In 2006, I was an intern working with a major conservation organization in one of the most prestigious natural history museums in the world. It was a dream internship, and I, in the spirit of those Broadway musicals I love, felt I was making it in New York City. I was going to survive the Big City, and love doing it. I thrived on the culture, the people, the noise, the work. But I was hungry. While I made enough to pay the rent and have a bit of fun, sometimes I had to go to the local food bank to make sure I had enough to eat.
Around Thanksgiving, I had run out of money and food. Looking online I read about the “Really, Really Free Market,” and decided to check it out. There I met freegans (a word mash of “free” and “vegan”) who were serving free food, and I thought, “This is great!” But where did these people find all this food? The pies, broccoli, carrots, peanut butter, and whole wheat spelt bread? I was soon to find out.
Two or three times a month, my freegan friends and I walk the streets of New York foraging urban food waste. New York City is a land of waste. In 2002, according to the city’s Department of Sanitation, New York generated 832,590 tons of food waste. Freegans have figured out a way to recover these lost calories, and by doing so we have made our actions into protest and education. By bringing what was once left for waste back into the material stream, we protest the corporations who steal the commons (such as air and water) used in production processes, define those natural goods as private property, and then discard those resources without regard for the consequences. Because we scavenge visibly and without embarrassment, we demonstrate to others that they can choose to opt out of capitalism. We are showing that consumerism is a choice, not something we are coerced into doing.
The freegan community is loose and without hierarchy, a community that shares with each other and strangers in need. We meet regularly to cook our finds, inviting friends and family to join us. We often provide materials to Food Not Bombs, or other social or political gatherings. These special times help solidify bonds of caring and support.
For me, opening each garbage bag is a wonderful surprise. You’d probably be surprised at what I’ve found: Twenty tofu steaks, sell-by-date three weeks from now; 10 tubs of yogurt, sell-by date tomorrow; broccoli with one sad spear and four richly green stalks; a five-pound sack of turnips; a case of somewhat brown but delicious bananas; five bags of Oreos. On cold nights, I’ve found ice cream. There is a yuckiness factor to the smell of mixed materials, and the slip of unnamed liquid that sometimes runs along the sides of a garbage bag is unpleasant to touch. But I have never encountered a rat or roach. I sort through a store’s garbage soon after it is placed on the corner. My garbage is fresh and local.
My favorite stop, and one of the reasons I keep coming back for trash, is the bagel shop. The first time I encountered the bagel shop, I was in awe. There were hundreds of bagels, unspoiled with used coffee grounds, so fresh that the bag was still warm. On that cold November night, steam rose from the black bag as a mound of round doughy goodness was revealed — bagels in all flavors, probably made only hours ago and soon after made into “waste.” That night I would make them food, and vow never to buy breakfast again.
If you have ever been to New York, you know how many bagel shops there are — and thus how many bagels are produced. There must be thousands of bagel shops, tossing out tens of thousands of bagels a day. And still, within the city, there are thousands of hungry men, women, and children.
I have a full time job now, and earn a decent salary. But I continue to be a freegan, not because I have to, but because when I reflect on my choices as a consumer and a capitalist supporter, I have to ask myself three things: What does my consumption cost? What are its negative externalities? What other choices can I make?
I was driven to garbage because of temporary poverty. It was a rational choice prompted by the irrational system of waste that I still observe all around me. In making that choice, I started on a journey toward a different way of living. The journey has most obviously brought me food. More importantly, it has brought me friends.
Michael Foster is a biodiversity specialist and environmental policy analyst who writes contemporary symphonic music and poetry and is starting a non-profit organization in his so-called spare time.
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