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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