Andrew Mills, a recent Dalhousie grad, salvages flowers from the dumpster that are fit to sell.

Students scavenge to solve social divide

Six students raided green bins in Halifax's south end Tuesday night in search of their next meal. While most students enjoy cafeteria food, delivery or fresh groceries each evening, dinner from a dumpster is normal for many people living in poverty. Each week, volunteers from Students for the Streets aim to bridge that gap by placing themselves in the position of "the other".

Just after 8 p.m., group organizer Desiree MacNeil skirted the edges of the dark parking lot, squeezed behind parked cars, and walked nonchalantly through the open gate of a fenced-off area beside a south end grocery store. Rows of green bins sat beyond the gate, ripe (and rancid) for the picking.

Two students followed her. The rest waited, not wanting to draw attention to this illegal act of stealing waste.

With or without gloves, they stuck their arms in elbow-deep, pulling out produce from the depths of the damp bins. About 20 minutes later, their backpacks were full of potatoes, tomatoes, kale, red grapes, lettuce, red peppers, onions and even several bouquets of flowers.

MacNeil's something of a dumpster diving expert. From January to July this year, the Dalhousie student lived off food she found in the garbage. Two or three times a week she brought home free produce. Once, she even threw a party for about 30 people, and served them cake and other refreshments from the trash. Some asked for seconds.

MacNeil said she always washes each found item in hot, soapy water, and sometimes adds bleach. She has never been sick from eating groceries found in the garbage.

But many people living on the streets of Halifax don't have access to bleach, a sink or a stove. And it's not just those without homes who eat food from a dumpster. Prioritizing needs such as food or shelter is an unfortunate struggle for those living in poverty.

MacNeil said free food is accessible in Halifax, but it's not good food. That's partly what the dumpster dive is about: "To lower your standards; to be able to eat dirty food."

"Doing something ‘good enough' is never enough," MacNeil said. "Often when you give food to the poor, they get the shitty meat. The shitty hotdogs ... No one wants your Wonder bread and nasty-ass hotdogs."

This is because members of the upper class are not willing to lower their standards, she said.

"That's what you can extrapolate from this experience," MacNeil said. "There's grimy food, and that's what's given to the poor. You don't open the grocery store doors and say, ‘Come in and pick what you need.' Or, ‘You can take $20 worth of food.' That's not how we work. We'll give you our waste. We'll give you our ends ... It's to do with class and status."

Dumpster diving is just one of the activities Students for the Streets do to gain a better understanding of the social injustices in Halifax. Every Tuesday, up to 20 volunteers take to the sidewalks and talk to strangers without homes.

Whitney Pyche-Melanson and another female volunteer stopped to speak to two men outside of the Spring Garden Road Library.

"I thought it would be harder to start a conversation than it was. They were so happy that someone wanted to talk to them. They pretty much just talked your ear off and you had to listen."

At first she found the conversation uncomfortable because of the obvious class divide. But she listened, and learned the pair had travelled to Australia, across Canada, a few places in the U.S. and Europe.

Pyche-Melanson said she felt compassion for the men after the conversation. She used to turn her head away, or briefly say "Hi" when she passed panhandlers on the street. Now she makes an effort to say "Hello" and ask them, "How are you?"

"I don't even know what it's like for them," she said. "All I can do is imagine."

Brad Close, another Students for the Streets organizer, said the hierarchy of the rich over the poor can be seen when an upper-class person steps over a panhandler to get to Tim Hortons.

"In some sense, a lot of us inherit a so-called position of privilege in our culture," said Close. "We want to start to break down certain social and economic barriers that exist in our culture. So I think at a foundational level, that's why we (Students for the Streets) exist, is to try to help each other figure that out. And to get to know what the issues are locally."

With a Buena Vista Social Club album playing in the background, the dumpster divers bowed their heads. Close said a short prayer for those who were unable to enjoy the meal in front of them. Then the feast began. The students ladled curry soup into bowls and scooped a mashed potato dish MacNeil called "mouse" onto their plates.

Conversation between bites never strayed far from the topic of classist social problems.

"What are we communicating?" Close asked. "That they're not deserving of (good food)? But we are? Are we somehow privileged in a sense that they're not? And so, if you never cross that threshold, and you never have the guts to do that, how is anything ever going to change?"




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