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Dumpster Diving in the Great Recession: 'I Did It Because I Was Hungry" (Hard Times, USA)

An excerpt from "The Book of the Poor: Who They Are, What They Say, and How To End Their Poverty."

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Johnny Habell


Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Book of the Poor: Who They Are, What They Say, and How To End Their Poverty. A number of the interviews Heise did with homeless people eventually focused on their experiences in “dumpster diving.” The poor commonly employ the term to describe scavenging food from the large receptacles behind grocery stores or apartment buildings.

The next time you feel like complaining, remember that your garbage disposal probably eats better than 30 percent of this world.

—Robert Orben, Reader’s Digest, February 1979

In 2012 Cornelius, an older homeless man who has been living in a suburb north of Chicago, started by telling me of the first time he ever tried dumpster diving.

I did it because I was hungry. I was proud and I did not want anyone to see me doing it. I went through dumpsters behind apartment buildings in Chicago. In the first block, I did not find anything, but in the next one I discovered a large pizza with only half eaten. I took it over to the house of a friend, who heated it up so everybody there had some. I did not tell them where I got it from.

I used to do it to find clothes. You would find a pair of pants or shirt and take it the laundry to clean it. I want decent clothing. I don’t want people to know I am poor.

Behind grocery stores, I’ve gotten polish sausages, hamburger meat, and even steaks. Often, I’d find corn, butter and milk and, recently, cottage cheese. I don’t like it, but my friend did, and I gave it to him.

Sometimes, he and I find a lot of food and we take what we can get and share it with others.

I never go to the bottom of the dumpster, but he does. Often, that is where the best stuff is and you have to go there after it, but I still don’t.

You find a lot of broken glass in there and you got to be careful.

There is one woman, who is a friend of ours, who just jumps into a dumpster and goes through it like nobody else.

If people want to throw away a television set or something like that, they know a lot of us dumpster dive and they will put it next to a dumpster. If they carefully place the remote on top, then that tells you it works.

We also go through the dumpsters people rent when they are moving and want to throw things away. You’d be surprised what you can find and then sell.

You find DVDs, furniture, jewelry, and other things you can sell. Once, I found a bag of coins in with a box that contained clothing. It only contained nickels, dimes, and quarters, but it was a big bag and the total came to almost $100.

Once you get into one of those dumpsters, you never know what you are going to find.

His friend added: “I keep what I need, and I share the rest with other people. I usually keep any meat.”

To get the following account of his dumpster diving in 1965, I interviewed Karl Meyer, a friend and a frequent dumpster diver. “Are there many people in the area in Chicago where you live who do it?” I asked.

His answer:

I think there are 100 people in the Cabrini-Green Projects neighborhood who go to grocery store garbage cans for food regularly. I would say 100 at least. A lot of them are really dependent on that food. When they come to the end of their welfare check, and if they dig diligently, they can live it out.

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