It’s college, right? When textbooks run $500 a semester and paying a parking meter is difficult, some students are looking for ways to eat for free. A growing number of MSU students are finding an alternative way of getting their groceries, and let’s just say this practice requires a strong stomach.

Dumpstering or dumpster diving is, well, exactly how it sounds. It has become a bi-monthly routine for some students. The downside is climbing into dumpsters and rifling through garbage to possibly find a couple of unharmed cans of soup or a bag of partially bruised apples.

“My experience was kind of a letdown,” said Katie Adams, a professional writing senior, of her first unsuccessful dumpster diving trip.

When the concept was explained to me, I imagined opening a dumpster to find bags of bagels, loaves of bread or boxes of unharmed rolls. I pictured them being available to reach from the bin and take home to toast for breakfast the next morning. This, however, was not the case when I — excuse the pun– dove into the challenge. After three dumpsters full of empty cups, plastic bags and coffee-stained boxes, I found the ends of a few bread loaves mixed in with other trash. I was an amateur, at best. I gave up my first attempt at freeganism after three hours and five dumpsters filled with nothing but garbage. 

The upside, however, is free groceries, and potentially a lot of them.

“The trick is to be systematic,” Adams said. “Some of my friends who do it all of the time get a whole trunk full of bread. I guess you just have to pick the right place and time of day and hopefully you’ll get lucky.”

Jessica Checkeroski, a studio art senior, is a bit more dedicated to the cause. She doesn’t consider herself a freegan, though she goes dumpstering about twice a month.

“I look for bread, fruit, and vegetables. Anything else like cereal or vegan hot dogs is just a nice surprise,” said Checkeroski.

Sticking mainly to grocery stores with compactors or bakeries, Checkeroski doesn’t feel nervous about the cleanliness of the food that she picks up because most of it is packaged or surrounded by other food.

“[It’s] like finding a garbage bag of just bagels or a box of just potatoes,” she said.

Checkeroski won’t just take anything, though.

“If something looks gross, it probably is. I used to think the idea of taking food out of a dumpster seemed unsafe but once I went, I realized that the food isn’t in that bad of shape at all. Especially now that it is winter, my logic is that if it is frozen its shelf life is longer.”

Checkeroski has never known anyone to get sick from the food they’ve found on a dumpster dive but understands why it won’t sell in stores.

“I get why the food can’t be sold – bruises, freshness, too ripe – but [for it] not to be used is wasteful,” said Checkeroski.

In regards to issues of legality, Checkeroski has never experienced any problems, though she has heard of others who have.

Hannah Nowicki, an employee at Great Harvest Bread Company in Okemos, had never heard the term freegan before, but she has heard stories of college students rummaging through their dumpster after hours.

“About 2 to 3 months ago we were taking out the garbage while closing down for the night, and the girls found some students digging through the dumpster,” said Nowicki.

Since Great Harvest Bread Company gives their extra bread to soup kitchens in the area, the students could not have been finding much more than a few loaf ends.

“My friends who were working told them that they wouldn’t find anything, but the students refused to leave. The police were called because they were trespassing,” said Nowicki.

Checkeroski feels that the food she finds in dumpsters is fair game.

“Once something is in the trash, let me decide if the risk is worth taking or not,” she said.

Freeganism isn’t just about dumpster diving. It is an entire lifestyle based off of surplus food and materials that are put to waste daily by consumers and manufacturers. The freegan movement was started in the 1990s as part of the environmentalist and anti-globalization trends happening at the time and has grown quite large in New York, Los Angeles and London — where foraging waste is called bin-diving or skipping.

According to freegan.info, those who first practiced freeganism still purchased items. They tried to boycott major companies that tested products on animals, violated human rights or abused the environment, qualities that didn’t set them apart from most activist groups of their kind. After realizing that every purchase they made was still “supporting something deplorable,” freegans took on a new, unique set of principles. By almost fully rejecting the entire economic system, freegans maintain the concept of boycotting all things mass-produced, animal tested or environmentally unfriendly.

Although dumpster diving is the most common practice, many freegans are also vegans. Vegans chose a diet that consists of only animal-free foods for political and health reasons. Freegans often adopt this lifestyle for the same reasons but also because a cruelty-free diet is more economical than one that includes animal products.

Freegans aren’t alone in their quest for free food. Some students who do not wish to dig through garbage have applied for bridge cards as a way of avoiding the cost of groceries. Bridge cards are like electronic food stamps and are offered by the federal government to anyone who qualifies (qualifications vary from state to state).

“I would say most of the people who have it need it. It’s hard to say exactly who does,” said Alan O’Donnell, a human biology senior. “Technically, I’d probably survive without it, but it definitely helps.”

Applications can be filled out online, and they ask questions about personal income but not about parents’ income or whether the applicant is claimed as a dependant. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an entitlement program, meaning anyone who applies and meets the requirements will automatically be given a bridge card. The idea is that the card will help facilitate the costs of monthly spending on groceries and not be the sole means for providing food.

The card is issued by household, so everyone who applies is given a different amount to spend each month depending on his or her income. Bridge card owners cannot purchase alcohol, cigarettes or household items (including toothpaste), and are limited by the amount they are given by the government.

According to Marie Boyle and David Holben in their book, Community Nutrition in Action, one of the drawbacks of the card is that it does not necessarily allot enough money to buy nutritional items, so the USDA and the DHHS are concerned that bridge card users cannot afford to follow the dietary guidelines that they set for Americans. Because of this, these organizations are rallying to give more money to people with bridge cards, which could mean a lot to students who struggle to make ends meet.

Though my first experience with freeganism didn’t yield anything but a few photos of garbage, I feel like the dumpster divers are on to something. If you can stomach the idea of getting into a pile of trash, you can walk away from the experience with food for the week or at least a story to tell friends. Then again, not everyone is cut out for the freegan lifestyle – I stopped trying after a few hours and ended up at Noodles & Company. Inside, that is.

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