“Are You Gonna Eat That?” Diving in Dumpsters for 120 Pounds of Cheese

Ronny Smith
Writer’s Comment: There are a slew of good people who helped me write this piece. When John Boe, my UWP journalism professor, announced that we could write on literally anything we wanted, I felt like a housecat looking out the front door. Unsure of where to step, and without any of my own ideas, I asked my good friend Liz what I should write about. It was she who turned me on to the Davis “dumpster diving” culture and its protest of the food industry through gleaning. These gleaners, whose names I changed to protect their privacy, welcomed me into their homes and showed me the utmost generosity. And now, from my soapbox, I can see that religious capitalism has yielded an American culture of excess, a culture that transcends our own borders, and wasted food remains a physical testament to our negligence. Though gleaning may not solve the planet’s food problems, it does illuminate these problems, which is a start. And who can turn down free cheese?
—Ronny Smith


Instructor’s Comment: I have to admit that when Ronald Smith pitched his idea of doing a dumpster diving story, I was not wildly enthusiastic. I had had a student do a similar story a year or so previously, and her result was more a personal essay (“Look, I went dumpster diving!”) than journalism. But Ronald took a different approach and ended up with a fabulous final product. Sure the highlight of the piece is in his first person experience of dumpster diving, which he renders skillfully: I feel as if I am in the dumpster with him, and I cringe when he actually eats some of the found food. But Ronald puts the diamond of his first person story in a rich setting: information from a UCD American Studies class, interviews (a grad student in Community Development, several dumpster divers, the Grocery Manager of Davis Foods Co-op), information from newspapers and other sources, reports on Sacramento’s efforts to regulate dumpster diving (including an account of a Sacramento Council Chamber Meeting), and a summary of author Raj Patel’s remarks when he spoke at UCD earlier in the quarter. And the final element that Ronald brought to the piece was the ability to write strikingly elegant sentences and create vivid scenes. From the lead to the ending, there are sparkling sentences and memorable moments in this superbly written piece.
—John Boe, University Writing Program

Americans hate trash. They hate it. So much so that some American lawmakers want to pay other countries to take our trash, just so we don’t have to deal with it. Trash smells, it looks gross, and it’s everywhere. Nonetheless, I found myself dangling my legs over the side of a dumpster as I slowly tried to lower my feet inside. After all, I didn’t want to splatter trash all over my jeans. Below me were smashed oranges and bloody bags of meat. I tried to slide my hand about six inches to the left to get a better grip, but stopped when my fingers touched some kind of cold, pink frosting. Shaking my head, I decided to just hold my nose and jump.

I first became aware that there were people who chose to rummage through dumpsters for food when my good friend, a free-spirited design major, told me about “Freegans.” Having taken an American Studies class at UC Davis called Food and Health in the United States, she wrote a report on a counter-culture group of people known as Freegans, who, among other things, often eat food from dumpsters as a form of protest. Freegans? My vivid imagination caught fire, conjuring images of pale-skinned people who emerged from the sewers to feed under the cloak of nightfall, wiggling their long, stringy fingers at wayward travelers and hissing, “Freeegan!” After I was informed that I “just didn’t get it,” I decided to be proven wrong. I asked to meet with her teacher, Christie McCullen, a UC Davis Masters Student studying community development, with the goal of going dumpster diving for myself.

I met Christie on a sunny afternoon at the local vegan Mecca, Delta of Venus Coffee and Pub in downtown Davis. A laid back and pretty woman not long out of college, Christie first informed me that many of the local dumpster divers do not consider themselves Freegans. Freeganism is a broad, somewhat cryptic term applied to a whole anti-consumerist lifestyle. Dumpster diving is only a small part of this lifestyle, but a quick Google search of Freeganism will bring up mostly headings with the word “dumpster diving” somehow involved. What so perplexed me, and apparently my fellow Googlers, was the question of why in the hell people would eat food out of a dumpster when they have money, jobs, and clean shoes?

