Is dumpstering illegal?
Short answer: Not if the dumpster is on a public street.
Due to the ill defined nature of privacy laws in the United States, Dumpster Diving lives in a grey area of legality. In the 1988 Supreme Court case California v. Greenwood, the court ruled that the fourth amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left out for public collection. In other words, once something is thrown out, it is in the public domain and anyone can search through it. Dumpster Divers may still be violating some trespassing laws however, so it seems that dumpsters live at the nexus point between public and private.
Is serving dumpstered food illegal?
Short answer: Not if its given away for free.
In 1996 Congress passed into law the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This law prevents food donors from being liable for the nature of their donated food, except in cases of gross negligence. This makes it legal to distribute food that is apparently safe, but not marketable due to “appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus, or other conditions.” In other words, so long as neither The Gleaners Kitchen nor the grocery stores we frequent knowingly put poison in the food, it is legal for the store to give it to us, and for us to give it to you.
The Gleaners’ Kitchen is based on trust.
For too long we have outsourced our own sense of food quality to the FDA, and our trust in each other to the protection of the law. Every piece of food we serve is hand inspected and washed by the cooks. Who would you prefer to oversee your food, a friendly face with a steaming bowl of soup, or a government agency with an expired label?
Here is some more information about the legal issues surrounding dumpstering and serving food.