This post originally appeared on LearnVest.com.
I ate food out of a dumpster.
And so are increasing numbers of educated, employed and perfectly sane people.
The movement is called freeganism, and its adherents use unconventional methods to get things for free. Although some are frowned upon, like digging through the trash, freegans also grow their own food and forage in the park for edible greens and berries.
Those who’ve joined the movement live off of free things for a variety of reasons: preserving the environment, protesting capitalism or just filling their pantries when times are tight. And they share the desire to protest the wastefulness of our food system.
Food, Food Everywhere …
Americans throw out an astounding 27% of available food, about a pound of food per day for each American.
This is because 1) stores feel pressured to keep shelves perfectly stocked at all times; 2) they throw out food with merely cosmetic blemishes; and 3) expiration dates demand that food gets chucked regardless of whether it has actually gone bad. For example, American bakeries keep shelves full all day long for purely aesthetic reasons; at closing time, whole shelves of bagels go directly in the trash.
What Being a Freegan Means
Freeganism started in the mid 1990s and has since spread across the U.S. … and the world. Because freegans tend to be anti-establishment, there are no official numbers on how many exist, but groups meet up periodically for discussion and dumpster diving.
For the most part, stores and restaurant managers ignore freegans, who strive not to bother anyone or make a mess. And there’s no legal gray area: Once trash gets put out on the sidewalk, it’s no longer the property of a store and is available for anyone bold enough to walk away with it—or cook it up for their own ends.
Of course, one of my first questions to a freegan was about food safety. One woman, a freegan since 2003, told me she’s never gotten food poisoning. It’s very uncommon, she said, because freegans take extra precautions in washing and cooking food. Plus, many are also vegans (hence the wordplay), so they don’t eat much meat …
To find out whether a person could actually get a balanced diet from dumpsters—or if the whole thing is just insane—I attended a freegan trash tour, run on a biweekly basis by freegans in Manhattan who want to highlight how much waste consumers and businesses really produce, and, in the process, bring more people over to their side.
And then, the next night, they kindly invited me over for a freegan feast—to taste the results of our foraging.
Here’s how the events unfolded.
Foraging for My Food
Monday, 9:30 p.m.: I meet up with the group outside a large grocery store. Since, by now, most food establishments have put out their garbage for collection the next day, the freegan pickings are plentiful at night. Some attendees are hardcore freegans, and some are curious tourists. They range from college students to one man who looks like he’s in his seventies. Nobody (besides a fellow reporter) is dressed really nicely, but nobody looks homeless either. Overall, the crowd looks smart, sane, open-minded … a lot like people you might pass on a hiking trip.
Before we take off, our leader explains freegan etiquette: always retie all the bags and leave the trash pile cleaner than you found it (to prevent being banned from a store in the future). Also, share what you find with the group. Certain foods come in quantities that are more than you can handle, and while you might not want a bruised apple, someone else in the group might …