Some people, after all, have no choice in whether or not they eat food from a supermarket or a garbage can. In 2005, USA Today found that there were 744,000 homeless in America, though the number has undoubtedly risen in recent years with the poor economy. For some of these people, searching for food and recycling in dumpsters is their livelihood. The city of Sacramento recently reviewed the dangers of dumpster diving, proposing an ordinance that would ban the removal of garbage from private dumpsters in order to protect citizens from identity theft. On February 10, 2009, a group of almost a dozen people, including both homeless people and representatives of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, gathered in the warm Council Chamber of the Sacramento City Hall building, a soothing mix of forest greens, beige, and browns, adorned with comfortable seating and delightful paintings of scenes from the Sacramento cityscape. Outside, the cold, unnerving fog hinted at rainfall. 

The final argument against the ordinance came from a once-homeless woman named Rainbow Singer, who struggled to move from her walker to the podium. Her voice shook as she tried to restrain her anger. “People like me want to work,” she said. “We want to know that we are doing something besides taking up space on this planet. Our jobs are being outsourced by the millions. It’s virtually impossible to find anything made in America anymore. Recycling is our last bastion of self-sufficiency.” The Council decided to reconvene at a later date to vote on the ordinance. On March 3rd, the ordinance passed by a six to three vote, effectively making it a crime to dumpster dive in Sacramento.

Christie explained, however, that the dumpster divers in Davis don’t dumpster dive out of necessity. Although for some it’s a hobby, for many, it’s a kind of protest against wasteful practices and against the globalized food distribution system. By eating food that has been deemed as waste, people are removing themselves from the global food system. The terms for dumpster diving vary. Many divers refer to it as “gleaning” and themselves as “gleaners.” Gleaning seems to be the proper nomenclature. Other names gleaners use include “urban foraging,” “sticking it to the man,” and “steamed donkey.”

Christie also called gleaning less proactive than other ways of combating the food system. She pointed to Food Not Bombs, an organization that recovers food from the waste stream, converts it to hot vegan and vegetarian meals, and distributes the meals in public areas for homeless people and disaster survivors. A worldwide movement, Food Not Bombs emphasizes democratic values and a peaceful means of social change. A Food Not Bombs chapter in Davis serves food on Sunday in Central Park. Gleaning, on the other hand, is more personal salvaging of food. “It’s especially problematic in that food salvaged isn’t going to those who need it,” Christie remarked. A further problem is that dumpster diving is illegal in California because dumpsters are technically private property.

But to Christie, gleaning is a powerful symbol of protest. “Inefficient is a kind of shitty term,” she said in reference to the global food distribution system. “It’s really an imbalance between who produces and who consumes. It’s unjust.”

The Octopus
So what is this global food system? Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, a book that explores the inequality of the distribution of food throughout the globe. Patel visited UC Davis last January to divulge what he knew about “the man.” His book reveals the world food system as an exploitation of the global population by corporate monsters. The system described is reminiscent of the railroad monopoly in Frank Norris’ 1901 novel, The Octopus, only now the Octopus is made of plutonium and has a retirement fund. The whirlwind summary of Stuffed and Starved is this: farmers are indebted to colossal free market corporations and often starving. Laborers, from whom there is little to distinguish between slaves, produce raw materials that are processed into food inside of pollution-spewing factories. The food is then distributed unequally throughout the world based on racial and economic categorizations, all for the maximum profit yield. Bottom line: The people who produce the food generally can’t afford to buy it, and thus starve. 

Patel explained that the supermarket is the main point of distribution for the system’s food. “Every supermarket around the world is an engine for making us consume more than what we want,” he told an audience of close to fifty people. Most people choose to eat supermarket food because it is convenient. Others eat it because they have no other choice. Even gleaners eat the food that the system spits out (granted, after it’s been thrown away). “In every way that matters, we are being made for our food,” remarked Patel.

As for gleaning, Patel saw many of the same problems that Christie saw. “It’s possible to live like that,” he said. “It’s a profound statement.” But Patel’s book emphasizes a connection between the consumer and the producer of food as an essential ingredient in combating the global distribution system. Gleaning still does not find this connection. Plus, Patel said he does not see a future where everyone dumpster dives for food. But Patel has never been urban foraging. I decided it was time to see for myself.

