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Freegans: Driven to Dumpster Dive Not by Poverty, But by Environmental Politics

November 4, 2013
by Ben Christopher
Photo of someone dumpster diving

J.J. is the breadwinner of the house. Of all the weekly chores that are divvied up among members of the south Berkeley cooperative, his is the most enviable. While others get stuck scrubbing pots, pans, and bathroom walls to pay their dues, J.J. is to bike over to a nearby bakery under cover of darkness, peek inside the dumpsters, and load up his backpack.

He has agreed to let me tag along on this Thursday night bread run so that I can see dumpster diving in action. We’re accompanied by a handful of other members and friends of the co-op. One, 23-year-old UC Berkeley geography student Brooke Marino, fills me in on a few details. The cooperative doesn’t “dumpster” most of its food, but bakery garbage—almost exclusively day-old bread—is too easy, too tasty, and most importantly, too hideously wasteful to pass up. Hopping over the barbed wire fence that I hadn’t been warned about, sure enough, the bakery’s four dumpsters are all halfway full of loaves, many of them still in their paper sleeves.

J.J. hops inside one with his headlamp lit and closes the lid after him.

“You’re going to want to skip the baguettes,” Marino advises me. “They go stale so quickly.”  As for the batards, the rounds, the rolls, the ciabattas—that should all be good for the rest of the week.

These dumpster divers are as frugal as any from the college-aged set, but as far as anyone tells me, they can all afford to buy their daily bread. This isn’t about saving money; it’s about making a political statement. They see it as rejecting the monetary economy with all its perceived inequities, perversities, and environmental costs— and instead living off the profligacy of strangers.

Today 40 percent of all the food in the United States goes uneaten, according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s the equivalent of $165 billion dollars, or 20 pounds of food per person per month. It accounts for an astounding 33 million tons of landfill waste—which in turn generates 16 percent of the country’s methane emissions.

And the bulk of the waste occurs at the end of the food chain—tossed out at restaurants, grocery stores, and people’s homes.

Reclaiming such food is “a social commentary around how much waste is produced in our particular industrial model,” says Marino. “There are very few avenues to disengage (from that model.) Even in school—where we’re not only trained to be active players in it, but are also required to do so since most of us have to go into debt to be there—we’re basically promising that we’re going to work in a traditional way. But people who live in squat communities or people who dumpster, they are checking out of that.”  

That particular form of disengagement goes by an often used though less commonly self-applied name: freeganism.

Alex Barnard, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley’s Department of Sociology, has made a study of freegans, though even he admits the definition is tricky to pin down. Eschewing the use of money—be it through squatting, bicycling, hitchhiking, train-hopping, goods-sharing, skill swapping, wild food foraging, guerilla gardening, or deliberate withdrawal from the job market—exists in various combinations in countless ideologies and self-consciously alternative lifestyles. When does someone who raises chickens and forages for wild mushrooms on the weekend, for example, cross the line from Novella Carpenter-reading mycologist into bona fide freegan? How much dumpster diving does one have to engage in to officially join the ranks of the movement? Can a freegan only be a freegan if he or she has the luxury of choosing not to spend money?

“I threw this out to a professor: ‘Hey, there are these people who eat garbage. Isn’t that interesting?’ ”

Although there are countless ways to “freegan,” says Barnard, the term typically is a short-hand for its most jarring and public articulation: dumpster diving. While casting about for a thesis subject for his bachelor’s at Princeton in 2009, he was drawn first to that particular novelty after reading about the phenomenon in the New York Times.

“I threw this out to a professor: ‘Hey, there are these people who eat garbage. Isn’t that interesting?’ ”

The professor agreed. And so Barnard spent the next year periodically paying visits to New York, where he would join up with the loose band of anarchists, food activists, environmentalists, socialists, and culinary thrill-seekers who had come together under the website While the group organized “free markets,” free bike repair classes, and other workshops in disavowal of all things monetary, the main event was, and still is, the trash tour—a roving hunt from bodega to bodega in search of wantonly tossed-out provisions.

The particular moral logic of dumpster diving—and of freeganism in general—can appeal in various ways. At its most modest, it can act as a simple reminder that waste is bad and saving is good. At its most extreme, it’s a denunciation of capitalism as a system in which material excess, environmental ruin, and inequitable use and distribution of resources is not a bug but a feature.

Either way, it gets society’s attention.

