Taking a Stance on Food Waste

Freegans live on what our nation throws away, journeying into “off-limits” territory by going so far as to eat food from supermarket dumpsters.

Trash can with fresh food

Many freegans found their encounter with New York’s vast stream of food waste emotionally wrenching, and dumpster diving brought new people into these groups as well as reaffirming the commitments of those already involved.

Photo by Fotolia/highwaystarz

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While one in six people in the United States faces hunger, 40 percent of our nation’s food goes to waste. No one objects more strongly to this imbalance than “freegans,” who try to live only on what others throw away — including food. In his book, Freegans (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), Alex V. Barnard has built a portrait of this movement that encompasses ethical consumption, effective forms of action, America’s food system, and the limits of consumer activism, all while showing why more and more people are challenging capitalism in such a radical way.

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Taking the Freegan Plunge

At some point during their unsatisfying travails through environmental or animal rights activism, each of the individuals I interviewed encountered the term freegan. Many initial impressions were far from positive. Janet remembered that she first heard about freeganism from a former student, who told her that she had a freegan boyfriend who didn’t work and expected her to pay his rent. As Janet perceived it, freegan meant “freeloader”: she admitted, “It seemed sort of negative when I first heard it.” Leia’s first experience with a freegan was when a friend refused to chip in for the phone service in their shared apartment, citing “freegan” principles that allowed him to use a free phone but not to pay for it.

Something changed, however, when they encountered freegan .info. For over half of the freegans I interviewed, this discovery came through the Internet. Sowmya said that she learned about freegan .info while searching for activist groups on meetup.com. She went to the freegan homepage and, upon seeing the group’s simultaneous denunciation of human, environmental, and animal abuse, thought to herself, “These are all the causes I am so passionate about.” For her:

Freeganism answered a lot of questions. I’ve been involved in a lot of social causes and something was missing in each and every movement. For example, the animal rights movement — PETA, for example — they wouldn’t address environmental issues. And the environmental groups I was involved in wouldn’t acknowledge animal rights. I felt like this was my chance to be involved with something that I know is going to create a change.

Consistent with other research on the growing importance of the Web in activist recruitment, the Internet furnished a way for freegan activists to become aware of the movement without following preexisting social ties or organizational links.49 Yet freegan.info’s website only piqued activists’ interest because its critiques of capitalism and of most activism within capitalist society resonated with ideas they had already been slowly developing.

If the freegan website’s grandiose statements about a total boycott of human, animal, and environmental exploitation were the bait, the first collective dumpster dive was the hook. Even with their preexisting awareness of the flaws of the industrial food system, many freegans found their visceral encounter with New York’s vast stream of food waste emotionally wrenching. Indeed, dumpster diving remained a morally charged activity long after the first trash tour, one that brought new people into the group as well as reaffirming the commitments of those already involved.

On one night in January 2012, the group approached a Food Emporium, which was discarding its excess New Year’s Eve party supplies. The area was an absolute mess, and the bins overloaded with food. As we walked up, Janet halted and exclaimed, “Oh my god, this is going to be outrageous.” And it was: we found immense amounts of meat, produce, flowers, bread, and a wide range of packaged goods. Although the plan for the trash tour was to move quickly between numerous stores, we lingered at the spot long after everyone had taken all that they could possibly carry. When I asked Madeline whether we should move on, she sighed, “It’s like an elephant graveyard. Right now, we’re just here mourning the food.” We had created piles of food on some barrels outside the trash bins, but ultimately we had to put it back to avoid the ire of the store’s employees. As we did so, Janet woefully stated, “My heart is really breaking right now.”

In my interviews, I had a chance to probe farther into what, specifically, was so affecting about the trash tour. Most respondents, after all, were already well aware of the injustices of the economic system in which they lived by the time they found freegan.info. Nevertheless, realizing that useful waste had been hidden from them amplified their outrage. Lucie explained why, for her, waster food was so poignant:

Lucie: It’s direct. You value food when you see it. You know it’s something that you need, or other people need. For other things, the impact is indirect, if you buy clothes that have been made in another country by children, you know it’s bad but you don’t realize it. I was really shocked by the quantity of food.

AB: But now you’re used to it?

Lucie: No, I’m not used to it. Every time I see it. I think when you arrive, when you really see all the wasted food, even if the rest of the time we know it exists, when you see it in the dumpster, you have a feeling of being responsible for it. If you’re in front of the dumpster, you have a choice, to leave it or to save it, to rescue it, in a way.

It is important to qualify that the sight of waste alone rarely turns someone into a freegan. Plenty of people have had the fetish of waste dispelled at freegan events and never returned. The appeal of freegan .info to those who became more consistently involved stemmed from the way that seeing waste affirmed long-standing doubts about other forms of political action, even as recovering ex-commodities pointed to a way forward.

