Dumpster-diving freegans are a response to food waste

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There's a saying: The rest of the world feasts on what America throws away. And then there's a statistic that could stop you in your tracks: 30 to 50 percent of our food production ends up in the trash. That's a pretty stunning number, especially in this economy.

This reality is evident in the growth of the Dumpster-diving freegan movement, and journalist Scarlett Lindeman took months to dig into what this movement is about. Her article, Freegans: The Refined Art of Dumpster Diving, originally appeared in the journal Gastronomica.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You actually went out Dumpster-diving with a group of freegans. What was that experience like?


Scarlett Lindeman

Scarlett Lindeman: It was amazing and initially very shocking. If you have never Dumpster-dived before, I think it is impossible to comprehend just how much food -- good food -- is being thrown away. It's really a visual shock. You have to do it to comprehend.

LRK: But it also is something that's so off-putting for people: the idea of going into the garbage to look for food. Is that food safe, and how do you know? All those things come into your mind when you start to contemplate it.

SL: It's very easy to understand the aversion and the disgust. Eating from the trash, especially by choice, is a complex and loaded act, one that transgresses public space and dining habits. When it's done intentionally, it's even more taboo.

LRK: How do the people who believe in it go about it?

SL: The people who do this may or may not self-identify as freegans, but freegan is a term that arose in the mid- to late-1990s. It's a combination of free and vegan, though not all freegans subscribe to a vegan diet. They use food and food waste as the core of their activism and their ecological consciousness.

There's a wide range of background: income, ages and variance in how often people Dumpster-dive or how much they take. They're all linked together by wanting to waste less and become more self-sufficient, and highlighting how much good food goes into the trash every day.

New York City tends to be a great place to Dumpster-dive because all of the trash that is set into the public realm on the sidewalk, and it's not illegal. Many freegans are careful and will leave the garbage bags tidier than when they first find them.

LRK: How did you meet up with them?

SL: Normally they're organized through the Internet. There are a number of meetup groups on Facebook and other social media that will do Dumpster Diving 101. They'll set a time and a place and anyone can come out and experience with them what it's like. They guide and instruct along the way.

The meetups are very carefully timed because the organizers know when stores tend to throw out their trash. So they'll meet outside of a Trader Joe's, for example, and carefully start to open the bags. They can tell certain bags by the weight and the feel after doing it so many times. They understand what the contents may be and whether it's a good bag to open. Some of them wear gloves, some of them don't.

So they sort through and inspect and poke and maybe smell. Many of them don't take meat or dairy or eggs -- just stuff that they can cook later, like raw vegetables. Sometimes supermarkets have compost bins where they will throw carrots and bruised apples.

Packaged foods comprise the most amount of trash. So much food is thrown away from being bent or torn. The packaging is ripped or something spills on it, and even if the food inside is safe, it's unsellable.

LRK: And there's a very long history to this.

SL: Absolutely. The practice of gathering castoff food is as old as agriculture. Dumpster-diving may look different than picking up forgotten potatoes in the field, but it is essentially the same thing.

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