Junk Food: Freegans and others find dinner in the dumpster

Dumpster diving; Sam Bowman & Ellis Calvin

Dumpster diving. Cover Design: Ellis Calvin and Sam Bowman, Model: Jory Harris

It’s an hour or two after sunset, and visibility has dropped low enough that you could easily overlook the two figures scavenging in the dumpster if you didn’t expect to find them. If you did spot them, you might mistake them for homeless people. As a matter of fact, Tim and Kat live in a comfortable co-op in Hyde Park. If they wanted to, they could afford to buy their food supplies inside the grocery store during normal business hours. Instead, most days, they wait until an hour or so after it closes and root through the trash in the alley behind it.

Tim identifies as a “freegan,” a member of a subculture based around nonparticipation in the consumer economy. It’s no coincidence that the name derives from the word “vegan.” The website freegan.info, which the New York Times called “the closest thing their movement has to an official voice,” explains, “After years of trying to boycott products from unethical corporations responsible for human rights violations, environmental destruction, and animal abuse, many of us found that no matter what we bought we ended up supporting something deplorable.” Their solution is to drop out of the capitalist system, buying as little as possible while foraging for clothes, furniture, appliances, and of course food.

In an average haul at the dumpsters behind the grocery store, Tim and Kat usually net about $20 worth of food. “There’s no consistency in what we get,” says Tim. “There’s always random lettuce and tomatoes in there, but sometimes it’s dirty.” While they prefer packaged food when possible, dumpster divers tend not to be overly squeamish. Freeganzine, a publication of freegan.info, argues that “you don’t need an official stamp or an expert opinion to know whether something is spoiled.” Instead, it says, you can use your own senses to determine whether food is still good. The magazine adds that “for as long as we’ve been out doing this, we’ve never heard of any food poisoning cases.” Tim and Kat’s co-op often uses recovered food for group dinners, although out of consideration for less adventurous members, all dishes made with ingredients from the garbage are labeled “Dumpstered.”

Can there really be so much edible food just lying around in dumpsters? An oft-cited University of Arizona study in 2004 found that 40 to 50 percent of food ready for harvest in America never gets eaten. Some of this waste is an unavoidable byproduct of bringing food to market, but not all; the study showed, for example, that 15 percent of food wasted by consumers is packaged food discarded before its expiration date. Furthermore, many food items are labeled with a sell-by date, rather than a use-by date; in these cases, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has stated that the items are safe to eat for up to seven days afterwards.

Perhaps because of the social stigma attached to their method of food recovery, freegans are often sensitive about their activities. The large majority of freegans contacted for this article were unwilling to speak to the press, and many who choose the lifestyle reject the name “freegan.” “I would just consider myself a dumpster diver,” says Kat, adding that she doesn’t subscribe to food labels. For her, it’s not just a matter of politics or saving money. When I ask why she dumpsters, she exclaims, “Sheer pleasure!”

Although Tim and Kat try to be unobtrusive, they say they’ve never had any problems with the police or store employees. “I don’t think they care,” says Tim. Dumpster diving is not a federal crime, so long as the dumpster is in public space like an alley or a street. Local laws make it illegal in some cities, although not Chicago. In New York City, for example, a municipal law bans the disturbance of removal of garbage unless requested by house residents, but, according to Freeganzine, the New York Police Department “has publicly stated that people picking through trash is NOT AN ISSUE for them.” Some grocery stores, however, feel differently. “You should try to prevent it, because people are going to get sick,” the manager of one South­ Side Dominick’s told me. He believes security guards in the parking lot keep most would-be dumpster divers away, although he maintains that “it happens everywhere. Pretty much anywhere in the city it’s going to happen a little bit.”

Tim and Kat have been dumpstering food for a few months. Although they generally forage in twos or threes, they sometimes bring along larger groups. Dumpstering is often a communal activity, and some co-ops, like Little Village’s Weiser House, participate collectively. The website Meetup.com lists dumpster diving groups in cities across the U.S., from Los Angeles and New York to Reno and Nashville. Although Chicago does not yet have a chapter, Meetup lists 235 people in the area waiting for one to be started. The internet has plenty of other resources for beginners and the interested public, from “Freegan Kitchen,” a cooking show using dumpstered ingredients, to “Surfing the Waste,” a musical documentary about dumpster diving (“Abundance fresh all over town / Get those veggies in my mouth”).

Many dumpster divers also participate in Food Not Bombs, a worldwide network of over 175 chapters that prepare food using ingredients that would otherwise go to waste and serve it to the needy. FNB’s website lists three Chicago cooking and serving locations, in Humboldt Park, Pilsen, and Uptown, as well as chapters in suburbs like Elgin and Joliet. Tim and a number of other local dumpster divers are currently planning to start a Hyde Park chapter of FNB, which they hope will be up and running by next month. If they succeed, the chapter will involve even more people in the effort to not let our waste go to waste, and perhaps bring a few more listeners to Freeganzine’s call: “ONWARD, TO THE DUMPSTERS!”

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