anthropology · behavior · design · health

Food, consumption, and dumpster diving

A typical dumpster in Sunnyvale, California.
Some people choose to make this their meal spot. Image via Wikipedia

One element of having an enriching, healthy environment is lack of trash and waste. We Americans throw away A LOT, especially food. The percentage of food we waste is astounding (I’ve read anywhere between 25% and 30%)!

In a possible reaction to this, several people, particularly Millenials, have started “rescuing” food from the back of restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores, better known as “dumpster diving.”

For his Anthropology doctoral thesis, University of Washington student David Giles is examining how cultural assumptions of what is appetizing lead to the disposal of surplus, edible food. He’s become a pro at vaulting into Dumpsters, picking through their contents and befriending people who make a meal of other people’s leftovers.

In short: Giles is a Dumpster-diver.

The 31-year-old Australia native hopes his work will raise awareness of the volume of edible food that gets thrown out and will prompt people to think about how they might get more food into the hands of the hungry — perhaps by giving it to a food bank or handing it out to the homeless in a park.

Read more at Dumpster-diver’s thesis: Good stuff going to waste (seattletimes.nwsource.com)

One problem for restaurants is they are required to throw food out after it has been sitting for a certain amount of time. Same with grocery stores. That being said, us consumers could definitely do a lot to keep food from going to waste, such as buying less of it in the first place.

Shelly Rotondo, executive director of Northwest Harvest, a food bank with offices around the state, agrees with Giles that a lot of food goes to waste.

But she thinks food banks are doing a good job of capturing food and getting it into the hands of the hungry, and that most waste now comes from households or restaurants. Rotondo said fruits and vegetables with flaws and imperfections never even reach the grocery-store shelves — they’re sent by distributors to the food bank.

“Northwest Harvest does fantastic work,” Giles agreed. And yet, he’s seen the Dumpster evidence that lots of food ends up in the trash. He has not tried to quantify the amount of edible food that is thrown out in the Seattle area.

My hope is Giles addresses some of these restrictions in his thesis, or perhaps offers different ideas for distribution. After just going through my own Masters defense, I know you’re not supposed to speculate, but after all this work it would be good to at least have some action items come out of it.

Hunger is becoming more common in the U.S. now due to the recession, yet obesity and other lifestyle diseases are also becoming the number 1 cause of death in the US. There have also been more salmonella and bacteria outbreaks in food this past decade than I can remember, which would make one think they should steer extra clear of dumpsters for food. I think how we as Americans approach, handle, and consume food needs to be seriously looked at and re-assessed.

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