Those who had presented a “reducer, recycler, and reuser” narrative of their pasts emphasized how the trash tour made them realize how far they could take waste-recovery practices. In 2005 Janet received an e-mail from the Wetlands Activism Collective, which she had become involved in through animal rights activism, that discussed dumpster diving for food. She was incredulous: “Are they really able to eat that way?” When she attended her first freegan.info trash tour, though, she was “hooked from moment one.” As she elaborated:

All my life I’ve been concerned about wasting. What changed and made me more extreme was the discovery that there’s all this food. I think that a lot of people will stop and pick up a lamp on the curbside, with the sign that says “Take me.” But it seems like a big step to go to taking food. And I never really believed it was possible to find good things in the garbage on a regular basis.

For Janet, dumpster diving for food was a signal to herself and those around her that she cared more about reducing waste and challenging environmental degradation than complying with social norms. As she defiantly told one assembled group before a dumpster dive:

It is a big step to do something that is repugnant to other people. And this [dumpster diving] certainly is: to open the trash, put your hand in, pull stuff out, and later (or right then) consume it. It is horrifying and disgusting to some people and it will cause them to judge me negatively.

Dumpster diving food was what switched her from having “freegan tendencies” to being a full-fledged “freegan.”

The collective dumpster dive symbolized something different for individuals who had long since been “radicalized” and were already relying on recovering ex-commodities to survive. Lola told me that, for her, finding a group that engaged in dumpster diving en masse and with a political objective validated practices in which she’d long been engaged on her own:

Before I heard the term [freegan], I thought it was something not acceptable to do, something I’d hide. People asked where I got something, and I’d say “Oh, I bought it.” But really, I got it for free. Then I heard about freeganism and I got so excited — it all made sense, it was all the stuff I was already doing. I just learned that there are organizations and groups living this life, rather than just me. Just knowing the term freeganism has allowed me to be more open about it.

For Leia, on the other hand, seeing the ex-commodity abundance going to waste affirmed her belief that wealth could be redistributed on a massive scale. Her communist influences shining through, she told me that “freeganism is the most tangible proof I’ve ever seen that we have the resources to socialize the economy. There’s wealth that we could be distributing to people who need it.” The idea that freeganism “made sense” was a recurring one. In these cases, embracing freeganism was less about a radical change in ideology or everyday practice than it was tying preexisting beliefs and activities to a collective project that made ex-commodity waste its centerpiece.

For freegans who had been “rebelling” without a clear sense that doing so was effective, freeganism was compelling because direct waste recovery felt simultaneously tangible and transformative. Jason had heard about freeganism in college, but thought it “sounded really difficult.” He tried dumpster diving once, but the haul was limited. Looking back at the first tour that he attended in 2008, Jason told me: “The first time I went dumpster diving [with freegan.info], I brought a laundry sack, and I filled it up, and I couldn’t even carry it, I had to drag it on the subway. I wanted to just tell everyone, ‘Someone just revealed to me the best thing in the world.’” What made dumpster diving great, he explained, was not just the free food. It was that it showed him that there really was an alternative:

I realized that, if you go out, and you look, you can find people, you can find things, you can find networks and groups of people that will be there to help you. You can get help from fellow people. It’s not just, “Go to work, go to the bank, go to the store, and go home, and then go to the bar.” Every place you go and every interaction you have doesn’t have to be based on money. The world is just free. There’s stuff out there for free, there are people you don’t have to spend money to be with, there’s fun out there that you don’t have to spend money to have. It just feels really good.

What made this sense of liberation possible, in the end, was uncovering usually disguised ex-commodities: “Trash cans and alleyways, they’re mysterious and off limits. But with freeganism, you’re opening all these doors, and suddenly, there’s all this stuff.”

These divergent meanings attached to freeganism never entirely converged. Nonetheless, whether or not they would admit it, dumpster diving for food was the turning point of all my interviewees’ transitions to freeganism. It reflected a critical turning point, albeit one that came after a long and gradual process with an economically and socially favored starting point. As Jordan articulated it:

Freeganism never felt like a choice for me. It was the result of many experiences, none of which seemed particularly radical at the time. I think this is how it has to be. The psychological barriers our friends, parents, and marketers erect around trash cans and the halos they put around stores are powerful; they don’t dissolve overnight.

For freegans, dumpster diving represented a final rejection of the idea of purchasing “ethical” commodities as a mode of political action, an idea in which they had been losing faith for some time. And through meeting their most basic need for food without spending money, freegans thought that they had found a way to reject the diverse consequences of capitalism that concerned them seemingly at once. By doing so with a group, though, they moved beyond a concern with perfecting their own lifestyles toward a united attempt to challenge capitalism through a constructive, prefigurative experiment in building an alternative. All these realizations flowed from seeing the ex-commodities they were confronted with on the trash tour, which unraveled the fetishism of commodities that told them that consumer activism was effective and the fetishism of waste that instructed them that trash cans were “off limits.”


Excerpt reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America Alex V. Barnard. Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.