Thursday, April 17, 2014
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — He's an anthropology grad student, so David Giles has one foot in the ivory tower. But the other one? It's squarely in the garbage.
David Giles searches a Dumpster for discarded food as he researches his thesis on perceptions on edible food and why people discard something that may be safe to eat.
For his doctoral thesis, the University of Washington student 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.
"The first thing that hits you in the face is how good the stuff in the Dumpster is," Giles said. "It's thrown away because it's not profitable."
For Giles, the insight he's gained from leaping into the trash raises important philosophical questions: "What makes a thing valuable, and suddenly not valuable?"
Giles became interested in Dumpster-diving (which, in most cases, is legal) as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, when he began rescuing furniture out of Dumpsters. He soon became aware of a societal subculture: a network of people who sustain themselves on throwaways.
When he began working on his doctorate in anthropology, he decided to make a more scholarly exploration of the availability of edible discarded food. He also explored the Dumpster-diving culture, doing extensive interviews with people who feed themselves this way. After he finishes his thesis next year, he plans to write a book about his research.
Giles' academic adviser, associate professor of anthropology Danny Hoffman, said he's learned a lot about Seattle and its subcultures through Giles' work. "He's definitely living out the project, and that's part of what makes him a great anthropologist," he said.
One evening in mid-October, Giles went on a Dumpster-diving trip in Sodo. Several of the Dumpsters serve as the last stop for food from the city's most upscale grocery chains.
Making a quick survey over the open top of a Dumpster that smelled faintly of rotting food, Giles placed his hands on the edge and vaulted into the container. He ducked down and disappeared from sight for a moment, then came up with an unopened plastic container of juice -- one of those exotic-flavored varieties that sells for more than $3 apiece.
On the right night, this Dumpster will be half-full of such bounty -- juices that have not yet reached their expiration date but have been cleared from the shelves to make way for fresher foods.
Next up: a Dumpster just north of the University District, where a fresh-produce stand has discarded plum tomatoes and strawberries that are slightly overripe or flawed.
"This is a perfectly good onion," he said, holding up the vegetable. "But it's ugly." In another Dumpster, he found a pumpkin with a smashed stem, some wilted asparagus and a large quantity of romaine lettuce.When he gets his vegetables home, he'll usually soak them in a sinkful of water to which he adds a half-cup of bleach, then rinse them.
Giles has gotten his monthly grocery bill down to $100, but he knows people in the Dumpster-diving community who spend no money on food at all. That kind of dedication to finding food discards is time-consuming, though, and it helps to know the Dumpster dumping schedule in order to do it right, he said.
Who else Dumpster-dives? Giles describes a counterculture group: students, punk rockers, left-wing activists and people who can't be pigeonholed into any group at all.
(Continued on page 2)