Diving for Dinner
Story by Christine Karambelas // Photos by Mark Malijan
Western sophomores Ciaran Seward, Christina Snyder and junior Alex shiver as Snyder scrapes a hole in the ice on her windshield just large enough to see through.
Bundled up in warm jackets and outfitted with canvas grocery bags and flashlights, the trio drives out of the York Neighborhood onto Ellis Street. Their destination has not been fully determined, but their task is clear.
The conversation stays casual while radio beats play in the background. The roads are clear and the only pedestrian in sight is a man bundled up in a long trench coat.
Seward, Snyder and Alex are on a quest to find dinner ingredients. They plan to collect food from grocery stores ' but not from their shelves. Instead, these students are finding food in Dumpsters behind local grocery stores, or in other words, "Dumpster diving."
"Ok, turn your lights off," Seward says to Snyder as they pull into the first parking lot of a grocery store near the letter street neighborhood. They approach the grocery store's Dumpster on the side of the building while Alex scans the surroundings for any unwelcoming people.
"Do you think that is a cop?" Alex asks as he spots a white Ford across the street.
Snyder drives away from the Dumpster to get a closer look at the car. The word "SHERIFF" is painted on the vehicle in gold capital letters.
Dumpster diving is a new trend in collecting food, especially in the Seattle area. The trend expanded from freeganism, which is an alternative lifestyle that seeks to distance individuals from the capitalist economy as much as possible. Freegans believe businesses have used unethical methods to gain profits, which motivates them to find and utilize free resources in the community.
According to the Freegan.info Web site, Freegans wish to freely share resources instead of gaining them from businesses, which they view as corrupt. In particular, freegans want to reduce waste, limit consumption, save money, strengthen communities and opt out of the cycle of working for corporations they consider to be socially irresponsible. Through methods such as Dumpster diving, freegans are attempting to live sustainably and reduce contribution to the abuse of humans, animals and the earth.
Seward and Alex say they are not attempting to live a completely freegan lifestyle, but they Dumpster dive in response to American over'consumption and the waste of decent food materials. Due to Federal Drug Administration expiration dates, grocery stores are forced to dispose of food before it is purchased, perpetuating the cycle of waste.
Although the trio's Dumpster diving hunts are usually successful, Alex and Seward sometimes worry about getting caught in Dumpsters.
If a Dumpster belongs to a business, it is considered private property, which makes Dumpster diving illegal, Alex says.
"Usually store owners are pretty chill about asking us to leave [a Dumpster]," Alex says. "Sometimes they still let us to continue [to Dumpster dive]. I've only had to deal with the cops once, who just asked us to leave."
Mark Young, a Bellingham police officer from the Crime Prevention Unit, says he does not see Dumpster diving as much of an issue in Bellingham.
When people take recyclable goods such as bottles and cans from Dumpsters, they are taking property from the local recycling company, which makes a profit from recycling those products, Young says. So, if divers get caught taking recyclables, they could be charged with a misdemeanor, he says.
Dumpster diving behind stores, however, is considered trespassing and the person could be asked to leave the property, Young says. Repeat violators can be arrested if they return to a property after being asked by police to leave.
"We don't dictate procedure policies of the stores," Young says. "But if a store calls [about] someone in their Dumpster, we are going to respond."
On this Wednesday night, however, the Sheriff does not interfere with the divers' mission.
Still in search of food, the divers continue their journey, this time heading to a local business that is known to throw out a lot of produce. "Fruit, watermelon, powdered sugar. Fruit, watermelon, powdered sugar...," Seward chants in hopes of finding these ingredients for a special recipe.
In a dark loading zone behind a store, the trio find their next targets - two small Dumpsters. This store in particular, which is known among divers for its produce, has become a popular diving location. As a result, the owner of the Dumpsters has been on the watch for divers.
"We got to be quiet and quick with this one," Seward says.
After the car is turned off and left facing the street for a quick get'away, the divers step out with flashlights and bags in hand, leaving the doors open to reduce any noise. Alex pries open the first Dumpster lid from underneath a bar that latches it closed. After looking inside and not seeing anything of interest, the divers proceed to the second Dumpster.
The opening of the lid releases a sour, rotten citrus smell that burns the nose. Inside, a mound of bean sprouts and carrot peelings cover all sides of the walls.
As Snyder holds a flashlight into the Dumpster, the divers see lemons, onions and apples. Seward jumps in, sinking into the confetti'like shreds of produce.
"I need to make it my goal to sleep in a Dumpster," Seward says as she collects lemons for what she hopes to make into lemon desserts.Seward fills two grocery bags with lemons, but she leaves plenty of produce behind. "It's important to leave [food] for other people," Alex says. "Just take what you need."
After Seward jumps out of the Dumpster, Alex closes the lid. He says it is crucial to leave Dumpsters the way they were found, otherwise divers run a risk of upsetting businesses, who might start locking lids.
The divers visit three other Dumpster locations in the downtown area that night. They find food in one of the locations ' multiple sealed bags of tortillas, still in good condition. The tortillas were thrown away because the expiration date was from the day before they were found.
The crew runs into another Dumpster diving posse, who have a bicycle with a baby trailer full of goods found from diving. They trade some packages of tortillas for lemons and announce a community feast that will be hosted later in the week.
Alex says the goal of Dumpster diving is not to find food for free, but it is a matter of sustainability.
"In this culture, we have so [many] to feed," Alex says. "[Dumpster diving] is sustainable because we obtain what is present."
Seward says they often find more than enough food, and this is why Alex and her friends also hold gatherings to feast on what they find during Dumpster diving.
Seward's roommate and Western sophomore Jesse Chapelle says a common meal of choice in the house is "mush," which includes eggs, hashbrowns and other foods found in Dumpsters or bought from stores.
Western junior Hallie Sloan, another one of Seward's roommates, says through Dumpster diving, their house of five roommates has been able to save money. As a household, they spend $120 per week on groceries, making it easier for each of them to pay tuition and rent.
Sloan says although the house gets most of its food from Dumpster diving, they have also found reusable products.
"I went to a [drug store] after Christmas where I found wrapping paper still in the seal," Sloan says.
Chapelle says people in the house continue to make their findings last as best as they can, processing, drying and fermenting foods to make products such as kimchi, cheese, yogurt and beer.
"If you throw something out, you don't feel bad about it because it would have already gone into a landfill," Chapelle says.
Alex says they also give away the food they find and do not need.
"There's so much to go around, and we are just trying to show that," Alex says.
The group plans to continue Dumpster diving on a weekly basis, recording what is collected from each location. They hope to find consistent treasure out of Dumpsters, which means this subculture will continue to thrive ' sheriff or no sheriff.