Dumpster Diving Makes for Frugal Feasting

By Katherine Sundt
UJW Staff

WASHINGTON — Often thought of as an activity limited to homeless and poor people desperate to fill their empty stomachs, Dumpster diving has become something more.

A relatively new group of D>umpster divers has emerged: those who don’t necessarily need to Dumpster dive, but who choose to do so in order to reduce waste and merely save money. Organized “dives” have become popular in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Nashville, and Washington, using sites such as Meetup to plan times and locations.

Dumpster diving, or “urban foraging,” as it is sometimes called, usually occurs behind grocery stores or other food establishments where food is thrown out as soon as it reaches its expiration date. It is also a part of “freeganism,” a philosophy that embodies “alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources,” according to freegan.info.

Deborah R., a 42-year-old government employee living in Silver Spring, Md., is an occasional diver. She said she doesn’t do a lot of Dumpster diving, but she still sometimes finds it to be the best choice.

“Dumpster diving is only a last resort,” Deborah said. “But it’s not a bad option. It gets a really bad reputation sometimes ‘cause people think it’s gross, but it’s really not and you can get some awesome fresh food.”

She said she has mostly Dumpster dived in places that don’t have many natural food stores, which often have food outreach programs, and where most grocery store food waste is destroyed in trash compactors.

“I do try not to buy a lot of food,” Deborah said. “The amount of food discarded by stores is huge.”

One critic of the Dumpster diving trend is Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry. According to its website, the organization is a “global campaign for the right to share food.” It is based on the theory that food is a right, not a privilege. Food Not Bombs chapters across the country get food donations from restaurants and grocery stores from which they prepare vegetarian meals for the needy.

Although McHenry said he has Dumpster dived before, he “realized you could actually just talk to store owners.” He said that as an alternative to Dumpster diving, people can simply ask stores for food or other items that they are planning to throw away.

“The issue of the Dumpster diving is that it became popularized as kind of like this cool, hip thing, and it’s not really that necessary, and the ideology is something that we’re trying to get away from,” McHenry said.

He believes that the government is using the concept of Dumpster diving to distract the public from the fact that it is using funds on war-related expenses rather than on feeding those in need.

“Because of the success of Food Not Bombs,” McHenry said, “the media started pretending to be radicals and make it real cool and hip and write like a little essay about how cool it was to get food out of the Dumpster, and things of this nature, until it became sort of a romantic thing to get food out of the Dumpster.”

“The Dumpster diving part is designed so that an average American will go, ‘Oh, that’s out of the garbage, it’s Dumpster dived,’” he said.

Whatever your view is on the Dumpster diving trend, questions remain on its legality. Locally, it seems to be a gray area.

When asked about the laws regarding Dumpster diving, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department officials were stumped.

“You can call the U.S. attorney’s office,” one police officer said hurriedly. “We don’t deal with that.”


Founded in 1975, the Washington Association of Black Journalists is an organization of Black journalists, journalism professors, public relations professionals and student journalists in the D.C., metro area. WABJ provides members with ongoing professional education opportunities and advocates for greater diversification of the profession.