Scrounging Around

Some colleges have eliminated trays in an effort to get students to take, and waste, less food. At Portland’s Reed College, students are cutting waste by taking more–of fellow students’ leftovers. The school of about 1,500 undergrads has a tradition where “scroungers” scrape together a meal from what paying students don’t eat.

Reed's Eliot HallBefore busing their trays, meal plan students drop off edible remains at the counter where scroungers, mostly upperclassmen who live off-campus, stand. Often the plates are surprisingly full. Mid-90′s scrounger Alexander Stein recalled the practice in a phone interview:

There’s a surprising amount of food that gets thrown away that isn’t even touched. If you stand there long enough you’ll get a plate full of untouched food.

Scrounging is an established practice, dating back decades. The dining service workers’ attitudes on the practice ”range from disgusted to hostile to ambivalent,” said Mark Evans, class of ’05.

They don’t like us. But they can’t really do much about it because we’re in the common area eating food that’s already been paid for.

In all likelihood, scrounging could only happen at an ultra-liberal college like Reed. In fact, the scroungers I spoke with hadn’t heard of it happening anywhere else.

Of course, scrounging wouldn’t work well in the real world. If someone was picking through remains at a restaurant, he or she would be asked to leave.

Nor is scrounging the healthiest practice. While etiquette dictates that sick students will warn scroungers before dropping off leftovers, germ-sharing is inevitable. Said Stein:

There definitely is kind of a disgusting element to it. That year when I scrounged, I spent about half that year really ill. Any time there was something going around campus, we’d all get it.

Evans agrees: “You have to either be really cavalier or a little stupid to participate.”

Stein, a biochemistry major with a Ph.D. in neurobiology, knew exactly what kind of risks he was taking. He said Reedies, himself included, scrounged not for philosophical reasons but to save money. 

In its practicality, scrounging is kind of the opposite of the Freegan thing. We call philosophical dumpster divers Freegans. The practical ones are labeled bums. What would you call a college student who openly eats others’ leftovers? Scrounger works for me.

— —The Lee Brothers

Head’s Up: Be sure to check in tomorrow for a food waste Q & A with Ted Lee, co-author of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. The book won the 2007 James Beard Award for best cookbook and Lee doesn’t hold his tongue about food waste.

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  1. Kensho
    Posted November 14, 2007 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    “What would you call a college student who openly eats others’ leftovers?”

    Food whore?

  2. Jonathan
    Posted November 14, 2007 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    If you’re gonna go that route, I’d suggest ‘omniwhore.’

    Whether or not to eat food with big bites missing: The Omniwhore’s Dilemma.

  3. Posted November 15, 2007 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    As a current scrounger (class of ’08)…

    I’ve actually been surprised at how little I’ve gotten sick while scrounging. Of course, I get lots of sleep and regular exercise, which is definitely not the norm for scroungers (at least, as far as I can tell – the library is the #1 place to find a scrounger other than at the scrounge). But all in all I’ve only gotten ill once that I can put down to scrounging, in a year and a half. All the other times I’ve been sick, I’ve been exposed to illness from multiple sources (roommates, etc.) other than the scrounge.

    Oddly enough scrounging really does make you look around at other people’s plates in restaurants and go “are you going to eat that?” I’ve never actually done it to a stranger, but the impulse has been strong. You don’t notice how much food gets wasted until you start subsisting on that wasted food.

    Finally, even though some of the dining hall workers don’t like scroungers, this year there are a few who actually give us their leftovers with a smile. I really appreciate it; I know that we cause them a lot of trouble with the authorities and also by creating more mess than regular diners, and I certainly don’t blame them for resenting that. But it’s great that some of them are into it.

  4. Patrick (reed student)
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    I object to the statement that scrounging only works on an uber-liberal campus. I have scrounged several times at ski resorts and local restaurants. The same rule applies at a ski resort: a lot of good food goes uneaten, and if you’re a smiling, happy, cheerful, non-delinquent looking type, then people are downright happy to give you their leftovers.

    “You have to either be really cavalier or a little stupid to participate.”

    Why pay for more food, when there’s perfectly good leftovers. Evans clearly did not, and does not understand the scrounge.

  5. Reedie
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    “He said people scrounged not for practical reasons but to save money. ”

    … saving money isn’t a practical reason?

  6. M
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 2:25 am | Permalink

    Non-scrounger Reedie here. I assure you, there’s no dilemma about eating food with big bites missing: Scroungers do it. It constitutes a large part of their diet.

    Scrounging seems so commonplace to me now that I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on at other schools. It’s practical for both the scroungers and the other students, who don’t have to feel guilty when they don’t finish their food.

