Scrounging for Answers

As discussed here last year, Portland’s Reed College has a unique way of avoiding food waste. The small college has a well-established tradition (dating back to the 1960s) where “scroungers” eat the leftovers of those with meal plans. 

Students with board points drop off their uneaten food at the scrounge tables on their way to the dish return in cafeteria, the Commons. Scroungers gradually fill up by eating a some of this and some of that.  

scroungers make a salad disappearI recently visited Reed to observe and, OK, experience scrounging. After trying it, my first reaction was, ‘Only at college.’ My second was, ‘This ain’t so bad.’ You get to taste a variety of items and, knowing you’re preventing food from going to waste, the eating feels virtuous.

Upon further reflection, though, an economic lens seems most apt: There are some students—maybe 100 out of 1,500—who are willing to trade convenience, time and choice for money. (Scroungers don’t pay for a meal plan.)

You’re probably thinking ‘what about the risk of illness?’ All the scroungers I talked to said that sharing others’ germs made their immune systems more robust. I’m sure some doctors may beg to differ, but in the students’ minds, that’s not part of the tradeoff.

For all the health risks, the practice does have a health upside. By forcing students to eat piecemeal as the food trickles in, it encourages a grazing approach—eating small amounts over a longer period of time. This would likely prevent overeating. In an era of obesity, let’s just say scroungers are pretty lean folks.

I spoke with Michael Leidecker, Reed’s Associate Dean of Resident Life about scrounging. Leidecker, who eats regularly in The Commons and, like many, gives his leftovers to the scroungers, said that the practice is ingrained at Reed:

It has been alive and well for years…It’s a part of who we are. It works well.

Scrounging is definitely a social activity. There are stretches of time where there’s no scroungers in actionfood—just five or six students standing around talking. In that way, scrounging provides common ground for people who may share very few similarities other than being a Reed student who doesn’t want to pay for his or her food.

With the “Principles of the Scrounge” posted right behind the scroungers’ table, new students quickly learn how it works. There’s also the “Scrounge Commandments” printed annually in the school paper (“Thou shalt not covet the trays of those who have not yet eaten.”) Per the rules, scroungers let the paying customers (be they student, faculty or staff)come to them and thank the donors for their leftovers.

I was impressed with the communal spirit of the Scrounge. There’s plenty of sharing and no hoarding. With most items (pizza crusts are a biggie), scroungers take a bite and pass it along. Etiquette dictates that scroungers use forks, not fingers. Then again, a few scroungers are partial to spoons and at least one uses really long chopsticks. 

Utensils or not, there are times when ’the scrounge’ takes on the rule of the jungle feel. Jose Palafox, a junior from Sacramento, put it nicely:  

At its core, it’s a free for all for free food.

the seafood pasta wasn't a big hitScrounging could work elsewhere, but it likely won’t because it relies on the practice being socially acceptable. Many Reed scroungers have been frustrated when eating off campus because the same perfectly edible food is off limits. That doesn’t mean some Reedies haven’t tried to scrounge at restaurants or elsewhere.  

Laura Bradley, a senior biology major, said that she tried to scrounge at a nearby ski resort’s cafeteria:

I asked people if they were done with their food. Some didn’t mind, some did. I think one of the people who wasn’t pleased told the manager. The manager came out and said ‘That’s disgusting, you should be ashamed of yourself.’ He threw me out.  I wish restaurants had a better system for distributing food.  

Avoiding waste is an unintended (and happy) byproduct of scrounging. Most participants’ primary motivation is saving money. Yet, it’s not that all scroungers couldn’t afford to buy food. After all, a spartan bowl of rice and beans in the Commons goes for $1.05. Still, this being college, some students opt to save their means for…more recreational ends. And who can blame them for that?

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  1. Posted September 18, 2008 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I live in Portland and know the “Reedies” well. I LOVE the mental image of a clump of college kids standing around waiting for leftovers.

    I’m thinking I should invite over a few for when my husband cooks too much food. (We think he may have been an army cook in his last life!)

    We had fajitas last night for dinner, but there wasn’t a ton, so I put out some pasta salad from the night before which was comprised of leftovers. My kids were excited and ate it all up.

    Go no food waste!

    -Katy Wolk-Stanley
    The Non-Consumer Advocate
    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

  2. Muffin
    Posted September 18, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    And who in the hell this side of the border wants to eat beans and rice every day? BLEH! They charge $0.35 per condiment that makes the food palatable.

  3. janes'_kid
    Posted September 18, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Within families I have known there have always been scroungers.

    I don’t recall any situation where one has gotten an illness (Or a more robust immune system for that matter.) but the scrounger is often the more overweight.