“There’s something visually compelling about a certain type of person going through trash,” says Barnard, acknowledging that the class prejudice behind this perception is troubling. “If you see a middle-aged African American man who looks homeless going through the trash, no one is going to stop and pay attention. But if you see an ‘alternative looking’ white kid in their 20s doing it, well that’s interesting.”

As the recession fueled more freeganism and more interest in it, the term began popping up in major newspapers and magazines and on network news. Both NBC and ABC marveled at those “who choose to eat garbage” and who “buck the spending trend.” In 2008, there was a dumpster-diving spot on Oprah.

“For a lot of these activists, this was absolutely amazing,” says Barnard. “They had been talking about anarchism, environmentalism, far-left ideas, for a long time and no one had paid attention. All of a sudden you attach it to a dumpster dive and everyone shows up.”

The organization Food Not Bombs is about as close to an institutional embodiment of freeganism as one can find. Engaging in a kind of dumpster diving, wholesale, the volunteers collect edible food waste—bruised or misshapen produce, products that are just beyond expiration—cook the bounty, and distribute it for free at churches, community centers, and parks. As one branch of an international organization, the East Bay chapter is particularly successful, tapping into a uniquely forthcoming network of vendors.

“Use the word ‘freegan’ and it becomes ‘isn’t it funny that these wealthy kids are eating out of the garbage?’ rather than ‘let’s look at how capitalism is organized.’ ”

That generosity seems to emanate from a combined commitment to social justice, environmental stewardship, and a reduced waste management bill.

“They’re happy to give it to us,” says Lydia Gans, an organizer with Food Not Bombs and one of the volunteers who distributes food in Berkeley’s Peoples Park. According to Gans, the local chapter gets most of its food from local farmers’ markets, the Cheese Board, Whole Foods, and Natural Choice Distribution. “There is just so much food that goes to waste. And it’s perfectly good food. We pride ourselves on good food.”

By some measures, Food Not Bombs activists may have the most legitimate claim to the term “freegan,” whether they want it or not.  Keith McHenry, who helped co-found the organization’s first chapter in Boston, claims to have coined the term as a joke one day after finding a wheel of cheese in a dumpster, although many trace the movement’s lineage back even further. In 1966, a San Francisco theater troupe called The Diggers started distributing free salvaged food at feed-ins in Golden Gate Park, opened up a series of Free Stores, and announced the “death of money.”

Building on that tradition, the second chapter of Food Not Bombs started up in San Francisco in the late 1980s. As Gans recalls, the police would routinely shut down the group’s public “kitchens,” chasing the homeless out of the park and seizing all the reclaimed food.

As the case with many an individual dumpster diver, the purpose of Food Not Bombs’ scavenging isn’t simply to acquire or redistribute free food, but to make an ongoing statement about waste—and broader still, about capitalism.

“This is not a charity,” says Gans, who has been working with the organization for more than a decade. “We believe that access to food is a human right.”

McHenry finds it frustrating when journalists refer to Food Not Bombs activists as freegans. “I think it’s a convenient way to never use the words, ‘Food Not Bombs,’” he says. “That’s the whole reason we named it that way. To get across a political message. Use the word ‘freegan’ and it becomes ‘isn’t it funny that these wealthy kids are eating out of the garbage?’ rather than ‘let’s look at how capitalism is organized.’ ”

Even a semi-regular dumpster diver such as Brooke Marino agrees that it’s important not to “get too wrapped up in freeganing.

Food from a dumpster

“Using the waste that is generated as a resource is a good idea, but it’s really more important to build toward more local food systems,” she says. “In a subsistence farm community, say, there wouldn’t be a factory dumpster to dumpster from. Ideally, there wouldn’t be a need for one.”

On websites such as, it can be difficult to distinguish the anti-consumer activist from the cheapskate. Something like Craigslist for barter, the site boldly offers users the opportunity to start “changing the world one gift at a time,” but otherwise acts as a strictly practical way to dispose of an old coffee table—or find a new one. When I browse the Oakland group page, I find offerings ranging from ice packs to cat furniture to baby clothing to a 1963 automobile grill.

Deron Beal, the founder of Freecycle, says his goal for starting the site was more than just to aid misers and packrats. “It was all about tree-hugging for me,” he tells me in an emoticon-heavy email from Tuscon. “Keeping good stuff out of landfills and keeping still-good stuff in circulation.”

