Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Free Food" or "Garbage"? Seeing Past the Framing Effect

  I wasn't down with dumpster diving at first. It had nothing to do with food quality - I ate dumpster food without a second thought. Plus, I've ingested my fair share of unhealthy substances. It was the act of dumpster diving that really freaked me out. Dumpsters I’m familiar with are pretty much roach motels and I generally shy away from chance encounters with vermin. I imagined ripping open a bag and releasing a soupy river of moldy food and mysterious liquids. My mind was fretted with such gross hypotheticals, which all seem ridiculous now that I’ve seen the reality (and to be honest, that dumpster was cleaner than some college dorm rooms I’ve been in.)

 Before I could bring myself to go dumpster diving, I'd just help with post-dive tasks like sorting and washing food. Some mornings I’d wake up to find flowers hanging to dry, a fridge stocked with veggies, and bowls filled with fruit - all as if by magic. It didn't matter that the flowers were dying and the food had blemishes because it came at no cost. Well, no monetary cost. I had an idea of the labor involved, and I couldn't bring myself to engage.  It took a few nights of seeing my housemates return from excursions in the dead of winter shivering from head to toe before the guilt finally caved in. I could no longer reap the spoils without facing my fear: divin' down n' getting dirty in a dumpster.

It might seem strange that I had no problem eating dumpster food, but was so averse to dumpster diving. Or maybe not so strange when you think of the fact that omnivores have no problem eating meat, but few are willing to slaughter an animal. Sometimes mentally separating food from its source makes it more palatable. The dumpster diving case isn't quite parallel to eating meat because from cow to steak a number of “transformations” take place, whereas food that travels from to dumpster kitchen is identical. My initial qualm with dumpster diving was related to this idea of the Framing Effect. When presented with identical options, the context in which each is presented creates the illusion of a superior option. For instance, a glass half full is more appealing than a glass half empty, or a ton of feathers sounds lighter than a ton of rocks.

When it comes to dumpster diving, “free food,” sounds a lot better than “food from a dumpster” because the later frame comes attached with a slew of food taboos. The social convention is that things placed in the garbage become garbage (i.e. dirty, non-functional, and worthless), but dumpster divers know better. They see a free source of nutritious sustenance (much of the waste I’ve encountered are fruits and vegetables) that would otherwise become landfill. I could see the advantages, but couldn’t reconcile them with the social stigma engrained in my mind. So for a while I made a conscious effort to separate the two notions, seeing the food my housemates returned with as simply “free” and “nutritious” not that stuff deemed “unfit for consumption.” I was so worried that participating in dumpster diving would heighten my disgust and I’d see the process as degrading.

Luckily that wasn’t the case.  I’ll go into further detail about my first dumpster dive in another post, but suffice it say that I learned to reject the social taboos rather than consider them more valid. Scrounging for food in that dumpster felt respectable, not shameful. Because honestly, between a system that generates heaps on unnecessary waste and a community of people salvaging that waste, where should the stigma lie? 

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