  7. Rob
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    I think that Scrounging should be a required practice for every cafeteria in the developed world. We waste so much food while other people go starving. The less food we consume, the less we waste, and the more food there will be for other people. Unfortunately, that will never happen because the companies who provide institutions with food will not allow it because it cuts into their profits. Owning a restaurant is one thing, but making a profit off of people sustaining themselves is unethical, in my opinion. Then again, maybe I’m just blinded from the sunlight streaming into my ivory tower.

  8. Reed Scrounger
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Scroungers at Reed actually eat better than students with board plans, in my opinion. Rather than just getting one entrée, scroungers get a dozen. They alone have the freedom to try every dish, and eat as much (or as little) of each as they want. Scroungers graze on open pastures of free food, while those on board are confined to a single (expensive) trough.

  9. Posted November 15, 2007 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I think this is AWESOME! I am going to try this the next time I am at Northwestern for “Parent’s Weekend!” My wife is “depression era frugal”

  10. Jonathan
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate all of thoughts here. I’m fascinated by the practice and hope to check it out in person some day. A few responses to your comments…

    Madeline–I’m glad to hear a few workers are being friendly and I totally know that “are you gonna eat that?” feeling. Personally, I’ve never carried that attitude past eating family and friends’ leftovers…but I’ve never been in a situation where that was socially acceptable. That’s where Reed seems unique.

    Patrick–what I meant about scrounging only working at uber-liberal Reed is that the practice would not be allowed by the dining service somewhere without the hippyish (a positive thing, here) history of Reed. I’m all for folks repurposing food, if they can get past the germ factor, but it’s not legal from a health code perspective at most places. If the people who ran the ski lodge knew you were scrounging, would they allow it? The whole thing reminds me a bit of the Replate idea. It’s kind of like a less effective, real-world attempt to enable scrounging.

    Reedie–thanks for pointing out my mistake re: practical and philosophical. I just reversed them (late night) and have changed it.

    Reed Scrounger–If I was a scrounger, I know I’d enjoy the smorgasbord aspect. Do paying students still ask scroungers what’s good/what’s not (because scroungers have sampled all the options)?

  11. Katie
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Amusingly enough, people *do* ask. At one point they had a “The Scrounge Recommends…” board, but I don’t know if that’s still in existence.

    Along the lines of what Madeline said about scrounging in the “real world”–it’s odd, but the scrounge drive kind of works in reverse as well. I’ve heard people say (and completely agree) that when they eat outside of Reed they feel guilty if there’s even a little extra food on the plate that could have been scrounged.

  12. another reedie scrounger
    Posted November 15, 2007 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    there was a scrounge recommends board and i think it’s going to come back. as for sickness it is tradition that any reed scrounger that feels a bit sick isolates themselves by first putting food in a bowl then eating it to avoid contamination. as much as i love reed adn wish it were perfect there are people who look down on scroungers and i once had a (mean) girl make me very upset about being a scrounger.
    i do feel guilty when i’m outside reed and food goes to waste. it’s sad. portland does now have a “fork it over” program which is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t do anything for people who order too much and don’t take it home. also people scrounge for more reasons than just saving money (that’s the primary one normally). it is a social thing and it is kinda saving the world a bit at a time. have a lovely day

  13. A Scrounger
    Posted November 17, 2007 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    We also have a scrounge radio and scrounging becomes very social activity during dinner when there are a lot of us. If any Queen or something good comes on, the line starts dancing and it’s a great time for all.

  14. Sometime scrounger
    Posted November 19, 2007 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    i don’t really think scrounging is wholly practical–there’s a tradition element, too. scrounging is a kind of institution here, at least in my opinion, it’s gone on for years. we have the 10 Commandments of the Scrounge (the source of scrounge rules and regulations like refraining from giving food if you are sick). we have scrounger trading cards, from this year and years past, that profile the big scroungers on campus. it’s actually a kind of communal, social experience (food, germs, and all) as well a practical one. plus, it’s nice when freshmen with excess board plan points buy us a bundle of bananas or a couple extra dishes.

  15. sivanelle
    Posted November 25, 2007 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Two things.

    One, when I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant the bussers and I would often scrounge stuff that came back to the kitchen: big plates of fried calamari and pieces of cheesecake with one bite taken out of them. It wasn’t really because we were poor and hungry so much as this was delicious food we didn’t want to see going to waste. I wonder if there is a tradition of that at other restaurants.

    Two, people in the U.S. are kind of uptight about germs. In a lot of cultures people eat communally–putting their forks, chopsticks, hands, whatever into the same dish with all their fellow diners. double dipping is not a faux pas everywhere. We are exposed to germs in all kinds of ways, the best defense is a strong immune system.

  16. Posted November 26, 2007 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    re:sivanelle “the best defense is a strong immune system”

    Agreed! And in my experience, Scrounging is a major immune system booster, working much the same way that vaccines do. I find that I rarely am affected by the colds and flus that go around campus because I’ve already been exposed to (and ingested, and digested, and overcome) a little bit of everything that’s out there. Of course I’ll refrain from eating the leftovers of somebody who is leaking snot all over their tofu scramble, but beyond that, everything is fair game.

