By Anne Johnson
NEW YORK CITY – With the light of the street lamps and the storefront windows, a small group of people rummage through piles of trash bags outside of the D’Agostino Supermarket on 38th Street at Third Avenue. “I’ve got tomatoes!” a muffled voice exclaims. Another asks, “Anyone want some corn flakes?” Quickly identifying this rag-tag assembly, a passerby hollers, “Freegans!” a witness to the freegan “trash tour.”
Freegans reuse goods thrown away by their neighbors. They recover everything from clothing and food to appliances and furniture.
The name “freegan” is a mashup of “free” and “vegan”. These two words reflect the core of freegan beliefs: vegans withdrawing from consumerism by subsisting completely on found and naturally grown food.
Due in part to the state of the economy, freeganism, also known as “dumpster diving”, is gaining popularity among college students. The anti-waste lifestyle of foraging for food in supermarket garbage has one major appeal towards students struggling to pay for tuition and housing: it’s free.
According to Alex Barnard, a senior at Princeton University and an active freegan, the practicality of freeganism is attractive to students. “It’s a way for people to take care of basic needs that doesn’t require money,” he clarifies.
Some may go on to become committed freegans who view the movement as much more than free food. “This is about building a life beyond capitalism,” explains Jason Tschantre, a freegan and recent graduate of Syracuse University.
This anti-consumerist view appeals to many students, claims Barnard, pointing out that educated 20-somethings have been challenging capitalism for decades since Woodstock in the 1960’s.
Every trash tour begins and ends with a speech. On this particular day Janet Kalish, a veteran freegan, lays down the rules before the organized dig begins: “Try not to block the sidewalk. Share whatever you find. And pick up your mess before you move on.”
Freegan.info, the organization behind this event, is run by the Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve. Founded in New York City in 1989, the grassroots activist community is run entirely by volunteers. The group conducts two trash tours a month in varying neighborhoods around New York City. This freegan version of grocery shopping is not only meant to feed the members of the freegan community but also to illustrate the wasteful nature of American consumerism.
According to USDA studies, retailers and consumers tossed out more than 96 billion pounds of food in 1995. This accounts for 26 percent of all edible food sources. New York City alone generates a half-million ton of food waste annually, according to the city’s Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Waste Prevention.
Timothy Jones, an anthropologist who worked for the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona, spent a decade studying the waste behavior of the average American family. In an NPR interview in 2006, Jones reports that most people have no idea how much food they throw away. He estimates that in a year a family of four throws out $590 worth of perishable food mostly because it is left to go bad when it could be used. Jones suggests planning a meal based on what is in the refrigerator and not on spontaneous cravings.
Instead of the refrigerator, freegans base their meals around what they find in the garbage. Tschantre, 26, stands in the drizzling rain at the last site along the trash route, a Gristedes at the corner of 32nd Street and Third Avenue. Behind him, others organize a display of the night’s findings as he delivers the closing speech. Pointing to the goods, he begins, “This trash means that the world is dying.” He goes on to describe the cost of mainstream consumerism to the environment.
Colin Jerolmack, a professor at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, began dumpster diving as a teenager in Philadelphia fishing out sweets behind his local Dunkin’ Donuts. While attending the City University of New York, Jerolmack became involved in the local freegan community. “College students are often middle class, but living at the poverty level,” he explains.
According to Maria Lewis, a member of the student activist group Take Back NYU!, the majority of the group’s members are active dumpster divers. Sophomore Andrea Mattocks explains, “It started because I couldn’t pay for my books and I had to look elsewhere to cut back.” So she started attending trash tours.
Closing his benediction of sorts, Tschantre says, “We’re doing this not just because we want to, but because we have to. It is our obligation.”