The majority of the food we eat comes from the dumpster. In 2013 we started a free dumpster fueled restaurant in Boston called The Gleaners’ Kitchen, and the Genome Collective is the second generation of that project. More information about The Gleaners’ Kitchen can be found at these resources:
This web page however, is dedicated to the philosophy of dumpstering itself. What is the value of a good meal?
What the Dumpster Holds
It’s not possible to hop inside a dumpster overflowing with good food and not be confronted with questions of value. What is the value of all that food? Is it worthless because it is in the trash? Pursuing answers to these questions has lead us to some unusual places. Below we explore some of the insight that can be found in the trash – that value is malleable and multidimensional – that at their best, food and community interpenetrate each other – and that the contents of a dumpster can embody all the numinousity of death and rebirth.
There are many reasons why good food ends up in a dumpster. One of the most common is packaging damage. Every grocery store dumpster invariably contains cartons of eggs with one egg cracked. When the packaging gets damaged, it costs more money to pay an employee to clean the eggs and replace the carton than it costs to just throw the whole thing away. No one will buy a carton with damaged eggs when pristine packages lie right next to it. So despite the fact that there might be valuable food inside, when a package is no longer sellable, for the grocery store it is worthless. This disconnect between value and sellability is the ultimate source of food waste. Sometimes ripe fruit ends up in the trash because a new, fresher shipment has arrived, and no one is going to buy the old stuff. The fruit might still be valuable, but it can no longer be sold. Grocery stores deliberately overstock their shelves – the logic being that if they don’t look like they are overflowing with abundance, then the desirability of all the products diminishes. Similar rationale goes into the marking of expiration dates. Consumers want their food ‘fresh’ – and that means making sure the right symbols are printed on the side of the package – the smell and taste of its contents are no longer sufficient indicators of its worth. What these managerial justifications of food waste reveal is that, surprisingly, grocery stores are not actually in the business of selling good food. Instead, they are in the business of selling convincing packaging. They sell the idea of freshness, the dream of satisfying desire. So grocery store aisles are painted with logos, with slogans, with mascots. Symbols upon symbols layered so thick that their original meaning – a representation of the quality of the food within – is lost in a virtual sea. A food’s ‘goodness’, once an objective quality to be confirmed by sight, scent and flavor, transforms into an amorphous property to be manipulated by advertisers.
But not so in the dumpster. On grocery store shelves most labels are circumspect. But when they are surrounded by trash, when they are ripped, torn, and soaked with slime, the price tags become utterly meaningless. Signifiers and signified all jumbled together, all deemed worthless. Considered worthless because all the things that used to make food valuable – its aesthetics, its utility, its emotional significance – have been compressed into a one dimensional measure: How many dollars can this thing be sold for? When the answer is close to zero, the food gets tossed, despite the fact that value is present in unperceived dimensions. The task of a dumpster diver is to reveal wealth that others overlooked – value that most people don’t believe can exist, even when it is right in front of their eyes. The value of an object in the dumpster cannot be perceived from its context, nor from the decaying descriptors that surround it. Its value must be reborn anew, grounded this time not in money, but community.
Dumpstering works best when you’re not just trying to feed yourself. The dumpster provides a preposterous quantity of specific foods, like 26 quarts of yogurt or 114 mushy tomatoes. There’s not much a single person can do with 114 tomatoes, but if you live in a group, tomato soup is for dinner. More abstractly, the necessity of sharing dumpstered goods facilitates a fundamentally different relationship with material possessions. That label on that filet mignon says it’s worth $16.99, but why would you covet it when it came from the trash, and there will be another one like it there tomorrow? The value of food becomes more directly linked to the effort of acquisition, to an items utility, and to the joy it brings when shared with close friends. One never need worry about rationing dumpstered items – they can be given freely without any financial repercussion. And the fact that they can be so readily exchanged without worrying about the money they could have been equated with ironically makes them more valuable. In addition to flavor and nutritional value, which are roughly equal to store bought items, dumpstered goods have the extra feature of facilitating the experience of giving.
We use dumpster diving as a way of building community around the act of sharing food together. There is something indescribably wonderful, almost sacred, about sitting down in the company of familiar faces, and looking around to see people eating out of bowls that look just like yours. It is a sense of connection, and of pride. A community of eaters is unified by this physical, tangible, delectable thing – wholesome food to make us all feel whole. A web of connections is tied between farms and dumpsters and dinner tables. It sometimes feels too large to fathom, but at the same time it is as simple as the loop between your plate, your arm, and your mouth.
Death and Rebirth