One Person's Dumpster Is Another's Diner

Day One

No coffee, no beer. The significance of those words sank in with each heavy footfall that took me past my regular Starbucks on my way to the subway.

It was only Tuesday morning, and already I was having second thoughts. Three days of eating only food recovered from the garbage might have been excessively ambitious. Two years in the city have solidified my habits into those of quite the little consumer. I could already feel a bad mood encroaching. I needed my caffeine.

But my breakfast that morning -- a toasted onion bagel, a banana and a Greek yogurt, all recovered from garbage bags the night before -- was a step up from my usual oatmeal. And the anticipation of the lunch I was carrying -- a still-packaged Starbucks egg salad sandwich and another banana, also the products of last night's dumpster dive -- sustained me, for now.

The guided "trash tour" I'd participated in the night before left no doubt that this three-day experiment was a doable feat. If I'd had more hands, I could have gathered a week's worth of food from the garbage left on the sidewalk outside D'Agostino's, three Gristedes, and a Dunkin' Donuts. (Dunkin' Donuts tosses everything every twelve hours, according to an employee.) On top of uncountable loaves of bread and bagels, leaves of lettuce and slightly brown bananas, treasures that turned up included black-and-white cookies, ginger root, beets, Lunchables, and scallion pancakes. According to Madeline Nelson, who looks like your favorite librarian and dumpster dives for most of her food, dumpstering once a week can fulfill about 85 percent of your grocery needs. Twice-weekly dives can cover 90 to 95 percent. She didn't need to come out to the trash tour, because a friend recently stayed at her apartment, and as a thank-you gift he dumpster dove her fridge stock-full.

But she was there anyway, chatting and digging, offering around the orange peppers she found, stomping her feet to stay warm. Freegans are a sociable bunch.

There is an organized group of freegans in the city, called after its website, which draws between seven and twenty-odd members, ranging in age from teens to seventy-year-olds, to its various events. But there is no knowing how many freegans there are city-wide, or nation-wide, or worldwide, because the term freeganism is a broad belief that covers a broad range activities. If you've found a bookshelf on the street and taken it home, well, you're sort of a freegan.

Freeganism (a conjunction of "free" and "vegan") is the philosophy that participation in our capitalist economy makes a person complicit in the exploitative practices that are used to create consumer goods. One freegan defines the term as "living beyond capitalism," which can involve any number of practices: urban foraging, hopping trains, volunteering in lieu of working a paying job, repairing things like bikes and clothes instead of buying new ones, squatting instead of paying rent.

Leia Jools, 22, does many of those things. She and her boyfriend are on a "rent strike," Jools explained as she ate blueberries out of a container from the D'Agostinos trash. In other words, they are refusing to pay to live in their Bushwick, Brooklyn apartment, a tactic that Jools predicts will work for about eight months. The last time their landlord saw them in court, she says, "he looked like he was going to cry." Jools doesn't work for a living, which leaves her plenty of time to bike around looking for promising garbage piles. She was a raw vegan for awhile, which was fortunate, since she had no gas with which to cook. Now she is paying for electricity, after a stint in the dark, because she uses her apartment to build and repair bikes as part of a freegan bike recycling workshop.

One or two of the foragers at the trash tour appeared to be homeless, and not interested in chatting (although being homeless and freegan are not mutually exclusive, as is commonly assumed). They wolfed down a sandwich or two and then wandered off into the night. But the majority were brimming with culinary gusto. Shrieks of "Mushrooms! I found mushrooms!" sent a middle-aged woman scuttling over garbage bags. When a Gristedes employee yelled somewhat disdainfully, "I hope y'all here digging through the trash have enough respect to close the bags back up, cause otherwise the rats come through!" Nelson simply reminded the group to re-tie the bags. Everyone seemed cheerfully indifferent.

Their enthusiasm made it feel natural for newcomers like me to squat on a city street and dig through garbage bags as passersby looked and looked away, but I was anxious about doing it without the strength of numbers or the help of friendly veteran guides. My worry was not about getting in trouble; dumpster diving is not illegal. It was that on my own, I might look straight-up homeless.

For self-identifying freegans, embarrassment is not an issue. "I'm not so much bound by the illusions of our culture," says Adam Weissman, 29, who does activist work twelve to sixteen hours a day for no pay and lives on $20 a week.

"Being bound by the cultural norm of whether someone's going to think it's icky or weird for me to be going through the trash is far less compelling than my sense of embarrassment or horror that I would feel for being part of the problem, by basically pumping more fuel into the economy in the form of capital, in the form of money.

"So it's not that I'm in any way not cognizant of the fact that what we're doing is socially deviant. It's quite deliberate."

But I confess that when Tuesday night rolled around, it was my fear of stigma that kept me from doing as well as I could have. I couldn't bring myself to go through bags on well-lit or well-traveled streets -- even though to New Yorkers, I would hardly constitute a strange sight.

My two-hour dumpster diving tour yielded a box of frozen squash and a bag of organic lettuce from an East Village Gristedes; half a bag of organic vegan popcorn, a carrot stick and a head of broccoli from a West Village health food store called Lifethyme Natural Market; enough Dunkin' Donuts to feed an office (an entertaining thought -- only telling my co-workers after the tray's been picked clean that they've just enjoyed a freegan snack); and cannoli and cookies from an East Village bakery.

Nobody stared or voiced distaste. Conversations did not hush as couples passed me with my hand deep in a mess of chopped-up produce. No one offered me a dollar.

