Is Scrounging Dead?

Scrounging is a tradition dating back to the 1960’s where students would cluster at the back of Commons and feast on the leftovers that students on board plans would dump. In the 80’s scrounging was formalized into a set of “Scrounge Commandments” that were originally published in the Student Handbook. Later, an iteration of these Commandments was hung up at the back of Commons to watch over generations of scroungers — until the pandemic hit. The Quest interviewed William Abernathy ’88, author of the original “Scrounge Commandments” published in the Student Handbook, to learn more about the evolution of the culture of scrounging at Reed.

How Reed has organized the food system at Commons has played a big role in the ability for students to eat for free. Abernathy remembers a Commons before the last major renovation in the ’90s. Saga, not Bon Appetit, was the corporation contracted by the school to provide food. Meals were all-you-can-eat, with a card swipe only needed to enter the dining hall. This system provided a perfect opportunity for students to cluster around what Abernathy called “the slop window” and feast on the abundance that paying students would bring back from the ample buffets.

Abernathy maintains that the primary motivation for scroungers was not to eliminate food waste, but rather it was a combination of the allure of free food with a platform to affront the administration and Saga at the time. Reed has a rich history of contention between the administration and students, and scrounging was rarely seen in the same light as students by administrators. This friction, according to Abernathy, was in part due to the jockeying between scroungers for food from paying students’ plates, but also largely due to complaints from Saga, who thought of the scroungers as cutting into their profits.

As a kind of a truce, the “Scrounge Commandments” were born. They listed some basic ground rules for scrounging, asking scroungers to only take food on its way to the waste bin. Although the specifics of the commandments have changed as Commons has evolved over the years, scrounging etiquette was formalized and begrudgingly accepted by the administration. 

Abernathy saw scrounging as a way of picking up the leftover capital that wasn’t well-guarded. It was a redistributive technique that was employed by himself and others primarily for its economic benefits. The scrounge’s slow decline over the years was not very surprising to Abernathy. He described scrounging as “an artifact of a time of abundance in America,” an expression of the economic optimism Abernathy saw in his professors and the baby boomer generation above him who received a platter of handouts from post-war America. Abernathy remembers scroungers as not necessarily being the poorest of Reed’s demographic, but instead people who were wealthy enough to get away with it. Invariably, reflecting Reed’s extraordinarily homogeneous demographic at the time, they were all white. Abernathy remembers his conversations with one influential professor, Prof. Johnston, who made up the entirety of the Spanish department. Johnston was critical of scrounging, and wondered if having a bunch of rich kids engaged in a “mock-poverty display” could turn off low-income applicants. Abernathy did not identify as at all wealthy during his time at Reed, but remembers his penny-saving actions happening alongside much wealthier students with similar aims.

“It’s a peculiar practice,” Abernathy said, and failed to think of anywhere else that practiced anything similar. He remembered alumni, drop-outs, and people who lived in Portland and knew about the tradition coming to Commons to scrounge, even when they were not themselves affiliated with the college any longer. When Abernathy graduated in 1988, he vowed never to scrounge again. “Free food is an intoxicating perk,” he said, explaining how he would rather not be reliant on the college students’ leftovers for his meals.

Recent changes in how Commons distributes and collects food reflect long-term constriction of the redistributive tradition. Abernathy pointed out the switch from an all-you-can-eat model to a metered, order-and-serve model as a move that was likely motivated partly to push against scrounging. Commons has now also installed a perpetual dish conveyor belt to hastily whisk away students’ leftovers. As Commons opened in 2021, students were greeted with a blank wall where the scrounge commandments had been hanging.

“Covid may have put the final nail in it,” Abernathy admitted. Scrounging arose in a very particular set of circumstances, with the right food system and people willing to push the boundaries. The food system has now changed, and health concerns as well as an irreversible culture gap between pre- and post-covid Reedies has allowed the administration an opportunity to fully eradicate the long-established tradition with next to no resistance, a stark contrast to student pushback against anti-scrounging policy in the mid 80’s.

It’s stupid to preserve traditions for their own sake, according to Abernathy. Scrounging may no longer be possible due to modern Reed’s restrictive food policies. Commons has become no more than a sponsored restaurant in comparison with the system that Abernathy scrounged from, steadily and persistently encroaching onto what was once used as a common resource. He sees actions like scrounging in a larger framework of fleeting autonomous and cooperative systems of resource management, comparing the tradition to various autonomous zones that have occurred throughout history, whose power has been slowly chipped away until they disappear or become institutions themselves. For now the system of food distribution, campus culture, and the pandemic have mortally wounded the tradition of scrounging. 

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1 year ago

When I arrived at Reed in 2010 and learned about the Scrounge, I was intrigued and quickly became a fan. Nearly every time I came to Commons I took the opportunity to leave food, including often food I purchased specifically to be donated–such is the level of my personal food abundance and privilege. While this history and discussion of the Scrounge is well-written, I believe that it mis-interprets the sensibilities of many on the staff and faculty about the practice. I was not alone in finding the Scrounge more than a quaint vestige of "Olde Reed": many of my colleagues approved of and supported the Scrounge, philosophically and with food. I also disagree with the sentiment that "the administration" was somehow eager to use the pandemic to eradicate the Scrounge. First, I am "the administration" as much as anyone and I am sad that it is currently not alive and well. I also know of many who feel similarly. Finally, I will never support the idea of using "the administration" as a meaningful or helpful way to characterize how individual people, like me, who have administrative agency at Reed "feel" or about our motives. I am "the administration" and I loved the Scrounge. Gary

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