  17. Jonathan
    Posted November 27, 2007 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Who needs flu shots when you can scrounge?! I can see it now: Mothers rifling through half-eaten food to innoculate their toddlers.

    Interesting point raised by adams and sivanelle. Sort of goes with the over-use of anti-biotics theory. Seems like a decent idea, as long as you stick to the plan of avoiding the ‘snot tofu scramble.’

    Also, I’d love to hear more about the 10 Commandments of the Scrounge. Can anyone fill me in?

  18. Juliet Drennan
    Posted December 2, 2007 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    I occasional scrounged while I was at Reed. It is a great resource for when you don’t have time to run back up the hill for dinner or were too broke or sick of the Cafe.

    People were always really good about saying when they were sick so you could avoid their dishes.

  19. Juliet Drennan
    Posted December 2, 2007 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    There was an article about Reed’s scrounging in the Wall Street Journal. It ran in the late 80s/early 90s. My father was horrified by the concept and made sure that I knew it. He didn’t buy me a food plan, though.

  20. Posted December 4, 2007 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    A few of my later semesters I was really hard up and scrounged to compensate for the bagel & coffee that I got regularly at the cafe around the corner from the dining hall. I agree that it boosted your immune system, much like kindergarten- there’s a sick period then you’re immune to everything. There is a kind of odd, ravenous, hunter feeling, though, (in the old hall- I’m ’94) when you would stand near the dishwashers and see all of the happy kids eating their carefully selected trays of sandwiches and desserts. You rarely got fresh fruit, or dessert, mostly just half eaten bowls of rice and beans. If you were a hot scrounger girls/boys would give you more food, and then there was a pecking order like a tribe or something, if that hottie scrounger shared. Having a scrounger (before I was one) sit at your freshman table was very sought after, as it was some kind of coveted visit by the upperclass person a.k.a. royalty. I kind of hated scrounging- I wasn’t a cool one that got on trading cards, and I had a good job on campus, just struggling to make ends meet (read: coffee or laundry?). It was poverty driven not waste-driven, though it’s nice to think that, if it is so now.

    Strangely enough another Reedie alum and I had “” and it was a dot-com party review site, as we were scoring tons of free food at big tech industry events.

    In general, though Jonathan, isn’t college cafeterias *not* a place of waste, unlike restaurants? It’d be interesting to me to measure exact how much food is wasted on campuses. Maybe it’s bad intuition, but group dining rooms seem very efficient. Cruises… now that’s another matter.

  21. Jonathan
    Posted December 5, 2007 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing those insights about life as a scrounger, Anna. sounds like a fun site. And you bring up a potential “real world” application for scrounging–industry events!

    I’d be curious to know why you think college cafeterias aren’t wasteful. In my experience, they’re terribly wasteful. At least the all-you-can-eat ones are. They are unable to predict demand and are expected to have an abundance, even toward the end of the meal. Some schools are better than others at repurposing leftovers, but there’s a reason many colleges compost: they have tons of food waste.

    To be fair, a great deal of that is students’ uneaten food. Many campuses will do a waste awareness week where they measure diners plate waste to get students to think about what they’re tossing. But imagine if everything you scrounged went straight into the trash, as it does at virtually every other school.

    Finally, you’re right about cruise ships! Talk about expected abundance.

  22. Posted December 10, 2007 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jonathan- it was, and it was interesting in a sense as a catalog of industry excess!

    So for the all -you-can eat model in a community setting, as colleges are, compared to 400 individuals go to Trader Joe’s once a week and by packaged meals, half of which go to rot in the refrigerator. That’s more the comparison I had in my head, and probably should have expressed in a more detailed manner. So I agree that the volume of food is probably greater at colleges- what if no one likes the 10 trays of enchiladas they made, for example, compared to single person’s wrapped burritos that sit in the refrigerator for a month then end up in the trash. The individual packaging fallout is more of an issue with the urban dwelling, and more actionable by individuals to only buy what they will consume, instead of overbuying (my own weakness!).

    Speaking of, went to a Mexican restaurant the other night and took away a leftover container that was the size of another whole burrito.

