Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Walking the Freegan Trail

100th post! I'm excited to enter into triple digits for meals, musings, and adventures.

Today I present a new adventure: one I've had in mind for ages, one that will definitely go outside the comfort zone for many of you. One that I could only find in New York.

I give you the food salvage garbage tour of Washington Square. Wait, let me go back.

Ever heard of freegans? Neither had I, unless you count that episode of Oprah. This group adopts environmental principles that go a step further- finding ways around consumerism to promote sustainability.

The freegan group in New York City organizes sewing, gardening, and bike repair workshops to cut down on their carbon footprint. For my first event, I attended an evening trash tour outside major neighborhood grocery stores.

Are they hippies? Yes. Are they making conscious, informed decisions that they believe will benefit their community and world? Absolutely. And for tht, I applaud them.

Each day, grocery stores make room for new shipments by dumping out food approaching the "sell by" date, not to be confused with expired or bad food.

We didn't have much luck at a couple stores, who almost seemed to deliberately mix in salvageable produce with regular trash. At one store, employees had gone through the trouble of emptying individual bags of chips and containers of salad and fruits. Out of our large group of over 20 people, only a couple were brave enough to grab from a mixed bag. I was not one of them.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the "past due" food was dumped into clean, doubled-up garbage bags and set apart from the rest of the trash. Lots of it was ripe but perfectly fine, even sealed up in plastic. It was an unspoken understanding in the group not to eat during the tour or take anything that had touched the ground.

It astounded me to see the enormous amount of waste at each store, just for one day. Unfortunately, the food can't be given away because of liability, and even when establishments make scheduled donations to food banks and rescue organizations, many pickups get forgotten if there is a volunteer shortage.
The freegans are happy to fill in the gap, and know the trash schedules of most of the stores. They are considerate when they pick, untying bags at the knot and often leaving the trash in better condition when finished. There was no stinginess within the group because there is simply too much to go around.
Even so, some of the stores do not appreciate the freegan philosophy, despite the hunger problem in New York and the fact that once garbage hits the curb, it is no longer private property.

The funny looks along the way would be tough for me to get used to, which is why many freegans like to go as a group: safety and anonymity in numbers, as well as being dialed into the trash schedule. My feeling is, if they're not hurting anyone or making a mess, what's the problem?

I can understand that dumpster diving is definitely not for everyone. But I scored a couple loaves of fresh, wrapped bread and some produce, which I washed thoroughly when I got home. I met some wonderful, educated people who walk their talk and are open to sharing their community with strangers (and offer their bounty with the homeless and curious lookey-loos on the way).

And you know what? I'm glad that for one night I got a chance to take a break from being a capitalist consumer. And get some free grub. Just don't forget the rubber gloves.


  1. So interesting.... Do people from the grocery store care that people are doing this? Do you have to be sneaky about it? Very interesting.

  2. Some stores get really cranky about it, especially right around Union Square because of all the traffic. But legally, trash is no longer private property! The freegans want to be respectful, so they plan their outings at night right when trash first goes out- it's more food safe and discreet. We still got a ton of funny looks, though!

  3. A wonderful story, Ms.Tart. What would Dorothy Parker have said?