Why the middle classes go scavenging in dustbins

The Times
Nov. 26, 2005

THE Thanksgiving holiday is over and the frenzied Christmas shopping season has begun. This is bonanza time for the tribe of rummaging Americans known as “freegans”.

The anti-capitalist freegans — the name combines “free” and “vegan” — are so appalled by the waste of the consumer society that they try to live on the leftovers, scavenging for food in supermarket dustbins.

“It’s fun. It’s a thrill. It’s more fun and more satisfying than just going to the store and saying, ‘I wanted some bread and I got it’. It’s the surprise — and the prize,” said Janet Kalish, a New York high school teacher who describes herself as “60 per cent freegan”.

A 1997 study by the US Department of Agriculture estimated that the US wastes about 43 billion kilograms of food a year. That is about 27 per cent of US production, but the true figure is as much as 50 per cent, according to ten years of research by Timothy Jones at the University of Arizona.

“The No 1 problem is that Americans have lost touch with what food is for,” Professor Jones said. “We have lost touch with the processes that bring it to the table and we don’t notice the inefficiency.”

The freegan philosophy of “ethical eating” argues that capitalism and mass production exploit workers, animals and the environment.

Adam Weissman, a freegan activist and sometime security guard in New Jersey, says freeganism grew out of the radical 1960s “yippie” movement but also has affinities with the hobos of the Great Depression who travelled around the country by stealing rides on the railways.

“I have pity for people who have not figured out this lifestyle,” he said. “I am able to take long vacations from work, I have all kinds of consumer goods, and I eat a really healthy diet of really wonderful food: white asparagus and cactus fruit, three different kinds of mushrooms and four different kinds of pre-cut salad. And I’m just thinking of what is in my refrigerator right now.

“Essentially, the sky’s the limit. We found flat-screen TVs, working boom-boxes and stereos. I have put together most of my wardrobe. Last year’s designer clothing in perfect shape is discarded because it’s no longer fashionable, so I wear a lot of designer labels.”

Freegans often go “dumpster diving” in packs, delving into skips at supermarkets and restaurants.

Their website lists “favourite foraging sites”, such as the vegan restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York, that throws out a “whole bag of stir-fried Asian food after 10 every night” or the Cincinnati bakery that dumps bagels and French bread. Often the best shops throw out the most food to keep their offerings fresh.

“The foraging itself is not that time-consuming,” Madeline Nelson, a former corporate communications officer at a national bookshop chain in New York, said. “I tend to go out twice a week, and I would probably go grocery shopping twice a week anyway. What takes time, and you need to do it, is to inspect and wash everything.”

For Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, Ms Nelson bought the turkey, but most of the rest of the food was freegan.


# The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 27 per cent of total food production in the US is wasted every year

# Timothy Jones, who conducted a ten-year study for the University of Arizona, estimates that the amount that does not get eaten is as much as 50 per cent

# A typical household wastes 14 per cent of all food purchased

# Fifteen per cent of that includes products still within their expiry date but never opened

# An average American family of four throws away meat, fruit, vegetables and grain products worth $590 (£345) a year

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