catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 21 :: 2010.11.19 — 2010.12.02


Feasting on scraps

Dumpster-diving was introduced to me my freshman year at college, primarily through my Christian bohemian friends (see Jamie Smith’s fascinating review of Hipster Christianity for an explanation of this helpful, if still generalizing term). Although it took until my sophomore year for me to have a go myself, the principle of dumpster-diving immediately made all kinds of sense to me. You can save money, reduce your ecological impact (sort of), and make a stand against waste, all in one go! What’s not to celebrate?

For those unfamiliar with the activity, dumpster-diving is the elegantly simple activity of taking (mainly) food from the dumpsters (or “skips,” in the UK) where it is placed after it has passed its sell-by/use-by/best-before dates. Stores are often obliged by health codes to dispose of food after a certain date, but it’s not uncommon for high-brow supermarkets to get rid of fruits or vegetables when they begin to look a little under the weather, however new or fresh they might be.

Occasional complicating factors for dumpster-diving can include the law and spiteful storeowners. The practice is variously legal or illegal in different countries and U.S. states, although it is usually simply a gray area — grey because of laws on trespassing, health and safety laws, and other bureaucratic technicalities which allow storeowners to use threat of prosecution as a deterrent. In reality, actual prosecutions against divers are extremely rare ( states it is unaware of anyone ever being successfully charged in the U.K.), but the sense (or reality) of trespassing usually relegates dumpster-diving to late-night hours.

Occasionally, storeowners take matters into their own hands and, in an effort to dissuade hopeful divers from their hidden bounties, will throw paint or bleach over their discarded foodstuffs. Sometimes they will instruct employees to rip open their trash bags in the dumpster, pushing the sanitary limits of some divers one step too far. It’s hard to know what’s going on in the minds of these managers. I can hardly believe that they legitimately fear lawsuits from scroungers cutting their fingers on rusty metal dumpster rims or suffering food poisoning from dumpster-mushrooms. Perhaps they believe that divers, foiled in their pursuits of waste foods, will instead walk right into their over-heated, over-lighted aisles and purchase the same things with their cash. It goes without saying that this is incredibly naïve.

What does dumpster-diving have to do with feasting? A lot, I think. It is a heavy collision between a mindset of scarcity and a context of excess. Reaping the cast-offs from an efficiency-trapped food production system provides a poignant moment for reflection on what feasting might mean in the in-between times we reside in. For the middle-upper-middle class that so many of us belong to, we live in constant tension between the realities, on one hand, of a wasteful society and abject poverty, and on the other hand, a Bible-born desire to celebrate the goodness of creation in all its glory.

As I’ve learned over the last few years, we miss the point if we center a Christian response to consumerism and waste on a goal to save money. Sustainable consumer choices are often more expensive (fair trade clothing vs. Wal-Mart, local organic food vs. Tesco/Aldi, trains vs. planes), and in one way, spending more has an inherent benefit. When we have to invest a little more into our daily, weekly, monthly consumables, we are forced to think carefully about what we need and what we don’t. When bananas cost $1 for 5, we might as well just get-em — why bother considering if we already have fruit, or if we already have bananas (!), let alone whether we will have time to eat them before we head off on vacation.

Perhaps then it sounds self-contradictory to bring up dumpster-diving, a veritable paradise for the cheapskate student (or otherwise), and in fact I do tend to refrain from waving the D-Mart (thanks to Wikipedia for this super name) flag too excitedly. While it is easy to get caught up in the audacious success of getting something for nothing, all the while sticking metaphorical tongues out at the corporate food industry, dumpster-diving should more centrally be an occasion to give thanks for God’s provision in all forms, as well as an occasion for lament at the absurdity of waste in the face of the poverty so often on our doorsteps. Diving is not a permanent sustainable activity, it is not an alternative to our current system, it is simply a less-worse option and, if we keep our heads straight, a practice of humility — reminding ourselves that we aren’t above eating what others would throw away. One “freegan” activist in the UK was quoted claiming, “The idea of the movement is to negate the necessity of the movement.” As confusing as that sounds, you probably get the picture.

Feasting on scraps subverts the false assumption that we have enough wealth and prosperity to accept wanton waste, but can also bring people together in an act of strange communal harvesting and celebration, all while keeping our feet on the ground. Loaves of banana bread, containers of apple sauce and bowls of potato curry have been my dumpster feasts of recent weeks, and as winter stretches its icy hug over England, local skips will become more like refrigerators than the sweaty incubators they can be in the summer months. While nature shuts down its foraging activities to holiday in hibernation, the peak season for dumpster foraging is just beginning.

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