Tuesday, March 19, 2013


photo source: www.treehugger.com

Dumpster diving seems to have been coming up a lot recently in the discussions I’ve had regarding food activism. So I decided to watch the documentary Dive! by Jeremy Seifert.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with dumpster diving (or at least not in the food activism sense of the term), it refers to the practice of collecting food that is thrown out by supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, and other food retailers. Generally this food is thrown out because it is nearing or past the marked expiration date, it appears slightly flawed (such as bruised produce), to make room on the shelves for newer items, etc. In all of these cases, the food is usually fine to eat, but ends up getting tossed into the dumpster anyway, where it then actually does goes bad and/or is dumped into landfills. And all of that means that a lot of perfectly fine food gets wasted.

That’s where the dumpster divers come in: they “rescue” the food from the dumpsters before it goes bad or gets carted off to a landfill, and use it to feed themselves, their families and friends, and sometimes even donate it to homeless shelters. The documentary Dive! chronicles this practice from the perspective of Jeremy Seifert and other dumpster divers in the Los Angeles area, and seeks to impress upon the viewer the outrageousness of how much food is wasted in the U.S., and the implications and origins of this wastefulness.

Overall, I thought that this was a well-made, relatable, interesting documentary. I think it’s great that people are using food that would otherwise just be left to rot—it's like an industrialized agriculture version of gleaning fields! I also find it pretty maddening that even with the Good Samaritan Act in place, supermarkets and restaurants would rather throw away good food than give it to people who need it. And it made me feel good about how in my own refrigerator, I’m kind of obsessive about making sure everything gets used up or frozen before it goes bad (which has, I’ll admit, resulted in some eclectic meals). If I was a little bit less worried about getting in trouble for trespassing I would try dumpster diving; I’m not afraid of eating something that’s nearing or past it’s expiration date as long as it smells ok, I definitely don’t see a problem with  bruised or slightly wonky-looking fruits and vegetables, and my mom taught me long ago to just cut off the moldy parts of a block of cheese instead of throwing the whole thing away. So except for the being afraid of getting caught part (which, granted, is probably a pretty big part of the challenge/experience), I’m on board with dumpstering.

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But every once in a while there was something that bothered me about the way that some of the dumpster divers that Seifert interviewed talked about what they were doing. One interviewee in particular said something that made me scrunch my face: “This is a totally outside of the system way of living!”

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Ok, I understand what he’s saying. I think. I think he’s referring to the fact that he’s not paying for the food, and thus the money that he otherwise would be spending on food isn’t going towards supporting a capitalist system and/or a system of industrialized agriculture. And because of this, he feels like he’s kind of off the hook in terms of responsibility for the problems associated with the industrialized food and capitalist systems, even though he’s eating food sold by corporate grocery stores and produced by industrial agriculture. He feels like he beat the system, because he gets to reap most of the benefits of industrial agriculture while at the same being critical of it, avoiding financially supporting it, and maintaining a sense of cognitive concordance.  He gets to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak.

But the problem with this is that dumpster diving isn’t really “a totally outside of the system way of living.” It’s more like a way of operating on the margins of the system, and there are certainly some positive things to be said about that. But it’s not the same of being free of “the system” completely because dumpster diving still involves being dependent on "the system" in some way. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. And in fact, maybe in some ways it’s actually better—to help pick up after a flawed system seems more responsible than having nothing to do with the system at all, even if in doing so one becomes part of the system. So maybe "living outside of the system" isn't actually as useful of a goal as living on the margins of a flawed system and poking holes in it. And that's what dumpster diving, and this documentary, are trying to do.

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