Dumpster diving & empathising

Today I witnessed the strangest thing.

I was sitting outside a cafe, basking in the sun, sipping my coffee. The sky was blue. The birds were chirping. The smell of caffeine wafted up my large nose.

I was in an affluent part of town and had no right to be acting the local, chatting with my fellow millionaires. But it was Sunday, and, well, I’d heard good things about the brownie at this cafe.

Across the road, I noticed a fancy looking fruit and vegetable shop. The kind that charges three times as much for their sweet potatoes because, well, they have a certain postcode. Plus, it’s not a supermarket and they use words like ‘farmers’ and ‘organic’.

Then, a young, well-dressed bike rider approach the fruit shop.

I didn’t think anything of it. Here was a young lady out to do her grocery shopping. She had a backpack on and was moving with purpose. Her body language clearly said, “Awww yeah, it’s food prep day.” I could relate. I love Sunday food prep as much as the next person.

But then she hopped off her bike and walked right on by the entrance.

She strode purposefully behind the building to a small alleyway. In it, a green dumpster. The kind of dumpster those big garbage trucks with the forks come and visit every few days. They usually have a certain smell about them and are almost always marked with graffiti from the local cool kids.

Casually, she leaned her bike up against the fence, reached for her backpack and out came 3 canvas grocery bags.

She placed the bags on the ground, and, without hesitation, lifted the dumpster lid, hoisted herself up and began rummaging.

For 17 minutes I sat in shocked silence and watched this lady filling her bags with fruit and vegetables from the dumpster.

Watermelon, oranges, bananas, zucchini, the works. Onions, potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, she clearly didn’t discriminate.

Once the canvas bags were full, she stuffed them into her backpack, hopped back on her bike and rode off, as casually as she had arrived.

My first reaction?

Shock and confusion. Wouldn’t yours be?!

And then, I felt a little sad. A little sorry for her.

Why would she be looking for food from a dumpster? How could she not afford fruit and vegetables but afford that fancy $2,000 bike? Does she always ‘shop’ this way?

In this suburb, there are no homeless and, well, she certainly didn’t look like someone who’d been living off scraps on the street.

So then, why?

The longer I sat with it, the more I started to wonder:

  • Why would she behave that way?
  • What is her relationship with money? With food?
  • What does she fear? Overzealous check-out staff? Well yeah, I mean, me too, but even still.

And then a little deeper:

  • What story does she tell herself about fruit and vegetables? About food? About this neighborhood? And about the dumpster out the back of this particular fancy store?

Interestingly, the more I wondered the more I started to understand where she was coming from.

That is to say: the more curious I was, the more I was able to empathise with her.

And a step further: The more I was able to empathise with her, the more I remembered people behave in ways they believe to be perfectly rational.  This was unlikely to be any different.

And, of course, it wasn’t. Because it turns out this is a thing.

It’s called dumpster diving or freeganism (obviously).

Quite literally it is a practice of “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources, demonstrated through recovering wasted goods like food.”

And here I was, sipping my coffee with a car full of fruit and vegetables and a receipt for $78.30.

She probably feels sorry for me.