  23. Betsy
    Posted December 30, 2007 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    Confirming adams accounts, I also (almost) never got sick from the reed scrounge and I scrounged at least one meal every weekday, sometimes all three meals, for three years. I stayed healthy (way healthier than certain dormie classmates), saved a bunch of money, and reduced food waste. Since I studied so much, the scrounge was frequently my only opportunity to get outside my own head and enjoy a free, communal meal.
    Here are some random scrounge memories: The biggest problem I faced as a scrounger was not hygine but competition for the best morsels during peak hours. When I couldn’t get a good spot on the line, I would assign myself the job of runner, checking the dish return areas in the cafe next door to the dining area and bringing back the food I found. Or scarfing the loot down myself. I don’t remember a ‘scrounge recommends’ board but we occasionally posted requests such as “more beans and rice, please” for the vegans. Baked potato nights made for the BEST scrounge. Many dormies didn’t eat the skins, which are the most nutritious part of the potato – I always left full of starchy goodness.
    According to my economics professor, the scrounge arose because dormies used to paid a flat rate for meals back in the day. Because of the flat rate, reedies would load up ridiculous amounts of food and, intentionally or not, feed quite a few people. The dining service switched from the flat rate system to a points system (where more food cost more) to get rid of us. But, by that point, scrounging had become a cherished institution and could not be exterminated.
    Message to impoverished reed grads living in portland: miss those free, communal meals? New Seasons is your new scrounge. You would not believe what they set outside the store for people to take–good bread, greens, fruit, mostly organic and regionally-sourced and not in a dumpster. Of course, if you scrounged, you’re probably already hip to this.

  24. Red Door 3000
    Posted February 22, 2008 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I remember several good years of scrounging in the late ’90s . My whole house was on the line. There were like 8 of us plus a group of close friends. Lunch was our daily family meal; we’d get together in the scrounge, talk about who hooked up the night before or some political happening, and we’d eat. Most people scrounged lunch, and a good number scrounged dinner. Only the die-hards would scrounge breakfast, because you had to hit it at exactly 8:45 to catch all the freshmen before Hum 110.

    I agree with everyone else: the scrounge made my immune system better. Also, I once scrounged a girlfriend. That was hot. Never look down on the booty scrounge… it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

    It was also funny how you’re attitude about things changed over time. At first you’d only hit the food that was untouched. Then you’d eat dry items (like chicken fried steak) but not soups. Eventually you’d give in and eat anything on the plate. Each of us had quirks though – I refused to drink 2nd-hand milk. I’d drink anything else, but milk was just too much. It just struck me as disease haven.

    Almost all of us scrounged for practicality. We were mostly kids on some sort of financial aid, so we really needed to scrimp a bit. Although I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the money saved from scrounging help me score a nice sack of weed now and again. It was a lot better then giving plasma.

  25. octopod
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    At Caltech, this happens exactly the same as described. I think it’s actually illegal here and they claim it’s an honor code violation but that’s bullshit…

  26. Jonathan
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 7:13 pm | Permalink


  27. Posted July 23, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Oh, my God, I cannot believe what I am reading. Were there not the pranksters who would stick stuff in the food, knowing damned well that there were “scroungers” looking for leftovers?? I would be so afraid that there would be a huge mucusy snot in my food, or a snuffed out butt……how absolutely disgusting.
    Where I went to college, it would have been a daily occurance for the jocks to purposely sabbotage the food, and then sit back and wait for the scroungers to consume it !!!
    I would never have been caught dead standing in a line waiting to eat some leftover shit someone else had not deemed fit enough to eat, or that they just plain didn’t want. How completely humiliating. I don’t care how little money I had, there was always the dollar store, or the generic brand foods in the grocery store….whatever it took, to keep your heads up and not be seen looking like street rats waiting for someone elses scraps.
    Again, I still cannot believe I am reading this….I hope it was all in fun and not true !!!!!

  28. Trin
    Posted September 9, 2008 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    One of the sweetest compliments I’ve gotten in the past year is when a Reed scrounger mentioned my son bought extra food for the scroungers when pickings were slim. I had been a little annoyed at him that his board points ran short before the end of the semester; that was evidently why. Toward the end of the year, I think he did some scrounging himself.

    My impression is that people don’t play mean tricks, because it’s a small college with an honor code, and it would be against that to do something mean to someone else like that. If you did such a thing, people would know and there would be some negative social pressure.

  29. Sarah
    Posted September 18, 2008 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Pam, I think you’re missing one of the important points of the post, and one that several scrounger commenters have made. It really is an accepted practice at Reed, and even one that’s imbued with a sense of cool. If you’re standing around the scrounge table (used to be a low wall), Freshmen come up to you and nervously, reverentially, ask you questions, and say hi. As underclassmen, buying extra food for the scrounge, and even just being nice to them, makes you part of Reed, because the scrounge is part of Reed. There are, of course, people who don’t like it, and they don’t have to give their food to us. But it’s generally socially acceptable enough that people don’t voice these opinions loudly.

    I’ve been scrounging for over a year, now, and have never once worried about people sabotaging food. I think one of the commandments tells people not to, but it really just doesn’t happen. Besides the acceptability and even coolness of the scrounge, that would be an Honor Principle violation for us, and Reedies take the HP very seriously.

  30. Posted February 17, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

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