Foraging for Answers to Food Waste
An Evening with Freegan.info in NYC
by Hans Bernier
How much food do we waste? The statistics state that around 15 - 50% of the food produced in this country ends up being thrown away. As author Jonathan Bloom estimates in American Wasteland, even if we were to employ a conservative estimate, that means that every American throws away around five pounds of trash a day, totaling over 160 billion pounds a year for the nation. The disparity in this 15 - 50% estimate is itself evidence of the growing disconnect between the farm, our plate, and the wastebin. Even though food waste is part of our collective consciousness — think of an archetypal mother’s constant refrain at the dinner table: “clean your plate, there are starving children in this world” — the actuality still remains abstract; we know that our surplus food rarely goes to someone in need.
However, as I recently discovered, some folks are working to address this dilemma. In July, while at a food justice roundtable, I met a woman who identified herself as a Freegan. As described on Freegan.info, Freeganism is an alternative strategy for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.
Intrigued, I decided to join them for an evening on one of their bi-monthly Trash Tours. On a rain-soaked Friday night, I met with four Freegans in front of a D'Agostino’s on 33rd and 3rd in Manhattan. The group was lead by Janet Kalish, a six year veteran of the movement. A high school teacher in Jamaica, Queens, Janet hosts a dumpster diving tour two Fridays a month through Freegan.info.
Dumpster diving, also known as “waste reclamation,” is one of the Freegan movement’s best known activities. Individuals or groups comb the streets looking to harvest viable items that others have thrown away. Though food is not their only focus, the movement finds its provenance in the organization Food Not Bombs. Started in 1980, Food Not Bombs works to recover food that would otherwise be wasted to make fresh, hot vegan and vegetarian meals that are served in outdoor public spaces to anyone, without restriction. Freegan.info does similar work; their Friday Trash Tours provide the ingredients for feasts they prepare the following evening.
Though our group was smaller than usual due to the inclement weather, the team consisted of Freegans Janet and Marie in the lead, fellow FSNYC colleague and acting photographer, Meret Hofer, myself, and a gentlemen visiting from Europe who declined to be identified. A dumpster diver in his home country, he was curious to see how New York’s “waste reclamation” efforts compared.
The rules are simple: always feel the bag before opening it, open the bag at the knot and tie it closed when finished, always trying to leave the area cleaner than you found it. The rest is up to you. After some simple direction, I jumped right in, opening the discarded bags carefully to ensure that others who might come after us wouldn’t be put off because we had left things in disarray.
Janet said that these tours can accommodate as many as forty foragers. Initially, I thought that was an unmanageable number but, after our first stop, I realized there was more than enough food to go around. At our first stop, we found tomatoes, shrink wrapped lettuce, applesauce packets, pasta, loaves of bread, melons, and peaches, walking away with about five bags of groceries between us. I asked Janet if we should look for — or avoid — anything in particular. She explained that as the vast majority of food gathered is vegan, we should avoid any unpackaged meats. However, the Freegans do take some pre-packaged items like sandwiches, wraps, lunch meat and sushi, which Janet usually feeds to her pets.
We then moved on to Daniel’s Bagels. This local bakery seemed to responsibly discard their trash by bundling all their pastries, bagels, rolls, and loaves into separate black bags with no meat, dairy, or produce mixed in. This is where we found the lion’s share of our non-vegan harvest; cookies and confections were in abundance. Janet confessed that she often indulges in these sweet treats, admitting that when she first started living as a Freegan, she may have gained a few pounds. Given how easy it was to find refined starches and sugary products at Daniel’s Bagels and later at Dunkin’ Donuts, it seems that a healthy, Freegan diet may require both effort and restraint.
We then moved on to Rite Aid where we found bags full of ripe bananas, cookies, hot dogs, and even some prepackaged meals and snacks. However, we skipped most of it because it didn’t meet our dietary guidelines. We ended the night at Gristedes, where we filled three more bags full of produce. I actually had to stop filling bags because we wouldn’t have been able to carry it all. After collectively filling about ten bags, we transferred the harvest to Marie’s suitcase, as she was hosting the following evening’s feast, she would be taking the majority of the bounty home. Janet ended the night by starkly declaring that while so many are in need, so much can be harvested by what others wastefully discard. In a single hour, we visited five stores on three avenues in Murray Hill and the five of us could have each walked away with a week’s worth of groceries.
There are some organizations who deal with surplus food, but they may not have the capacity to tackle all its possible opportunities and are beset by restrictions as to the kinds of food they can reclaim. For example, Food Bank and City Harvest work hard to redistribute food from restaurants and wholesalers, but their guidelines understandably prohibit such things as leftovers that have been previously served to the public. The folks at Freegan.info - http://freegan.info/ - see their work as a way to ideologically counter our dominant consumer culture, while providing for those who are in need. Janet mentioned that on their tours they often forage side-by-side with those who scavenge out of necessity, as opposed to ideology.
She told me the story of two elderly men in the neighborhood who live on fixed incomes. They would dumpster dive to secure enough food for the week. One day Janet saw one of them without the other and inquired after his companion. It turned out that the man had fallen ill and was unable to make it out of his apartment, so his friend was out gathering for two that night.
Janet and her fellow Freegans are working not just to reclaim some of the perfectly good food we routinely discard, but to re-establish a sense of community that can be lost in urban neighborhoods. During our trip, we ran into many passersby; some laughed, some stared in awe, and some joined in. We certainly were noticed and those who expressed curiosity were given informative literature about the Freegan movement. Whether you agree with this method of combatting our wasteful ways or not, there’s no denying the existence of the problem. There are many gaps in our system of food production, distribution, and surplus. For me, this experience highlighted one chronically broken link in the chain that follows from farm, to plate, to wastebin, and provided a glimpse into how some people are working to mend it.
Photographs by Meret Hofer.