As I pulled the beaten-up box of frozen squash out of the trash in front of Gristedes, four NYU kids walked by, guitar cases on their backs. They slowed. I tensed. "All this delicious food, just thrown away," said one. I felt my face get hot. I was surrounded by them. "Anything good?" asked another.

I stood up, ready to walk away. But there was nothing threatening in the way they were kicking at the pile of trash. They were in earnest, I realized. "Mostly just bags of lettuce, and I found some frozen squash," I answered, my temperature returning to normal.

"Eh," the first one shrugged. "Not worth dumpstering."

Day Two

Caffeine withdrawal feels like an elephant sitting on your head.

So when my friend told me that she was about to clear her freezer out, I perked up. One of her roommates recently moved out, and apparently left behind a menagerie of comestibles, including bags upon bags of gourmet coffee. It was all headed for the trash, she said, unless I wanted to dumpster dive my way through their freezer.

I thought about it for a minute. Would that be a cop-out?

Hell no. Freegans are all about a "gift economy." They organize free food markets and clothing swaps. They believe in sharing and cooperation, and, of course, diverting waste from the landfill. Besides, I wasn't sure I could muster the energy to write anything worth reading in my half-awake state.

So I supplemented my rather meager coffers from the night before with dozens of frozen hot dogs, frozen corn, and best of all, four bags of coffee.

I broke out the coffee maker at work, and by the end of the day I was all hopped up, ready to rescue overstock and scoff at expiration dates. I was doubly optimistic because this time around, I would have a guide: an East Village freegan named Harmony, 21, had offered to show me the ropes.

Harmony and I made a killing. We even stopped at some of the same places I'd gone on my own the night before -- the same Gristedes and that Lifethyme Market I'd stumbled upon -- but Harmony's deft, methodical persistence left no promising bag unopened (until we had filled our shopping bags and our bellies, and started getting really picky). Where I found a knot too hard to untie, or a double bag too annoying to bother with, she found cereal, kitty litter, wrapped cinnamon buns, kale, brown rice and breaded tofu from a hot buffet, and her version of gold: avocadoes.

"Are you the freegans I've been hearing about?" a woman asked eagerly as she passed us on 6th Avenue. "Well, it's nice to see you!"

By the time we reached Harmony's favorite dumpstering spot, a Food Emporium in the West Village, I had already stuffed myself and gathered more than enough for the last day of my freegan diet. My bag was exploding and my interest in foraging had dwindled to the point where I was mostly content to watch as Harmony foraged. She could just as easily be transported back a thousand years to hunter-gatherer times and placed in a thicket instead of a pile of garbage, I thought as I munched on the spine of a pineapple, enjoying the taste of Maui while standing in a pile of garbage on a dark, slushy New York City street.

When we started for home, I was limping under the weight of my bounty. The bottom of my plastic bag was about to give. Two big eggplants and a tomato rolled out of Harmony's bag onto a drainage grate while we waited for a light. The tomato was expendable, but after deliberating, she decided she'd wash and bake the eggplants. It seemed such a shame to let them go to waste, again.

Day Three

When I started this experiment I had little interest in the politics of waste. I simply wanted to see whether a person could actually eat for free in a city where a sandwich costs $7. How freeing that would be, in a way. How strange an inversion of everything that drives us to go to work every day. We have to earn, we think, because we have to eat.

But after awhile, my exuberance at opening a bag to find it full of still-warm chocolate munchkins, or a hundred fat New York-quality bagels, or fifty plastic containers of organic lettuce from Mexico, or ten wrapped and ready-to-eat sandwiches, or two dozen firm, colorful peppers, was nudged out by dismay.

Dismay is the point. It's why the freegans are here, and not on some commune upstate. "I honestly can't think of a better place for me to be, and for us to be," Weissman said in an interview. He was wearing an eggplant-colored sweater that recalled the late eighties and navy pants that seemed to be part of an MTA worker's uniform. Like all his clothes, and all his food, this outfit had come from the trash.

"New York is in so many ways the global mecca of the marketing of capitalism, of the marketing of consumption, of the glorification of financial industries through Wall Street. It's so much the heart of global capitalism, I think it's absolutely vital for there to be a voice in this place ... to really say, we don't need to live this way, and in fact, the effects of this kind of living is really destroying the future for life on this planet, and at the same time, causing intense misery around the world."

Weissman had given a similar speech during the trash tour on Monday night, holding up a yogurt with a foil lid and detailing the casualties that marked its journey from a mine in Colombia to D'Agostino's. I had jotted down words in the margin of my notebook: "strip mines," "oil," "Colombian Civil War," "exploited," "farm workers," "product of carnage."

I wasn't listening. It was too distant to mean anything. The numbers, too, are beyond comprehension. So 5.4 billion pounds of food were lost at the retail level in 1995. So half the food produced in this country never gets eaten. I was more interested in the yogurt in his hand.

But now that I've had to throw away good food I've foraged from the trash to make room in the fridge for even better food, now that I've passed up wrapped cinnamon buns not because they're stale, but because there are fifty of them, it's started to sink in.

This happens every night all over the city, and to varying degrees, in every city across the country. All the energy that went into growing, producing, packaging, shipping, refrigerating, and dumping all this food is worth less than what it would cost a store to run out of something and fail to make a sale. So they deliberately overstock. And while the food and packaging gets dumped in landfills, people are going hungry just blocks away.

It's depressing. It's shameful.

It's delicious.

This article ran in the February 26 issue of Our Town downtown newspaper, a nine-month-old free weekly that covers downtown Manhattan.

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