Ironically, "gleaning" may prove as valuable to us as a philosophy and a state of mind -- as it is for the tonnage of food actually salvaged or the number of winter larders enhanced...
Gleaning, Dumpster Diving and a Philosophy of Farming
by Daniel Botkin
Recent AP pre-Thanksgiving news coverage of food gleaning: (Charitable Colorado farmer invites public to gather unharvested crops -- and tens of thousands show up!)
“…Everybody is so depressed about the economy," said Sandra Justice of Greeley…. "This was a pure party! Everybody having a great time getting something for free..." Justice and her mother and son picked 10 bags of vegetables.
Gleaning of course is an ancient practice by which people go out and collect, salvage, consume and/or otherwise utilize unpicked crops left behind in the field -- whether from weather anomalies, variable economics, the lack of timely help or the vagaries of mechanical harvesting. But "gleaning consciousness" can inform all walks of life and be excercized to creatively transform others' "garbage" of all types including furniture, clothes, building materials, art materials, even epiphanies, insights, joys and friendship....
Personally, although I never suffered chronic food privation or hunger, there's always been a powerful allure of "free food". Whether it was those early, all-you-can-eat grease joints along the interstate, or the gustatory glee of the college "potluck" -- or those beloved seasonal fruit orgies beneath plum, peach and pear thickets I learned to time on both coasts… As a child, I recall, sitting for hours with my best friend scheming bizarre and unlikely ways to "crash" strangers’ sumptuous parties -- not, mind you, to meet and greet the cool and popular, but rather to get at all the free food, of course! I was hardly being starved at home, and this was not merely pre-pubescent gluttony speaking.
On Dumpster Diving and "Freegan" Food
Later, the same fascination with so-called "free food" led me into dumpster diving, freecycling and "farming the fringe" activities wherever I lived or traveled. Ultimately my passion for free food and "creative recycling" of "garbage" led me toward a life of compost making, organic farming, heirloom seed saving and permaculture. Funny that!
I began my "gleaning" career in earnest behind the Albertsons supermarket in Santa Cruz. It was 1976 and I was 19, on a hitch-hiking pilgrimage around America. I was waiting near the store for a friend, when I noticed a bunch of hippies were gathered around (and inside!) a huge dumpster, passing perfectly intact and apparently unspoiled food and produce of every ilk out to waiting hands – indeed, cases and cases and cases of it. The sight of all that perfectly good food, sitting there piled high on the pavement blew me away. My eyes bugged out and I asked a stupid question. They all laughed at me and kept working. My life took a big turn that day -- and I have never been the same since....
This streetside dumpster epiphany melted some of the taboo against garbage picking that I (and most middle class Americans) grew up with. A certain threshold of righteousness and anger helped to overcome such strong social conditioning. Once over that barrier, I became a enthusiastic, opportunistic dumpsterer, using my keen eye and late night bicycling jaunts to discreetly glean the day's supermarket offering wherever I lived or happened to be passing through. The Pacific Northwest, full of amazing seasonal fruit and produce of all kinds, became for me, a free food paradise...
But as a poor college student in Olympia, Washington in the late 70's and early 80's, dumpstering became more than just a bourgeois sport. I and my confederates made a weekly dumpster schedule, divided up the labor and began sharing the surplus at a neighborhood "depot". We used bicycles or a borrowed pickup for late night missions and our methodology and our attitude grew more business-like and systematic. We dressed for the job and brought work gloves. We no longer cautiously picked tempting tidbits from the top of the heap, but rather systematically "mined" the entire contents of the dumpster, removing all valuable, unperished items before replacing the rest.
Every old freegan foodie must surely recall their most legendary dumpster haul. ...There was that glorious Safeway on the west side of Olympia, which single handedly fed dozens of jolly transients one summer in David Heller's tipi meadow. Then there was the Dog Brothers' infamous Oak Harbor haul we scored (even though we needed nothing) while bike touring north to the San Juan Islands in '80. That dive was so robust and rich (including produce, fruit, juice, yogurt, cheese, spuds, dry goods...) that we could only carry away a small fraction of it and instead carried it all around to the parking lot and left it piled there with a big "FREE FOOD" sign.
Then there was the time I got arrested in West Olympia and hauled away in handcuffs for... yep, dumpster diving. Luckily my comrade, Rob Vogel got some timely cash from the ATM and passed me bail as they put me in the cruiser... (I still had to walk five miles back in the dark from the police station when released, charged with criminal mischief at the next morning. (Luckily my bicycle was still at the store, safely stashed in the brush along with the huge boxes of dumpster loot for my trouble.)
Those who've been privy to the immense waste stream in the American food industry know that food wasted in dumpsters is but the surface of it. Supermarkets routinely toss pallets of perfectly edible stuff, yes. But so do cafeterias, schools and restaurants. And food service and catering companies waste tons daily. At this date, even the local food coop, for crissakes, has a lively flow of rich green waste, headed for landfill. And household food waste in America is still astronomical. We don't need an expensive study to tell us so...Come to find out, when you study the situation, waste is actually built into every step of industrial food production, distribution and consumption. And that's not even considering the biggest waste of all, which is that... most of the industrial food "product" is, in