Yesterday evening I found myself in the alley behind Food Lion, knee deep in rotting produce, looking for this week’s groceries. While pawing for onions and peppers, I found myself reflecting on a 1937 quote by Reinhold Niebuhr on how non-resistance made Mennonites “parasites on the sins of others.” And I began to wonder if Niebuhr’s argument about parasites might apply to my interaction with the food system I am attempting to avoid through dumpster diving.
For the past few years at EMU, I have lived amongst people who refer to dumpster diving as grocery shopping and who fill our fridges and cupboards with what we glean from the trash. Together we have learned the art of get- ting in and out of dumpsters with ease, developed an eye for searching out the treasure beneath the trash, and nailed down the ever-so-important routine of washing everything afterwards. I have stories involving wet dumpsters filled with flour and explaining my evening past time to a cohort of police cars.
As a frugal college student, the concept of free food has been an incentive to dive since I began to pay my own grocery bills. While studying at EMU, I have eaten more food from a
Food Lion dumpster than I have ever purchased in the store. Yet, diving for me is about much more than a cheap way to acquire produce and ice cream.
I have described my diving expeditions as civil disobedience. As a conscientious individual, I am immensely frustrated by the institutionalized food system we have developed. Diving for me has been a way of expressing my distaste for a system that is unsustainable and unjust.
Anyone acquainted with a grocery store dumpster can recognize our overt obsession with waste. Along with excessive amounts of waste, the institutionalized food system has helped develop a culture of people who are so distanced from our nourishment that we cannot even tell when it has gone bad.
So much of what we throw out is perfectly edible and will be for days to come. Instead of knowing what makes our food rot or when meat is bad, we rely on the packaging to tell us by what date it can no longer be sold.
I dive in protest against this system that I believe to be unjust. I dive be- cause I believe in the possibility of a food system based on plenty and not on the concept of waste. I dive because I know that an expiration date does not mean my yogurt has gone bad.
However, because I dive for my groceries, I have a vested interest in the system of waste. In the words of Niebuhr, I live as a “parasite on the sins [of the system].” As a diver, I profit from the injustice of the system I disagree with.
I have heard dumpster diving described as resurrection – the act of taking something condemned, something dead and buried under layers of grime in a dumpster and giving it new life in a stir-fry, or a baked Parmesan. Often, I agree with this metaphor.
However, resurrecting the food in a dumpster will not challenge the system to refrain from wasting more tomorrow. If anything, relying on the resurrected encourages me to support the system that insures there will be more to resurrect tomorrow.
If I am serious about a sustain- able food system, I must do more than fill my fridge with resurrected trash. I must recognize that as a diver, I am only profiting from the injustice I detest. In 1937, Niebuhr’s critique of Mennonite nonresistance encouraged the church to develop a more active role in transforming the systems of violence in the world.
How can I, as a conscientious individual, move from being a “parasite on the sins others” to being actively engaged in transforming the food system?
Bekah is an avid dumpster diver who dreams of investing in sustainable systems that will change the world.