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It’s 3:30 on a Monday morning and I’m upside down in a dumpster.

My legs dangle in the air. I can’t see anything. What am I doing here? Is this really journalistic research or just a bizarre waste of time? Do otherwise outstanding members of society really score food from the garbage? And what’s that awful stench?

“A tomato!” my roommate Leif exclaims. “And celery! Oh, wow, lots of celery!”

I’ve dug too deep. A freshly discarded box of produce sits directly on top of the dumpster. There’s too much to sort thorough here, so, with some effort, we carry the heavy box home and rummage through it. Within 30 minutes, we’ve cleaned and separated a mountain of celery, endless parsley bundles, and more lettuce than our four-person household could eat in a week. A few nights later, we go back to the uptown grocery store dumpster and make off with several pounds of pristine bell peppers, limes, oranges, a few stray strawberries, and zucchini.

“Sweet mercy,” we realize as we fire up the wok, “we’ll never pay for food again.”

On our third visit, we find an excess of sweet potatoes, more peppers, packaged crimini mushrooms, assorted fruits, and — ye gods! — about 30 organic avocados, plus every ingredient necessary for guacamole. With the impish glee of children discovering eggs on Easter, we marvel at each new find and theorize about the meal we will soon prepare.

“Stuffed peppers! Potato fries! Omelets! A pie!”

The produce again sits on the top of the heap, either intentionally or as a happy coincidence of closing duties. As our cloth shopping bags reach capacity, a car pulls up, and we poise ourselves to be chased off by security. Instead, two guys who appear to be about our age exit the vehicle, give a casual greeting, one you might expect from a fellow golfer on the green, activate their headlamps, and dive without hesitation waist-deep in garbage. Out fly cantaloupes, mangoes, greens.

“We never used to see anyone out here,” one says, after we offer some of our sweet-potato bounty, “but after the recession hit, the dumpsters got busy. Travelers, kids, couples.”

They describe their progression through midtown, uptown, and onward. It’s obvious they have a mental map of most if not all of the accessible dumpsters in town. They don’t look homeless, or even especially broke. In fact, they’re the reason I started hitting dumpsters in the first place: to experience firsthand a practice not uncommon among some local cooperative-living houses.

According to a November 2009 article by researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, nearly 40 percent of food produced in the United States ends up in the garbage. Some cooperative houses forge a common bond in political and environmental activism. They dumpster-dive in addition to growing their own food, sharing bulk food, and drawing up comprehensive chore charts, all intended to create a communal, cooperative living space, much like the one my dumpster acquaintances are associated with (though, ultimately, they declined to have their household participate in this story).

Cooperative-living arrangements are found in most college towns, a product of ideological, financial, and practical motivations. In addition to communal food and chore routines, staple features of co-ops can include political activism, cultivation of arts and music, bicycle culture, regular house meetings, a strong do-it-yourself/anticonsumerism ethic, and hints of anarchy. University towns such as Berkeley, Portland, Eugene, Seattle, and Arcata are well known for their co-ops, which may be either university sponsored or independently run. Lesser known, however, is San Diego’s independent co-op community.

According to 2005–2009 projections by the American Community Survey, 27.3 percent of United States households are occupied by one person, nearly half by married couples with or without other roommates, 17 percent by two or more residents related by blood but not marriage, and only 6 percent by two or more people not related by blood or marriage. What separates a co-op from your average house of roommates? To find out, I visited five co-ops around San Diego.

∗ ∗ ∗

The Roost, a garden cooperative, had to give up 
their backyard chickens due to neighbor complaints.

The Roost, a garden cooperative, had to give up their backyard chickens due to neighbor complaints.

The Roost is well known in the co-op community and reflects most closely the image I had of a cooperative house, based on experiences in cities up the West Coast. In addition to living together in their North Park house, the four housemates share bulk-food costs, cleaning and garden responsibilities, and complementary ideologies. Owing its name to the chickens which once inhabited the back yard (they’ve since been moved to another location, due to neighbor complaints), the Roost had been established for about two years when Kaya and Dillon moved in. I visit on a lazy Sunday evening to hear the Roosters’ stories, which they share while lounging on blue-and-white striped couches in their second-floor living room.

“It’s kind of a scary moment,” says Kaya, a cognitive-science graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in mother-infant interactions. “Just being like…okay, I don’t know who I’m going to live with. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for a house that costs $2000 dollars a month, or whatever. We just have to go out on a limb and hope it works. Just rent a place. So that’s what we did, and it was magical.”

“I think I chose to join a garden cooperative because my mom has had a garden ever since I was a little kid,” says Dillon, a UCSD alumnus with a degree in urban studies and planning and a minor in biology. He joined Kaya at the house after finding a listing on campus and will be leaving in June for Malawi to teach biology, English, and AIDS prevention to 9th- through 12th-graders with the Peace Corps. “It just makes sense that my food should come from closer to me than the other side of the world.”

Frankie, a student in UCSD’s master’s writing program, says, “I’ve never lived alone, not since moving away from my family when I was 16. Some of that was circumstance, like living in the dorms, but I want to share living space. I lived in an intentional community in Missouri in 2000, and that was a big part of me understanding why I want to share responsibilities and space. When I lived in Portland, we didn’t call them co-ops because everyone I knew lived in shared housing. But in San Diego we need that name, that identity. We need to be visible and find each other.”

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