    Indeed, over the months of lurking and kibitzing here it has not infrequently occurred to me that saving food should take place before the preparation and serving.

  4. Posted September 18, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    KWS, I think some of the Reedies might be at your door as I type this…

    Muffin, I don’t think anyone in any country *wants* to eat rice and beans every day. So that’s why you’re a scrounger?

    Janes’_kid, sharing food within a family is a little less risky in terms of the germs. But that’s true, it seems like every family has a “Finisher.” Guess who plays that role in my family??

  5. Posted September 18, 2008 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I’ve been following your blog for a while. Since I’m from Cleveland, I can relate to your blog in that we have high poverty rates here and the Cleveland FoodBank has been working hard. Given your research, are there some cities or areas that waste food more than others? I would assume that bigger cities like Miami, NYC, LA and Chicago would be in the mix. Curious to know your thoughts…


  6. Aviva
    Posted September 19, 2008 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Beans and Rice are a perennial favorite. I know that when people offer to buy us food that we normally go for beans and rice unless the donor insists on something more expensive. However, leftovers are our favorite.

    Something you did not witness while you were at Reed is the ‘quarantine’ bowl. When a scrounger is sick they will avoid the scrounge as that is asking for trouble. When we are mostly better we use the quarantine bowl. We use two forks, or a fork and knife to cut the food. Then we put the food in our bowl. Following this we use our eating fork to eat from said bowl to avoid contamination. As much as scrounging seems to aid our immune systems, we’d rather not contaminate it with our known colds.

    Katy, we’d love invitations. I, personally, would love to see Reed(ies) and our surrounding community interact with each other more.

    -Aviva R.

  7. Posted April 12, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I’m a former Reedie that scrounged for a year and it was great.

    I also get very sad that I cannot scrounge in public.

    Wouldn’t it be great to have an association of scrounge alums who have meet-ups at cafeterias across the country? What’s the critical mass you need for social acceptability?

  8. Ethan
    Posted September 17, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m a scrounger alum (Reed ’06), and while at work near lunch time I thought it was be interesting to google about scrounging. Found this article. I scrounged for 3 years and loved it. It was def. “in college” for me, but many happy memories. Beware the liquid scrounge!…except monster cups of chocolate milk. Cheers.

  9. '01 Reedie
    Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I was never a scrounger. I always had a meal plan or dated someone with a meal plan, but to this day I still ALWAYS get my leftovers packaged up at a restaurant when I’m out of town and pass them along to a homeless person on the street. I almost started a riot over two servings of Old Spaghetti Factory ice cream outside the homeless shelter in Spokane a few years back.

  10. janie
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    on one of my first visits to the Commons in 1993 I saw a term paper that had been left behind titled ‘Feeding Habits of Guppies” … when I paid for my lunch and walked around the corner I had my first encounter with ‘scroungers’. In my 17+ years at Reed I still think of them as guppies. I still share my left-over lunch and pick up an extra salad order or sandwich for them to share depending on my onw purse-string budget … a single mothers common sense of feeding hungry kids at home continues thru my policy of not having hungry starving students at work either.

  11. Ben
    Posted February 16, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I scrounged for two years at Reed. I still miss it. I am often tempted to ask the table next to me at a restaurant for their leftovers when they’re just going to throw them out. I never got sick scrounging, I think a little exposure to everything may indeed boost the immune system. I also felt like I ate healthier — a little of this, a little of that, never too much of anything. Now that I’m on staff at Reed I’m forbidden from scrounging… but I am still occasionally tempted. Eating standing up with your friends is very fun and social. The year after I got on a board plan they had the first “scrounger trading cards” with people’s favorite foods, nicknames, superpowers, and dietary preferences.

  12. grrlpup
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I was at Reed ’88 through ’92. Scrounging may have been less codified then (I didn’t scrounge so I’m not sure). But there was accepted etiquette for non-scroungers too, which included warning the scroungers if you had a cold so they could avoid your germy food.

  13. Thad
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I never went to Reed, but had a friend who did. While I didn’t use the word “scrounge” I have been doing this for years when I am very hungry and see a table that has not been bussed. I’ll bring a used plate to my table. This often embarrasses my dining party, but inevitably someone on my party will ask for some fries or a brea stick.

    Once, while waiting at a table for a half-hour and yet to even have my order taken, I pounced on a fried fish platter at another table as soon as the patrons paid there check and abandoned it. I was greeted by applause and cheers from almost the entire room in the restaurant!

    Now I live in housing co-op that supplements our food with dumpster diving.

    Kudos to Reed!

    Thad, Austin, TX

  14. Posted November 19, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    After I initially commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I receive four emails with the exact same comment. Perhaps there is a means you can remove me from that service? Cheers!

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