I got into contact with a friend of Christie’s who I hoped would be willing to take me on a dive. Christie had explained to me that the biggest communities of gleaners lived in cooperative housing around Davis, and Bearclaw (the requested alias of Christie’s friend) was no different. Bearclaw invited me to dinner and said we could go gleaning afterwards. He told me to bring a bike, a bag, and a flashlight.

It rained the entire day that I was to meet Bearclaw. A part of me wished that the evening dumpster session would be cancelled, but Bearclaw informed me that we would be going rain or shine. At about six o’clock, I hopped on my bike and pedaled to the cooperative housing units where Bearclaw lived. After arriving, I asked a soft-spoken man with a foot-long beard where Bearclaw’s room was. He closed his eyes and pointed, saying he believed that it was the third from the southwesternmost room. I thanked him and wandered dumbly in the direction he pointed in, wondering whether or not “southwesternmost” was a word. After about ten minutes of wandering, I found Bearclaw, a nice guy in his twenties with a fuzzy blonde beard and a beanie on his head, in his room, a warm aroma of potatoes seeping through the doorway.

Bearclaw, a UC Davis Ph.D. student studying California grassland restoration, told me that people dumpster dive for four different reasons. The first reason is that some people can’t afford to eat. The second reason is a form of protest. The third reason is to remove food from the waste stream. Lastly, people do it to reduce their own consumption of food from the system. “If I can offset a lot of the calories that I need with food that was going to go to waste, not only am I not putting money into the system, I’m not creating a demand for the products,” said Bearclaw. “You’re not part of the game. For some people that’s part of the big draw.” He spoke slowly and carefully, informing me that he dives once or twice a week for a combination of those reasons.

Bearclaw tries to live a sustainable life, something he claimed is both a mindset and a lifestyle. “Sustainability is part of nearly every decision I make,” he later wrote me in an email. “I try to purchase used, local and/or organic goods and local services, bike most places, compost my organic waste, recycle or reuse other items, share ideas with others, and basically live simply.” He goes to the Davis Co-op about once every two weeks and sometimes picks up a few things at the Davis Farmers Market. The housing unit in which he lives also grows about ten percent of the food the residents consume, including greens, broccoli, celery, garlic, leaks, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and squash. The rest of his diet, apart from what he buys, he gets from a dumpster. “Gleaning is a kind of a general practice in our community,” said Bearclaw, who shares what he finds with his housing complex. “It’s an amazing bonanza of food. It’s always a surprise—kind of Christmassy. It could be anything. Furniture, chocolate, beer.”

Bearclaw can’t get everything from a dumpster, though. Fats, oils, rice, and beans are rare. Finding produce can also be dicey sometimes. However, Bearclaw and his fellow gleaners have found many treasures buried under garbage. His community once threw a party with chips, peanuts, and beer that they found in one dumpster. Another time, gleaners brought back ice cream from a broken freezer. But the greatest score was when Bearclaw found about 120 pounds of cheese. “A fridge went down with Tillamook cheese,” he remembered fondly. “Big blocks like eight bucks a piece.” The cheese score is now legendary among local gleaners, though the total amount varies from story to story. Suddenly, I wanted to find 120 pounds of cheese more than anything in the world.

We ate dinner in a large communal room with about twenty other residents. Among the topics of conversation, dumpster diving seemed little different from discussing the day’s basketball scores. Although Bearclaw told me that even some people in the housing unit are “sketched out” by gleaning, no one seemed too sketched out when they wolfed down the potatoes and onions that Bearclaw pillaged from a garbage can.

“People are way too picky,” said Jan, a third year undergraduate who gleans about three times a week. Jan described gleaning as addictive, having found everything from plantains to a wicker chair in the dumpster. Her last dive was especially successful because she found a complete meal: Lucky Charms, milk, and bananas. Although she would never buy a Snickers bar, Jan would eat one if she found it in a dumpster. America would be much thinner if everyone had Jan’s philosophy.

Gary, a big guy with dark hair, a flannel jacket, and a train-stripe hat, claimed that he wonders what is in a dumpster every time he walks past one. He often looks inside, “kind of like checking the change compartment in a phone booth.” Gary also references the cheese story as a highlight. He has also found big bags of chocolate. He even furnished his room with blinds that he found while gleaning. Beer is another great find. “It doesn’t get better than having a beer on the man,” he joked.

