Since it began in the 1960s, the “scrounge line” at Reed College has gained notoriety through the years as a sort of questionable campus tradition. The way it works is that when some students attending Reed run out of meal card funds, they can consume food left over from other students.

Scrounge rules apply – and those are posted near the scrounge table, including the admonition to “protect the house of scrounge from the great plagues”. In the Reed College Commons Dining Hall area, overlooking the scenic headwaters lake of Crystal Springs Creek, a tastefully-tiled screen blocks from view the stainless steel carousel upon which, after eating, Reed students deposit their cafeteria trays and dishes. The dirty dishes and utensils are then transported by conveyor belt for scraping and washing by unseen kitchen workers.

Nearby is the “scrounge line” – two long, tall oak tables where students choose to leave plates of half-eaten hamburgers, quesadillas, salads, and lemon bars.

Although the items on the tables were purchased by students at the food court from restaurant-style menu items created by food service provider Bon Appetit – using locally-grown organic fruits and vegetables, hormone-free beef and poultry, and sustainably-caught fish – by the time the leftover food is donated to the scrounge table, it can look pretty gross.

Undeterred, other students often choose to drift by the table and stop to nibble at what’s left of a blackberry apple oatmeal bar or a cage-free hard-boiled egg.

Over the years, much has been made of Reed's scrounge line. It was mentioned in a book on how America wastes its food, and has been featured in a Wall Street Journal article, and also in Reed Magazine. But what makes the scrounge line remarkable is that it has remained open, even through contagious disease outbreaks on campus.

An advisory that Reed College issued last April alerting students to an on-campus outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease has since been lifted. And a few students who contracted the highly contagious disease voluntarily isolated themselves to help contain the spread of the virus on campus, reports Reed College’s Kevin Myers, Director of Strategic Communications. Since the disease, also known as Coxsackie, spreads by saliva and bodily contact, other measures, such as sanitizing musical instruments had also been taken.

As reported in the student newspaper “Reed College Quest”, in the Commons Dining Hall some of the food was covered in plastic to prevent having the disease spread by hand. And precautions were also posted next to the scrounge line. But it was not closed.

Even when the H1N1 Flu hit the campus a few years ago, the scrounge line stayed open, reports Myers, adding that students had met with the director of Reed’s Health and Counseling to discuss the risks associated with sharing food – and to suggest additional precautions.

“There are some students who rely on the scrounge table for their meals,” Myers explains. “We felt the most appropriate action to take was to educate them on the risks, and then let them make their own decisions.”

On a recent afternoon, a Reed student entered the cafeteria and headed to the scrounge table, where she ate a few chips from an open bag of Doritos, tasted a gluten-free cake, and then wandered off. Soon, another student grabbed a fork from the food court and also grazed at the scrounge table. She took a few bites from a plate of soggy salad – and then she finished off the Doritos.

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