I ate food out of a dumpster.
And so are increasing numbers of educated, employed and perfectly sane people.
The movement is called freeganism, and its adherents use unconventional methods to get things for free. Although some are frowned upon, like digging through the trash, freegans also grow their own food and forage in the park for edible greens and berries.
Those who've joined the movement live off of free things for a variety of reasons: preserving the environment, protesting capitalism or just filling their pantries when times are tight. And they share the desire to protest the wastefulness of our food system.
Food, Food Everywhere …
Americans throw out an astounding 27% of available food, about a pound of food per day for each American.
This is because 1) stores feel pressured to keep shelves perfectly stocked at all times; 2) they throw out food with merely cosmetic blemishes; and 3) expiration dates demand that food gets chucked regardless of whether it has actually gone bad. For example, American bakeries keep shelves full all day long for purely aesthetic reasons; at closing time, whole shelves of bagels go directly in the trash.
What Being a Freegan Means
Freeganism started in the mid 1990s and has since spread across the U.S. ... and the world. Because freegans tend to be anti-establishment, there are no official numbers on how many exist, but groups meet up periodically for discussion and dumpster diving.
For the most part, stores and restaurant managers ignore freegans, who strive not to bother anyone or make a mess. And there's no legal gray area: Once trash gets put out on the sidewalk, it's no longer the property of a store and is available for anyone bold enough to walk away with it—or cook it up for their own ends.
Of course, one of my first questions to a freegan was about food safety. One woman, a freegan since 2003, told me she’s never gotten food poisoning. It's very uncommon, she said, because freegans take extra precautions in washing and cooking food. Plus, many are also vegans (hence the wordplay), so they don’t eat much meat ...
To find out whether a person could actually get a balanced diet from dumpsters—or if the whole thing is just insane—I attended a freegan trash tour, run on a biweekly basis by freegans in Manhattan who want to highlight how much waste consumers and businesses really produce, and, in the process, bring more people over to their side.
And then, the next night, they kindly invited me over for a freegan feast—to taste the results of our foraging.
Here’s how the events unfolded.
Foraging for My Food
Monday, 9:30 p.m.: I meet up with the group outside a large grocery store. Since, by now, most food establishments have put out their garbage for collection the next day, the freegan pickings are plentiful at night. Some attendees are hardcore freegans, and some are curious tourists. They range from college students to one man who looks like he's in his seventies. Nobody (besides a fellow reporter) is dressed really nicely, but nobody looks homeless either. Overall, the crowd looks smart, sane, open-minded ... a lot like people you might pass on a hiking trip.
Before we take off, our leader explains freegan etiquette: always retie all the bags and leave the trash pile cleaner than you found it (to prevent being banned from a store in the future). Also, share what you find with the group. Certain foods come in quantities that are more than you can handle, and while you might not want a bruised apple, someone else in the group might.
Is Freeganism Great ... or Gross?
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9:50 p.m.: We've been walking for a while, not finding much, but finally we come across promising trash bags outside a deli. The groups start untying bags and dig in, but I hang back with my notebook to observe. Passersby gawk, but we find individually wrapped rolls, cut pineapple in a box and whole bouquets of roses and hydrangeas. One leader puts a rose in her hair. Another freegan puts the flowers in her bag to arrange at home.
10:15 p.m.: In the trash outside a large grocery store, we find beef liver, five packs of frozen mashed turnip, prosciutto, challah bread, apple cobbler and candied apples (all wrapped, but sticky with mystery residue). Nobody seems to mind the gross stuff on the outside, as long as what's inside is protected. One woman wears gloves, but another brazenly handles the items bare-handed, and when I ask if she ever carries hand sanitizer, declares, "Germs can be good!" She offers me a bite of bran muffin, and, in the name of journalism, I tear off a chunk to try. It's dry, but edible.
11:00 p.m.: Outside a natural foods store, we find expensive organic yogurt containers with an August expiration date (note: it's now October). Undeterred, one freegan reasons, “It’s got bacteria anyway. It’ll be fine.”