There are safety rules while gleaning, and Gary gave me the run-down. First of all, no kissing in the dumpsters. Secondly, you never leave a man or woman behind. I became a little worried upon hearing this, although Bearclaw told me that none of them had ever been chased down by guard dogs while on a dive, let alone left behind. And none of them had ever been caught. There is also a set of rules for deciding on what food to take, such as a smell taste for salsa. Bearclaw also told me that he has never gotten sick from any of the food they have eaten. Convinced that I would not be tempted to kiss anyone inside of a dumpster, I decided that I was as ready to go as I could be.

Steamed Donkey
Under a sprinkling of rain, five of us, including Bearclaw and Gary, set off from the housing complex, a flashlight and canvas bag in my hand. Much to my own chagrin, I had forgotten gloves. When I saw that Bearclaw and Gary had trailers attached to their bikes, I realized that this trip was all business to them. But the mood was festive, and Bearclaw played Daft Punk’s “Technologic” through the iPod speakers attached to his trailer. One of the other gleaners with us told me that she likes to think really hard about what she wants to find in the dumpsters that night, channeling the chi in the air so as to have a better chance of getting good stuff. I felt caught up in the excitement of doing something illegal, and even cautiously pumped my fist to the muffled techno coming from Bearclaw’s bike as we headed out of the parking lot.

We rode around the back of the first supermarket, passing by rows of empty parking spaces and stained stucco walls. We passed by a large dumpster with an electronic metal door covering the top. “There’s no reason to ever go into an automatic dumpster,” called Gary over the music, pointing to the industrial-looking contraption with an automatic lid. I didn’t probe the issue further, sensing a tragic experience in his past involving an automatic dumpster.

When we reached the first dumpster, Bearclaw dismounted from his bike and turned off the music. He swiftly flipped open the lid, taking a quick scan before walking around the side and hoisting himself upward. Gary followed, and within no time, the two were mechanically sifting through garbage. I leaned over the side with the other two gleaners, watching them sort through one side of the dumpster before moving to the next section. The smell was alarming, and I thought twice about eating anything from within its stinky depths. I put my doubt behind me, though, when Bearclaw stood up, an opened Power Bar in his hand. He examined it before taking a bite and shrugging. “It’s ok,” he stated before passing the bar to me. I realized that the rules for dumpster diving were more like guidelines. But I trusted Bearclaw, and decided that anything he ate was ok for me to eat. The Power Bar tasted like cardboard, but I’m sure it still contained some kind of nutrient. I thought to myself that a homeless person wouldn’t think twice before eating what I just ate. The frosting at the bottom of the dumpster, which I also tried, probably would have been a different story. 

The first dumpster didn’t yield much: some bottles of salad dressing, flower bouquets, and a bag of sweet and sour chicken that Gary swore he would eat later. I was a little disappointed with the findings and was anxious to see what the next dumpster would hold. But we didn’t find much in the next one either, just a few protein bars and an unopened bag of cat food. We jumped on our bikes and continued on.

The third dumpster was a goldmine. Within minutes we had found nectarines, oranges, bananas, and a pineapple. I decided to get in the giant dumpster myself this time, taking to a darkened corner and sorting through white trash bags. One could have mistook the excited cries ringing out from the dumpster as birthday wishes coming true (“Oh my God, an unopened package of brie!”). While Gary and Bearclaw found a large roll of smoked cheese and a carton of eggs with one egg cracked, I uncovered a small stash of bread loaves and bagels, all in unopened bags. I couldn’t help but wonder why these bags were being thrown out in the first place. After a while, we decided to move on from the plentiful dumpster. In total we had found about forty pounds of food, and both bike trailers were filled to the brim.

The final stop provided dessert: an assortment of unopened gourmet snacks ranging from peanut butter–filled pretzels to chocolate cookies. We sampled to our hearts’ content while looking over the evening’s findings. It dawned on us that we had no more room in the bike trailers and so decided to call it a night. Good thing, because it was starting to rain again.

