History of the Scrounge

Today the Scrounge is a cafeteria quirk praised for reducing waste while feeding hungry students who don’t have board plans. But this source of free food was not always so favored, and for many decades scrounging was considered a questionable and even disgusting practice. Some accounts claim that versions of scrounging began as early as the 1960s, though reliable records in the Reed library archives don’t begin until about a decade later.

       In addition to its mysterious grassroots beginnings, one of the most remarkable things about the Scrounge is that it’s continued to stick around for so many years. Legend has it that scrounging began with students leaving leftovers near the Commons fireplace and on the ledge surrounding the booth seating area (now blocked by a triangular wooden ledge top, supposedly installed specifically to discourage the balancing of plates). Even back then, scrounging continued through a series of obstacles, including media ridicule on a national level--an outbreak of the highly contagious Coxsackie in 2012, and official disapproval from cafeteria companies and former vice president of student services Paula Rooney. Even with all these potential foils and its originally aggressive and unsanitary atmosphere, the Scrounge has remained a feature of Reed dining for over half a century.

       In 1982, the Wall Street Journal profiled the Scrounge with a headline screaming “Freeloaders ambush paying customers at mess hall,” an article which proceeded to call the practice “organized mooching.” Back in its early days, the Scrounge was not the peaceful table near the dish return we know and love. It was opportunistic, aggressive, and often involved bouts of fork-stabbing. Controversial since its beginning, the Scrounge became a sensitive issue for administrators trying to maintain a favorable reputation for Reed in the outside world. The most vocally disapproving Reed employee was Paula Rooney, vice president of student services from 1981 to 1985. “I think we’re concerned as an administration about what people’s impressions of Reed College are going to be,” she said in an interview with the Tri-City Herald. “My concern would be that people outside might say scrounging plays into bizarre behavior.” The Herald article comments, “Some students at Oregon’s most expensive college are scrounging for food, and a recent survey indicates that most students approve of the practice.” Scandalous indeed.

       In the 1980s, Commons was run by a corporation called SAGA, and its management worried that scrounging was a liability for student health as well as a significant profit drain. Back then, Commons ran on a buffet system with unlimited second portions per visit, which allowed students with board points to grab extra rounds of food to share with scroungers without consequence. SAGA claimed that this “table scrounging” cost them as much as $15,000 a year.

       Members of the student body also sometimes disapproved of scrounging. The 1987 Student Handbook frowned upon “table scrounging,” and deemed it dishonorable, dedicating two paragraphs to the distasteful practice of ‘coveting the trays of those who have not yet eaten.’ It was common then for scroungers to approach people leaving the buffet as soon as they entered the dining area and hustle them for a bite before they had even had a chance to touch the food. A critical and possibly satirical 2001 Quest article said of scroungers, “There is no more God-forsaken and despicable creature on this earth. They are, quite simply stated, parasites.” The Quest author continues to complain about scroungers taking food without gratitude or respect for those providing the leftovers, a sentiment that perhaps contributed to the current tradition of scroungers thanking people as they leave their plate on the Scrounge table.

       A New York Times Magazine clip in 1995 gave scrounging more publicity and opened the door for continued public ridicule and scorn. Within the Reed community, the practice was still favored, featuring a comic strip in the Quest about the Adventures of Scrounger, a superhero who frequented the free side of Commons and fought to maintain access to free food for all.

       Over the years, the wild, free-for-all nature of the Scrounge seems to have settled down, becoming a more recognizable system with a table in the corner known as “the slop shelf,” where people left uneaten items on their way to the dish return. The 2002-2003 Student Handbook claims that scrounging was the cause of the switch from a buffet system in Commons to the board points that are currently used, in order to reduce losses from seconds and thirds being fed to students without board plans.

       By 2008, the Scrounge was seen less as a pesky, uncivilized practice and more as a virtuous and environmentally friendly tradition. It earned praise from an environmental blog as being an ideal solution to college cafeteria food waste, though the blog post also questioned the “real financial need” of those scrounging for free and even insinuated that the money saved by students getting free meals was being used for “… more recreational ends. And who can blame them for that?”

       Off and on throughout the 90s and early 2000s, the Scrounge also featured trading cards about frequent feeders, which included their picture, favorite food, and “super-scrounger power.” Later student publications also referred to the newly installed Scrounge table not only as a social scene but also as an affordable alternative meal option. Nowadays during peak Commons hours, the Scrounge is hopping with off-campus dwelling Reedies trading news and laughing as they reach across the table for another french fry or neglected forkful of beet salad. Though mentions of the bi-annual Scrounge Formal were sparse in the records, Scrounge formals, complete with plastic champagne glasses and cheering, happen once per semester.

It seems as though today, students and administration alike embrace the idea of the Scrounge and mostly adhere to the principles that keep it in balance with Bon Appetit’s conditions and expectations. The iconic Scrounge Commandments loom over the table with their elaborate Bible-style wording and calligraphy, with each Student Body Handbook since the early 90s featuring a new revision to the rules that keep the Scrounge civilized and clean. Recently, a simplified set of commandments appeared beside the originals to make them more easily understood by veterans and new scroungers alike: 1) Don’t contribute leftovers to or eat from the Scrounge if you are sick. 2) Eat Scrounge food at the Scrounge only, and share all leftovers with other scroungers. 3) Keep the Scrounge clean and tidy. 4) Don’t eat from the Scrounge if you have board points.

Throughout its time as a Reed tradition, the Scrounge has gone from a wild free-for-all to aggressive mooching to a peaceful waste reduction system that provides meals for our off-campus community. The tradition has been through a lot, but if its history is any indication, scrounging at Reed will most likely continue far into the future. You know what to do to make sure it does.