realize that I care more than I thought I did about what my family and friends think about my daughter.

In conclusion, let me take this last moment to introduce you to my daughter:
Rebecca is a delightful young woman. She (ahem...mommy-pride here) is intelligent, talented, generous, good-looking, etc and with emphasis here – a woman who lives her ideals. Although unemployed, Rebecca is looking for a job while involved in a number of community projects and volunteer activities. She is thankfully happy and healthy and active. She and I have discussed dumpster diving along with many other topics and I will continue to be challenged – and inspired by -- my daughter. But still, I can’t deny it...she eats out of garbage cans; Ugh!


  1. Mom, thanks for the eloquent response. Although our views on this differ a bit, I think you discuss some of the intellectual and emotional issues involved very clearly, and remind us all that our emotions don't always match our intellectual understanding of something.

  2. Barbara and Rebecca, I just found your blog on Facebook. Interesting and thought-provoking! Love the photo montage title and the books and blogs section. Your energy and creativity are always inspiring. Love, Susan

  3. Thanks for visiting Susan...hope you continue to read along and comment.

  4. Rebecca,

    I don't think this is the end of this discussion. I do hope that we can also include and comment on the comments we've gotten on facebook and via email. Some supportive reactions and some not so.

  5. I love the mother/daughter dialogue. Would love to hear more about the adventures of dumpster diving and the treasures found not just the ideology. Off to a great start.

  6. Bob --
    glad that you are here

    about the dumpster diving findings -- have you read Rebecca's previous posts (scroll back to 2/21 entries) and you'll read about the food she has repurposed!!

    Later in the year, look for entries about "Hippie Christmas" -- when the students leave at the end of the year and folks go picking through the incredible range of discards (including clothes, appliances, desk supplies, and lots of surprises!)

  7. Hello Barbara, Rebecca. Okay I will be the first to say I winced when I read Barbara's comment about the dumpster diving and had the exact same feeling she expressed about it. Yuck! But, I also must admit I read on and read Rebecca's description and viewed the photos of items she retrieved. Although the practice is not for me, I feel much enlightened and less grossed out after learning more. I can say I am completely in awe of someone who can so thoroughly practice what they find important.

  8. thanks for joining in Laurie...
    and I like that you were open to the discussion....
    i know the practice continues to bother some of my friends and family
    Keep tuned

  9. Laurie, thanks for sharing your feelings on this topic... and for being open to a new perspective. I hope you continue to chime in your thoughts as we continue these discussions!