Amazingly, it is sometimes a criminal act to retrieve food that has been thrown away. Often it is simply seen as culturally inappropriate or embarrassing. But when an estimated $165 billion worth of food gets thrown away in the U.S. every year, surely it’s time to change our attitudes about food waste.

That was the point behind Rob Greenfield’s cross-country bicycle trip this fall. To call attention to the amount of food that is wasted, the San Diego activist spent months on the road, surviving entirely on food that he pulled out of dumpsters behind grocery stores and pharmacies.

Typically Greenfield would arrive in town on his bicycle and start to rummage through dumpsters. He usually emerged with perfectly good food – bunches of bananas, apples, boxes of unopened crackers and cookies, packs of soda, bottles of iced tea, and a smorgasbord of other perfectly edible food. Then he would take a photo of the haul of "waste."

In a trip that took him to some 300 dumpsters, Greenfield estimates that he recovered over $10,000 worth of food and fed well over 500 people. On his website, Greenfield posted many photos of his dumpster harvests. Image Removed

Greenfield said, “I’ve learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across America and collect enough food to feed hundreds of people in a matter of one night. The only thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport it. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across America, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies."  About 50 million of 317 million Americans are food insecure, he notes.

In its October 15 profile of Greenfield, the Los Angeles Times didn’t use the word, but Greenfield is a modern-day gleaner. Centuries ago, a commoner who scavenged the fields after harvest was known as a gleaner – someone who gathered up the castoff, left-behind potatoes, berries and fruit.  The produce salvaged was usually considered too small, misshapen or unmarketable for respectable people to eat.

Medieval law actually recognized the right of people to glean.  A 1554 French law allowed “the poor, the wretched, the deprived” to glean. It was an explicit right of commoners, perhaps because it was seen as a cheap and tolerable form of social welfare for the poor. 

Today it is usually illegal to go “dumpster diving” in search of food. Gleaning amounts to trespassing on private property, after all, or it may violate municipal ordinances. When I taught a course on the commons at Amherst College in 2010, there were actually several students who said they often went dumpster diving behind the nearby Trader Joe’s food market.  Police sometimes interrupted their gleaning and gave them a warning not to do it again.

Yet stores may not realize that it is entirely legal to donate food that has gone beyond its “sell by” date.  In the U.S. the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 absolves donors of any liability that might stem from giving away spoiled or rotting food (even though most of the food may be perfectly fit for eating). 

I was impressed many years ago when I watched the film The Gleaners and I  by the noted French filmmaker Agnes Varda. The 2000 film depicts the gleaning of all sorts of rural drifters, homeless people, gypsy families and other scavengers. She also showed urban dwellers who look for discarded furniture on the streets and beggars who picked up scraps of food from the street after the farmers’ market concluded.

The whole productive system, it becomes clear, is built on tolerating massive amounts of waste while depriving those in need.  Our market culture even reinforces such practices by imposing a social stigma on those who try to use “waste” for socially beneficial purposes, like feeding hungry people. If too many people got “food for free,” why, what might happen to the system?!

That’s why Andrew Greenfield spent his time creating media-friendly “food fiascoes” during his bicycle trip. When he got to Cleveland, Greenfield and a friend amassed as much discarded food as they could find, and displayed it all in a public park for everyone to see. They found 12-packs of soda, watermelons, potatoes, carrots, candy bars, heads of cauliflower and enough other food to stretch twenty feet wide.  He proceeded to give away the food to anyone who wanted it.

You could say that Greenfield wants to de-stigmatize gleaning. An even better long-term option would be to create a food system that more resembles a commons, rendering gleaning unnecessary.  Fortunately, that’s exactly what the Fresno Commons and others have in mind….but that’s another story.