There’s also fresh-looking kale, broccoli and garlic. Someone holds up a sealed bag of Kashi Heart to Heart, my favorite cereal, along with a package of prepared organic chicken and rice with an expiration date of that day. There's nothing wrong with any of it, and it's organic. So I take it—and wonder what my friends would think if they saw me now.
Am I now officially a freegan?
11:15 p.m.: We head to a national organic grocery chain that frequently shoos away freegans (admitting it throws out perfectly good food could ruin the store's "green" image, one freegan tells me). Right now it's so late that all the employees have long gone home, so we're free to dig. Of course, this stop is a jackpot.
We find eggs, mangoes, vegan minestrone, fresh produce, pork chops, whole grain bread and more. By now, the hardcore freegans, those who showed up armed with four reusable grocery bags and backpacks, have enough perfectly edible food for a week or more. Nobody has technically submerged themselves in a dumpster (dumpsters are a more suburban thing), but we've all gotten our hands plenty dirty picking through piles of black trash bags.
Before turning in, I am invited to a freegan feast the next night at someone’s home, a weekly event which usually caps off the group tour.
Attending a Freegan Feast
Tuesday, 8:00 a.m.: I want to bring the freegan chicken I scored the other night for lunch, but unfortunately it smells a little like trash … in fact, my whole fridge is starting to. So I chuck it. I can’t shake the smell of trash in my nostrils the rest of the day. A co-worker assures me I smell fine.
6:30 p.m.: The feast is held in a cute Brooklyn townhouse, where I’m greeted by the smell of roasted garlic and the sound of French jazz. About eight people are cutting up vegetables, doing dishes and throwing ingredients in a large pot. The hostess makes pesto out of fresh basil from her garden. She hands me a spoonful of chocolate pudding from a plastic container I'm assuming comes from the trash, but I resist the urge to check the expiration date before having a taste. It's not bad.
The rules tonight: We’ll only eat things that were free, whether homegrown in her garden or taken from a trashcan. I learn this when I try to hand our hostess a bottle of wine: She looks distinctly uncomfortable and sets it aside.
7:00 p.m.: I pick through salad containers to pull out fresh leaves. I was a little nervous at first, but it feels sort of like Thanksgiving—delicious smells, everyone helping out and lots of laughter.
8:00 p.m.: The dining room table is set with mismatched plates, bowls and glasses. Someone says a freegan version of grace: “We’re here to say this food isn’t garbage. Let us take a step back from our consumer capitalist society and appreciate shared work.” Seeing that 90% of the buffet is vegan or vegetarian, I’m impressed that it’s possible to feed yourself from trash and be a vegan.
The menu includes whole grain bread with homemade apple butter and berry preserves, freshly-roasted garlic, minestrone cobbled together from a couple types of pasta and soup, pesto pasta, vegetable stir-fry, salad with three choices of dressing, lemonade, fruit salad and even homemade mango sorbet and banana ice cream with fudge syrup. It's not steak-house quality, but I'm not complaining either. Everything tastes like a home-cooked meal, and at no point do I smell anything off-putting.
Over dinner we get into a heated debate about animal rights and birth control. Most everyone at the table seems pretty liberal, but one woman explains that, though freegans tend to be liberal, or even anarchist, people come to the cause for many reasons: its principles, their hard times or just idle curiosity. While most everyone at the table has a job, one articulate young woman hasn't been employed since she lost her position as a travel agent in the recession. She had applied for a position at a Halloween pop-up store the day before.
9:00 p.m.: I’m stuffed. The hostess urges everyone to take home the leftovers.
My freegan dinner companions ask if I’ll keep coming around, and I say I’m not sure. The truth is that even though I’ve been impressed with the variety of great food—and genuinely enjoyed the feast—I hesitate to have my neighbors finding me digging through trash.
Besides, I can afford food. And I have a busy schedule which doesn't allow me enough time to go freegan—it would take about four hours every week to round up enough free food to survive on.
Does that mean I'm a typical consumer? Maybe so.
I will say this: I appreciate that good food is being rescued from the trash, even if this movement doesn't necessarily address the root problems of food waste. And it's free food! The freegans put couponers to shame. So if you decide to become a freegan, I won’t judge you. In fact, I’ll shake your hand … after you’ve washed it.