This semester, senior David Nester has spent $6 total on food, and that was “because I went out to eat once,” he reported as of Nov. 12, with a few weeks left to go. His secret to this success does not lie in strict budgeting, or fasting, or mooching.
No, Nester dumpster dives.
Once a week, twice if he can, Nester makes his rounds, collecting food left in dumpsters by local stores. These dumpsters source 50 percent of Nester’s food, the other half coming from what he attributes to general resourcefulness, such as using leftover cafeteria money from previous semesters or seeking free meals around campus.
“People have a weird aversion towards the trash,” Nester said. “Even if it’s in a plastic bag, I’ll see someone like, ‘Oh, it’s in the trash. I don’t want to touch it,’ when it’s like a totally clean bag.” Nester recognizes that the dumpsters can be “really gross” themselves, however, “it’s not a guarantee that [the food] is gross just because it touched [the dumpster], because it was in the location.”
While Nester stands out from his peers for his lack of spending this semester, he is not the only senior living off campus who favors an occasional dive in the dumpster to save a few bucks.
Senior hot spots for dumpster diving include local Food Lions, a grocery chain with four locations in Harrisonburg, CVS Pharmacy, Mr. J’s Bagels, and Frito Lay.
Senior Kaitlin Abrahams recalled getting excited when she found fresh vegetables in the dumpster last semester. “Those are usually expensive,” she said. “One time I got a bunch of eggplants and I don’t usually buy those, but it was a lot of fun because I made a bunch of eggplant parmesan, and that made me very happy.”
When asked about cleanliness, Abrahams shrugged and said, “You just wash the vegetables really well.”
Senior Kat Lehman, another dumpster diner, would agree. “I just add a little soap and make sure I rinse them really well,” she said. “I do have a philosophy against eating meats, sketchy dairy, or anything that you can’t peel or wash, vegetable-wise. Or cook.”
“It’s free food and it’s going to waste anyway, so you might as well use it,” senior Sarah Rush said, though she cites the fun factor as a stronger motivator than the savings. “It’s fun doing something kind of sneaky,” she said. Rush has been dumpster diving two or three times this semester, though she plans to go more often once the temperatures drop.
Outside temperature does affect the types of food that are safe to take from the dumpster. “Chicken and fish you’re not supposed to take,” Nester explained, “and beef, it depends on the temperature.” So far, Nester has never gotten sick from eating food from the dumpster.
Abrahams emphasized the importance of doing research about recent food recalls beforehand. Sometimes food is in the dumpster for a reason, and no outside temperature can help keep the food fresh.
Or, if you are concerned about food safety, you could just wait until the freezers break at Food Lion and join the rush, as Abrahams and others did last semester. “We heard through the grapevine that a bunch of freezers at Food Lion had stopped working, so we were like, we have to go now,” Abrahams said.
Rush recalled the same evening, with frozen salmon being her prized find of the night’s loot.
“We filled up the whole van,” Abrahams said.
Not every night’s pickings can fill the back of a van, though, and not every night can you get still-frozen salmon. “Sometimes you just get a lot of chocolate flavored chips,” Abrahams said, rolling her eyes.
Scavenging in refuse bins is nothing new. The phrase “dumpster diving” itself has been around since the 1980s, spinning off another brand-name-turned-generic item, like Kleenex or Chapstick. The Dempster Dumpster brand of trash bins started manufacturing in 1937, and the term “dumpster” could be heard in regular speech by the 1970s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “dumpster diving” appears only in American English, with UK alternatives such as “totting” or “skipping” or “skip diving.” The noun turned verb somewhere in the 80s, as “dumpster-dive” debuted in print.
In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in California v. Greenwood that the Fourth Amendment cannot protect one’s trash. Dumpster diving, therefore, is perfectly legal. Once a person leaves items for trash pick-up, whether it be curbside or in a dumpster, those items become fair game for search and seizure.
However, even if he or she cannot get in legal trouble for taking food, a dumpster diver can get nabbed for trespassing on private property if the dumpster’s owner has posted a sign.
“Most of the places don’t have signs, though,” Rush said, shrugging. The cops do not seem to mind scavenging where “no trespassing” signs are not posted, but sometimes store employees will ask the divers to leave. “I don’t know what it is about that one Food Lion, but there’s this one guy who always asks us to leave,” Rush said.
Other times, the employees do not mind at all. “There was a guy from Food Lion who came out for a smoke while we were there, and he kind of looked at us, and then he left,” Abrahams said.
For some students at EMU, dumpster diving can be a way of subverting the system, of pushing back against a culture of waste. According to Recycling Matters, the average grocery store tosses 1.1 tons of food waste every week. Despite this reality, off-campus seniors seem to be into dumpster diving more for the adrenaline rush and the quick fix to looming debt than for the sustainability ego boost.
“I guess the environmental piece is something I think about, to be sure,” Lehman said. “But yeah, definitely saving money, but mostly because I enjoy it a lot.”
Lehman enjoys dumpster diving with her sister, recalling moments of bonding in the dumpster. “Sometimes we’ll go out to the Frito Lay dumpster and try a couple kinds of chips and return the bags to the dumpster,” she said, laughing. “It’s like sampling.”
“Yeah there’s the environmental thing, but I also think people just like free food,” Abrahams said. “Mennonites are notoriously thrifty.”
Nester cannot estimate how much money he saves by dumpster diving, because he has never needed to go grocery shopping. “If I had to buy all my food it would definitely be weird,” he said. “I think I would still be pretty frugal with it.”
For Nester, dumpster diving is easier than the tedium of grocery shopping. Shopping entails going to the store, deciding what to buy, and sometimes meal planning ahead of time. “I like the simplicity of ‘I have yogurt, so I’m going to eat yogurt.’ For right now, I don’t mind taking away that choice,” Nester said. “I know some people would prefer to be able to choose what they’re eating.”
The chance factor of dumpster diving leads Nester to get creative with food prep. “One time I had a ton of kale, so I was like, well I guess I’ll make kale chips and random stuff. I would never buy kale to make kale chips,” he said. Another week, he collected “a ton of cream cheese,” so he and his housemates made a cheesecake. “We wouldn’t have gone and bought all these ingredients.”