There’s no time to waste

David Giles, a graduate anthropology student at the University of Washington, spends much of his time thinking about food. But not victuals in a grocery store, farm, family kitchen or restaurant. Instead, Giles is obsessed with “dumpster-diving” – or the art of eating food waste from American garbage skips.

The Melbourne-born anthropologist is currently analysing how large volumes of perfectly “edible” food are being thrown away each day in America because it does not meet the cultural or corporate norms of edible, or because shops do not want to display food that is “ugly” (say, bruised) or “old” (near its official sell-by date). Since this food is usually safe to eat, communities in places such as Seattle are now jumping – or “diving” – into those dumpsters to scavenge, thus redefining what can be eaten. “This is about the social life (or life-cycle) of food,” Giles told a recent meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), in which he also described the seemingly arbitrary way that “garbage” is now defined in the west.

Welcome to one of many paradoxes that surround modern food. In some senses, America might appear to be groaning with stuff to eat. Some 34 per cent of adults are classified as obese according to the Center for Disease Control, and portion sizes are infamously large. Indeed, food is so plentiful that an estimated 27 per cent of it is routinely thrown away: hence those dumpsters that fascinate Giles.

But the US, like the rest of the west, also has a popular culture that venerates being thin, and a diet industry where companies spend millions to make their food seem “healthy” – even if no one can quite agree what that means. At last year’s AAA meeting, for example, some anthropologists explained how they had been hired by Campbell’s Soup to study the cultural meaning of the term “heart-healthy”. The company was apparently worried that if it used that label for one soup, consumers might worry that other soups were unhealthy – but in today’s confused world nobody could define what unhealthy meant.

More tangibly – and bizarrely – American policymakers are now fretting about so-called “food insecurity” among the poor, even amid abundance. In 2010, 14.5 per cent of US households suffered some sort of food insecurity, according to research by the US Department of Agriculture. Soup kitchens dot the country’s cities, and are reaching into suburbia, too. One of the most visible – and long-running – forms of public welfare is a food-stamp programme. Since the financial crisis began in 2007, growing numbers of Americans are tapping into this food aid: 44 million people are now being fed in some part by the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap).

Susan Johnston, another anthropologist, is currently doing on-the-ground research among food banks in West Chester county, Pennsylvania. She believes that not only is the absolute number of recipients rising, but their ranks are shifting, too. Although they used to be dominated by marginalised or long-term poor people, they now include formerly well-to-do suburban families. Johnston presumes this is because of economic stress, but admits that it is hard to conduct research since “there is often a sense of shame” haunting these families over their “food insecurity”.

Of course, in an ideal world there is an obvious answer: that food “waste” – or surplus – could be used to feed the “food insecure”. And some retailers and food companies are doing precisely this by running schemes that donate “imperfect-but-edible” food to soup kitchens. But restaurants generally do not participate in these schemes. Nor do households. And many philanthropic groups are limited in the “waste” they can accept, because health and safety regulations are being tightened (ironically, in response to scandals about food that did meet the culturally defined standards of fit-for-sale, rather than anything ever defined as waste).

Some Americans are now taking the matter into their own hands. In many towns, Giles says, there are now dumpster-diving communities, composed of students, self-styled anarchists, homeless people, newly poor families or just rebellious citizens. These networks typically operate outside state organisations, but with a strong informal etiquette and counter-culture. They share tips about new “caches” via social media, take only what they need and strenuously try to avoid breaking the law or creating a mess. The ethos is self-sufficiency, mutual aid and independence from the corporatist and state system; or, as Giles explains, it is about expressing a sense of “sovereignty” – by redefining and reclaiming food.

And, of course, it saves money. These days Giles himself has joined those dumpster-divers to scavenge vegetables and fruit (which he eats after dipping into a mild solution of bleach) and items such as bread (a big dumpster item because fresh loaves sell for more in shops, creating constant churn). As a result, he spends less than $100 a week on groceries. However, many true dumpster-divers now spend far less than that (if anything). It is a challenge to us all, and an indictment of consumer culture gone mad.

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