Before the recession, Corbyn Hightower was making six figures at her high powered sales job. Then her position was eliminated, leading to a spiral that left her family of five living below the poverty level. They found a cheaper, less comfortable home. They sold their car, and became the only people in their suburban town to use bicycles as transportation instead of recreation. They went from eating “the world’s most rarified smoothie out of acai and goji berries, frozen wheatgrass juice, hemp seeds, a three-dollar organic peach, and raw cacao nibs” to food stamps and dumpster diving.
In this economy, way too many of us are living without a financial cushion. Which makes Hightower’s story incredibly chilling. What stands between here and there, and what would it take to wash it away? But there is inspiration here. In Corbyn Hightower’s self-assured voice, it’s possible to see how a family could survive, even thrive, under the kinds of circumstances we try to pretend could never happen to us—and maybe feel more confident that should we find ourselves in the same bad boat, we might be able to handle it, too.
“Peering through a bag of rejected broccoli from the garbage for signs of brown or yellow patches is something I couldn’t have imagined doing just a few short years ago…
Before my work got downsized, I was the kind of consumer who shopped with an eye for quality alone, without much thought to price at all. Back when I made an embarrassingly-good living, my view was that food is underpriced and undervalued in our culture, and that since I could afford it, buying the best was not only good for my family, but good for the farmers and manufacturers. I joined the Facebook page: “I’d Rather Spend More Than Shop at Wal-Mart.” Food, Inc. was my manifesto, and Michael Pollan and Morgan Spurlock my high priests. Nothing entered the house that wasn’t free-trade, free-range, sustainable, grass-fed, organic, or ethically-produced. Oh, and of course, local if possible. If it could have been blessed by Tibetan monks, I’d probably have opted for that, too.
And now, for the last two years, we’ve been living far below the federal poverty level. We sold our family car, canceled the cable and Internet, and stripped ourselves to the bare minimum of comforts to ride out these tough times. Even with that, we still rely on food stamps and the WIC program to bridge the chasm between our grocery budget and what is actually required to fill the larder. Until our youngest two are in school and I can find some sort of work that’s biking distance, this is our lifeline. Still, it’s nowhere near enough. Food stamps are only sufficient if you feed your kids ramen noodles bought in bulk quantities, cheap meat, Doritos, and non-organic milk. Giant, cheap crates of cereal, not those precious little boxes of flax flakes they sell at Whole Foods. The WIC program allows for a couple of organic and vegan choices, which is astounding progress. However, it’s all just a drop in the bucket for the needs of your average family.
What was once the territory of gutter punks and urban squatters, dumpster diving has become less-taboo for the parental set. One young woman I talked to says she dumpster dives with her mother; it’s become, for them, just another family resource for living a healthy lifestyle. And it’s not just about the free food, it’s about living in a way that’s in harmony with your values—saying ‘no more’ to our culture of conspicuous waste. ‘I do it in Berkeley,’ one diver tells me. ‘There’s a dumpster here that’s like diving into a big salad.’ She took up juicing and eating a mostly raw diet to keep up with the cycle of abundance, not too bad for being ‘poor.’ Others have a cooperative of sorts, where certain gatherers do the diving and then distribute. ‘Because it needs to be secret,’ says Jessica R., ‘people only share information with close friends and those with whom they share food. I once lived in a household that survived largely off a weekly ‘delivery’ from a nearby store. But only the people who actually went to pick up the food knew where it was, and they wouldn’t tell the rest of us.’
Dumpster diving is just one of the ways the New Poor are trying to survive.”
Read the rest of “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dumpster” at Shareable.com, including practical tips for dumpster diving safely and fruitfully, and other ways of feeding your family for free that don’t involve garbage.
Visit Corbyn Hightower’s website for more of her amazing story.
Read Lisa Belkin’s piece on this story in her Motherlode column.
photo: Carlos A. Martinez/flickr