While Beal lacks the militancy one might expect of a freegan, he does share some of the movement’s goals—environmental, but also social.

“It sort of brought the Internet back to the local community where you meet the person getting your item and they thank you profusely for something you might have otherwise thrown away,” he says. That may not be calling for the fundamental upset of international capitalism, but it is a call for reprioritization—a reminder that the financial transaction is not chief among all social exchanges and that when we throw something away, it does not simply disappear.

In the case of food, “a lot of that waste comes from trying to meet consumer expectations,” says Dana Gunders, a project scientist at the National Resources Defense Council and author of its report quantifying just how much food we waste. “If everyone had a different mentality about food waste, we might be a little more understanding when a restaurant runs out of food at the end of the day, or when a grocery store wants to make use of a scarred tomato.”

While some vendors will coordinate with charities or groups like Food Not Bombs to dispense with their unsightly produce or just-expired cheese, the vast majority does go into the dumpster. San Francisco is rare in that it has a municipal composting program, but in the vast majority of other cities in the nation, food waste goes to the landfill. In 1996, Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which, in offering vendors a certain degree of immunity from lawsuits should any recipient of ostensibly unmarketable food get sick, was designed to encourage food donations. And yet food is still thrown away regularly and on a massive scale.

Alex Barnard says he isn’t mystified in the slightest by this paradox.

“You don’t let people get your product for free. That isn’t rocket science and it’s not any kind of conspiracy,” he says. “It’s just the logic of business in a capitalist society. Grocery stores don’t exist to feed people. They exist to sell a commodity.”

But Gunders offers a slightly less cynical take. While some vendors may hold ill-conceived liability concerns, much of the problem of food waste is one of logistics.

Consider a restaurateur who wants to donate her or his leftover food at the end of each night, she says. The food has to be stored, which requires refrigerator capacity and kitchen space. Many food banks won’t accept such small volume donations or food that is pre-prepared, so coordinating with more flexible or accommodating non-profits and charities presents another hurdle. Then there’s the issue of coordination.

“You might have a situation where the restaurant wants to give away the food, but the church they’ve coordinated with doesn’t have a volunteer available to go pick it up every single time,” she says. “The volunteer falls through one time and the restaurant gets stuck with all this perishable stuff.”

I am not grossed out in the slightest. There is a reason that bakery refuse is the gateway dumpster to more extreme and sanitarily questionable forms of scavenging.

As co-founder of Acme Bread Company, Steven Sullivan says his principle concern with dumpster diving relates to safety: “It’s just not a safe thing for people to be climbing around on a dumpster in a parking lot with trucks constantly coming in and out.” He adds that dumpster divers haven’t been as common since he had a gated fence put up around the lot—a fence he said was prompted not by dumpster divers but by the need to protect the bakery trucks from theft and vandalism.

These days, he says, Acme tries to donate as much of the day-old bread as possible to “virtually anyone who asks for it.” The loaves that come back from restaurants or grocery stores unused or damaged, on the other hand, present a thornier challenge.

“That bread has by and large been out of our control for a day or two,” says Sullivan. In other words, he and his colleagues can’t vouch for its quality. “We just don’t feel comfortable donating that to people for their fundraising dinners.”

Instead, dumpster-disposed bread at Acme gets sent to regional farms, where it’s used as animal feed.

As I climb into the bakery dumpster, Brooke Marino holds a flashlight.

“Are you grossed out?” she asks me over the lip of the dumpster. “A lot of people get grossed out when they do this.”

As it happens, plunked down on the doughy cushion and searching out the freshest loaves, I am not grossed out in the slightest. There is a reason that bakery refuse is considered the first and least radical stop on a dumpster diver’s food run. This is the gateway dumpster to more extreme and sanitarily questionable forms of scavenging. In here, you will find neither rotting meat nor spoiled milk. If vermin have been drawn to the bread along with the dumpster divers, they are courteous enough to remain out of sight. Living in abandoned squat houses without running water and resigning oneself to joblessness require grit and single-minded determination. Hopping over a fence at night and picking through bread loaves, on the other hand, is just the right combination of easy, ethical, and misdemeanor-degree illegal to make the whole exercise pretty fun.

Except for the flour and slightly sour yeast, there isn’t even a smell. Close your eyes, allow yourself to sink into the bread, and you might forget that you’re sitting in a trash can.

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