Last night there was an enormous raccoon prowling through the dumpsters in Wilson. The girl I was walking with recoiled, but I was sympathetic—ever since I joined the free food listserv I often feel like a nocturnal creature rummaging through a dumpster. It is inconsistent but rewarding.
The listserv exists at a strange and contradictory intersection point of excess and thrift. On the one hand, it is a sort of exercise in overindulgence on a campus where getting enough to eat seems to be a problem you would have to go out of your way to encounter. Yet on the other hand, in order to access the bizarre treasure trove of leftover Panera sandwiches and slimy fruit platters, you must participate in a weird race to the food before the Soviet-style shortages start and all hell breaks loose. The listserv can transform you into a desperate creature willing to endure judgment and even confrontation for food; I find myself perking up even at emails promising offerings of veggie sticks and other uninspiring fare, and I may have snuck into Qdoba night at Rocky once when the free food emails were particularly slow. On Friday I got to a stash of chicken wings at the same time as a dejected-looking graduate student (or else a very prematurely aging undergraduate). I looked at him, steely eyed, and a silent battle of wills ensued. I came away with the chicken wings (they tasted like victory)—maybe it’s this sense of accomplishment that makes the free food listserv so intoxicating, and so capable of eroding your sense of acceptable behavior. At the Whitman College Office open house, I think I might have actually growled at somebody when we reached for the same complimentary cupcake.
I wonder where these cravings come from. After all, I wasn’t at all hungry for mooncakes until I got an email about the CSA mooncake festival. In fact, I’m not sure I knew what a mooncake was. And my regular meals are so expansive and satisfying—why do I feel the need to supplement my diet of Wilcox onion rings and mint chocolate chip ice cream with anything at all when, at meal time, it seems completely satisfying? What I find particularly odd is that the listserv makes me want things I would otherwise never pursue – there’s just something about the freeness. Even at the urging of my intro to economics textbook to consider the opportunity cost of the “free” things I am inundated with, I continue to walk across campus in my pajamas for half full liter bottles of diet soda. My refrigerator groans and sometimes wobbles with the weight of many cartons of chocolate milk I have stocked up on during late meal (disclaimer: my refrigerator started wobbling before I ever put anything inside it, smells like samosas, and also makes noises like a minivan is being parked in my room, so this might have nothing to do with the milk). I am becoming a food hoarder; I look at the signs in the dining hall mandating taking only ONE piece of fruit out of the hall per meal as a challenge. In my room, there is a pile of bananas rapidly turning brown. So why do I keep taking bananas back to my room, and why do I keep responding to emails from the free food listserv?
Maybe it’s because college is so expensive that there emerges a strange sense of obligation to take as much as possible, with every email that goes unheeded bearing the funny, itching stigma of a missed opportunity, even if the opportunity is only that of mediocre leftover snacks. Missing free things feels like a waste, even though in taking advantage of them, it really creates more waste. I always take more than I can eat in the dining hall and the chocolate milk in my refrigerator will probably expire before I can possibly drink it all. After a while, a funny kind of dependence starts to emerge; in a place characterized by availability and lack of want, there’s a certain stirring feeling you only get from having to seek things out, even if it means wading raccoon-like through the trash.