For most of us, obtaining food is easy.  We go to the grocery store, where fruits are labeled and meats arranged by species.  We go to a restaurant, sit, and wait for our food to be delivered to us.  The disparities between the modern, industrialized food system and the savannah ecosystem of our ancestors is stunning – and responsible, of course, for ‘new’ diseases like obesity and diabetes.  Yet modern agricultural technology is also responsible for the rise of a new tribe of hunter-gathers: Dumpster divers.

‘Freegans’ operate according to notions of seasonality and safety for food that have long since become non-issues for most of the developed world.  Like foraging groups, their food is temporally bound. Fruiting trees and moving herds are replaced with bakeries’ closing times and the days when the corner store dumps its lettuce.

Shopping at the store is low-stress, but for dumpster divers, gathering dinner can be fraught with peril.  There might not be lions lurking around the garbage bins, but urban foragers must learn to avoid angry store owners and suspicious cops.   Real peril lies not just in spoiled food, but in injuries from actually scrambling into the dumpster.  No one wants a puncture wound with their lunch.

Dumpster diving re-privileges ancient senses.  Because the grocery store is a sterile zone, the eye has become the primary organ of selection.  The eye perceives brands. It picks our the most vibrantly red tomato.  For dumpster divers, the nose and fingers are once again put into service as vital organs of the food gathering experience, sniffing to see which meats are past date, prodding apples to find the rotten ones.

The industrialized food system divorces us from nature, but for modern foragers, it brings them closer to the tribe.


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  • BVG

    This is a really cool article. I used to do some dumpster diving as a kid but it was just to find cool junk mostly. Oncce some hobos found a nearly intact birthday cake and offered it to me and my friend. I couldn't understand the idea; people eat from trashcans and I knew that, but me? Why would they think that I would want some of their cake? I was offended and they were offended that I didn't want their cake. Now I can understand what happened. Looking back I was a filthy long haired barefoot street urchin rummaging through trash cans and dumpsters, but at the time I didn't realize what a beast I looked like. Those hobos wanted that cake for themselves but they saw what appeared to be even more needy people than themselves, 2 kids, and tried to be good to me. Then when I acted like it was FAR above me to eat that cake, they felt too offended or embarrassed to eat it themselves. Oh well, hindsight is 20/20 I guess. I should have just eaten some of the damn cake.

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