One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Dinner
by Alex Day


Dumpsters. They are big, tan, and slightly smelly. For many years, the only experiences I had with them involved throwing in trash and being shaken from a sound sleep by the truck that empties them, which comes too early in the morning on Fridays.

One day as I went past my work (the Isla Vista Food Co-op), I noticed a number of my co-workers climbing around in the dumpster. As I approached I saw ecstatic smiles on their faces and piles of frozen and packaged food on the ground. Even though it was the middle of a weekday almost every one of my co-workers was there, or on their way. The freezer had broken overnight and all the frozen food, which now could not be sold, had to be thrown away. But we didn’t care. I stocked up on two boxes full of frozen pizzas, meatless chicken nuggets and frozen vegetables. A number of my co-workers had called their roommates, who brought extra hands or large vehicles to haul away as much of the “spoiled” food as possible. Our only limitation was how much of it we thought we’d be able to stuff into our freezers.

This spectacle of a crowd of people raiding a dumpster for wasted food could have been repeated all across the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that one quarter—25.9 million tons—of the nation’s food goes to the dumpster. However, a recent study conducted at the University of Arizona asserts that the United States wastes 50 percent of its food. The problem of widespread food waste is recognized by the federal government and by the State of California. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is involved because the methane gas that food rotting in landfills creates contributes to global warming, established a “food waste reduction hierarchy.” At the top of the hierarchy—feeding people. One of the integral issues of food waste is it could be used to feed hungry people. Again according to the USDA, 5 percent of the food wasted in the United States could feed 4 million people.

The California Waste Management Board, part of the California State executive branch, promotes food banks and food rescue programs as “community-based, professional organizations” that turn wasted food into nourishment for people who would otherwise go hungry. Food banks—according to the CWMB’s website—collect non-perishable food, typically from “large manufacturers, supermarket chains, wholesalers, farmers, food brokers, and organized community food drives,” and store it in warehouses. Then, the bank gives the food to “local human service agencies” to be distributed to those in need of it.

Food rescue programs usually collect perishable or prepared food and distribute it promptly, rather than storing it. Food banks and rescue programs represent a solution to the accumulation of food waste that governments (federal, state, and local) can monitor and control through legislation and regulation.

Not everyone is content to let government close the gap between food waste and hunger. Food Not Bombs (FNB) is a national movement, started by anti-nuclear
activists in 1980, that insists—in the words of Howard Zinn, who wrote the introduction for their handbook—that “no one should be without food in a world so richly provided with land, sun and human ingenuity.” According to their website, FNB’s mission is “to recover food that would otherwise be thrown out and make fresh hot vegetarian meals that are served outside in public spaces to anyone without restriction.” While groups such as FNB operate on the same basic principles as food banks, there are less steps between collection and distribution. Additionally, FNB—an underground social movement—is not restricted by government regulation or legislation and can go directly to the dumpster. The Isla Vista chapter of Food Not Bombs had, at a recent event I attended, a table full of bread that they had pulled out of a Whole Food’s supermarket dumpster. The packages were a little wrinkled and the bread was slightly stale, but it filled you up and tasted pretty good —the dumpster had not corrupted it.

The members of Food Not Bombs and the people involved in food banks and rescue programs, whether aligned with the government or part of the underground, see food waste as a remedy for other people’s hunger.

Another sector of this dumpster diving community are “freegans.” They see waste as their source of sustenance and, according to, as an opportunity to escape “an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations.” Just as vegans shun animal food products to protest harming animals freegans do not participate in the capitalist consumer economy, to highlight the negative impact the economic system—in their eyes—has on human rights, animal rights, and environmental balance. Ideological dumpster divers and freegans attempt to live completely off of what others throw away to protest wasteful consumerism that they view as dominating United States society today.