In some of the books and stories I’ve read lately, a curious theme has come up: getting free food by salvaging it from garbage. The obvious reaction is to say that that’s something that no one should even consider unless perhaps they’re particularly close to starving to death penniless on the streets. But practitioners of dumpster-diving write that there’s no need to be anywhere close to as afraid as most people immediately are. Food that’s thrown away by commercial outlets is usually thrown away whole and uncompromised by fungus or germs. It’s in large part just as hale as it would be if you pulled it right off the shelves, except that it might be a little warmer.
This is among the strange things that I’ve wanted to try. I attempted it a bit during college, in town, but all I ever found was a loaf of bread and a tapestry showing something that one of my friends tentatively identified as the Kaaba in Mecca. Then I forgot about the whole deal, all up until a few nights ago, when I realized I’m living mere paces away from a sizeable supermarket that probably throws out lots of food just because it’s reached an expiration date that corresponds only loosely with germs that live in reality. So that night I went down to the store, but there was no garbage in front of it. Then, thinking about it, I realized I’d never really seen any dumpsters anywhere in the city. So I gave up on the night, but consulted the internet for tips on how people glean from the garbage in this city—because I knew people must, and that the garbage must go out somehow even if I never saw dumpsters.
I found a group online, a group of freegans—a term I’d seen before but forgotten about. It’s akin to veg(etari)anism, but instead of refusing to support the meat industry, or for vegans the meat, dairy, egg, and even honey industries, by not buying their products, freegans go yet a step further. They refuse to support any food industry, by not buying their products, but rather living off the many excesses that we’re surrounded by, most of us unknowingly. It’s a way of rejecting the capitalist system. Another name for it is urban foraging. So, people subsisting on the food they find naturally occurring around them—only, in this case, their surroundings are a bit different from those of the original foragers. This group, I discovered from their website, was meeting up to give a tour and a course on “Freeganism 101” in just two short nights. So obviously I went. Here’s my journal from that night.
I had worried that I might not find the freegans on time, or that I’d be seen as an intruder, since I didn’t know anyone there. But with five minutes to spare I found them there in the park, with a handy sign that said who they were. They were wrapping up their fortnightly planning meeting. I sat next to a guy who asked if it was my first time. It was his too, tho he’s been on their mailing list awhile. He’s called C——. I got a few other names from people who introduced themselves while they weren’t talking, though I only remember A——, a small, sturdy woman in her 30s or 40s, and G——, a longhair like me, who had a big tow-along cart. There were people of all sorts of descriptions. A sizeable contingent of twentysomethings like me and C——, but mainly, I think, people in their 30s and 40s. An east-Asian woman, three Russians who spoke lots of Russian with each other.
Some people feel like they’ve “finally made it” when they get to New York to do a modeling gig or a music deal or an acting job. I didn’t feel like I’d finally hit it big until tonight, meeting all these people so interested in the art of living without contributing to the capitalist civilization machine. I knew there were such people out there, but only now did I finally see them. Being there with them was like a confirmation that all the crazy stuff I’ve been reading baout and getting into in theory really does happen outside the books and the few accounts I read onlyne, all these intermediated ways of geting to know about awesome things to do with your life. I had a onstant grin on, knowing I was finally somewhere I wanted to be.
A—— and a bunch of other veterans welcomed the newcomers (and everyone else too), and gave an introductory speech about what freeganism is. It’s not just dumpster-diving, she said—though that’s the claim to fame—the group also does soup kitchens, free markets, even wilderness foraging. (I asked who teaches the wilderness foraging. Z——, they said, but he got in an accident so he’s out of commission for a while. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to meet him and learn.) Then she told us some guidelines on picking good food—these boiled down to using pour five senses to make your own judgment as to the food’s edibility, like humans did before expiration dates were invented—and gave us some tips like the proper time of night to hunt through trash (about 9 or 10; garbage trucks come around 11). And then we all—about 25 of us—headed off toward the tour’s first destination.
It turned out to be a fancy, designer grocery store. I learned that they don’t use dumpsters in this city per a directive of Giuliani, and instead they put all the garbage out on the sidewalk in bags. So we untied these bags in front of the store—which, we had also been informed, was completely legal since the sidewalk is public property—and dug in. My first bag yielded about five cucumber slices, which I left, though I considered taking them—I didn’t know how much we could expect to find, so maybe five cucumber slices was a good discovery! Then I got into another bag and found whole untouched ears of corn, ensconced in a big nest of husks, probably at least a dozen of them—more, at any rate, than I could use. They were completely mold- and ergot-free, not even any cornworms in sight, their only reason for rejection being occasional shrunken kernels or easily removed blemishes. I hollered out the corn find. By this time people were finding tomatoes, peaches, “honeycots”, beautiful food everywhere. I got some chives as well, and some fruits. It was a terrific display of cooperation, too—if someone found something but couldn’t use it all, they announced its presence to the group, like I did with the corn. Eventually, after more food than I expected, we exhausted the garbage there and moved on to the next stop, a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Apparently, Dunkin’ Donuts promises its customers freshly baked bagels and donuts each day. This means they have to throw all the unsold bagels and donuts out each night. Not too bad, it would seem, except for something else: they like their display racks to look full and bountiful all day long, even up to closing time. The result for us freegans: three garbage bags full of pristine bagels, donuts, and pastries, more than even our small army of 25 could handle. This really opened my eyes to how preposterously wasteful this culture can be. Dunkin’ Donuts throws out, each day, enough bagels to satisfy a good fifty people’s hunger for a day or so. (And at the same time millions starve in Africa.) Everyone there, especially the newcomers like C—— and me, commentied on how amazingly ridiculous this was. I was having a terrific and informative time.
We moved on to another branch of the same upscale grocery as the first one (lots of bananas, among other things), and then finished out the night at the absolute mountain of garbage outside an even bigger grocery store. At this one we put all our haul into a display pile before dividing it up, and it was a graphic illustration of waste. Dozens of baguettes and freshly baked artisan breads. Fruits, vegetables—an entire watermelon. And at least seven whole roast chickens. A—— (I think it was her) got our attention and drew lessons from this haul. This capitalist society, she pointed out, raises chickens, then kills them just so it can throw them in distant trash cans, lives completely wasted. It ships organic bananas from Guatemala, then throws them out at the first signs of brown spots. It tosses out whole watermelons because of cosmetic flaws. It’s our responsibility to glean this waste, to keep it from going to the landfill, to avoid making even more waste by buying expensive and consumerist foods covered in packaging.
We split up the food among ourselves—in the process, I completely filled my enormous Army-issue backpack—and then we split up too. I went with C——, G——, and a woman whose name I’ve forgotten, to the subway station. G—— and the woman left; C—— and I thanked them for everything and took the train back to Brooklyn and talked the whole way. I felt like I’d finally had a successful night. You can bet I’ll be at the picnic they’re throwing this Saturday. Maybe I’ll even cook something with all the food I got—it’s way too much for just me to eat by then, and giving freely is one of the driving forces behind this whole movement.