When we got back to the housing units, the gleaned food was placed on the grass and analyzed before being divided up. Some of the food was claimed immediately. Bearclaw had told me that there were some gleaners who were militant in defending their dumpster territory, and after going myself, I could see why. But much of the food was set aside for the entire housing complex to eat. Gary assured me that all of the food would be eaten up. “It’s great to have a community that gets excited about it,” he remarked. I pondered what my roommates would say if I brought home bags of asiago cheese bagels that reeked of garbage. Then again, I had seen them eat things that looked and smelled worse. After all of the food had been rationed, I said my goodbyes and biked home, an orange, a bag of bagels, and a package of cheese under my arm.

But How Did It Taste?
The cheese was gross. There really wasn’t a better word to describe it. There was some kind of a pastry casing around it that was not fully cooked, but after seeing the amount of food that had been thrown out, I decided I couldn’t let it go to waste. That night, I finished the cheese and orange (which tasted like a normal orange) with my roommate and put the bag of bagels in the freezer for another time. But I couldn’t bring myself to eat the bagels when I returned to them a few days later. “Once an item leaves the sanitary space of the store and enters an unsanitary space, it seems to be tainted, even if it was fine a second ago,” Kurt had explained after our dive. The dumpster stigma had returned to me after only a few days, and with a very heavy heart, I threw the bagels into the garbage can.

There are a variety of reasons why grocery stores will throw out food. One reason is if the “sell by” date has passed. According to the USDA website, the “sell by” date is not required by law, but is an estimation determined by the grower for how long the product, such as milk, will taste the freshest. Drinking after that date is generally ok. Even the “use by” date is not a safety measure but a freshness estimate. It is often still safe to drink milk days, even weeks, after the “use by” date has passed, though it may not taste as good. According to Josh Kern, Grocery Manager of Davis Food Co-op, most dairy products can be consumed after either the “sell by” or “use by” dates have passed. Many bulk items like bread can be stored, if done so properly, for up to a year.

Other reasons for throwing out food could involve technical problems with storage, for example, if a freezer breaks down. Sometimes food will be thrown out if it is over-stocked, although Kern stated that the Davis Food Co-op never does this. Another big reason that supermarkets throw out food is if the packaging is damaged, something which many gleaners find troubling. 

“Anything that affects the cost of the item is considered damaged, so they throw out the entire thing,” said Bearclaw. “The eighteen pack of eggs with one broken is the image that gets me. They could sell the seventeen pack or mix and match the eggs, but they don’t do anything like that. It fucking blows me away.” In the end, it’s up to the customer, he explained, because the customer doesn’t want a damaged package.
Kern stated that the Davis Food Co-op lets the customer decide what to do with a package that has a broken egg. “The customer usually will catch the broken egg upon inspection before purchasing the pack, and will replace the egg themselves from another pack,” he informed me. “If multiple eggs are broken, we will pull the pack and get credit from our distributor.” From what we found in the dumpsters, though, many supermarkets are not as frugal as the Co-op.

The Davis Food Co-op could hardly be considered a supermarket. Even Raj Patel would probably find the Co-op agreeable. The origin of produce and whether or not it is organic is clearly labeled. The store is filled with locally grown food. One would be hard pressed to find a Hot Pocket anywhere in sight. No wonder that when Bearclaw has to shop, he comes to the Co-op. But co-operative food stores have to compete with larger, cheaper supermarkets. “The hard part is that the same people that dumpster dive are often the same people that shop consciously,” said Bearclaw. “The same people that are trying to bring themselves out of the market are the same people that help local markets.”

Regardless, it would be naïve to say that Bearclaw and his fellow gleaners are doing nothing to kill the Octopus. They buy nothing from supermarkets, grow much of their own food, use bicycles, and shop locally. Plus, they eat food that would otherwise be going to a landfill. 

Perhaps Rainbow Singer put it best when she spoke in front of the Sacramento City Council. “It’s a human issue to know that we are contributing something, however tiny, to make life on the rest of the planet just that little bit much better,” she said. Not to mention that I will no longer pass a dumpster without wondering what is in it. I may not grab a sandwich from it, especially if it’s an automatic dumpster. But at least I’m thinking about it.