Taking a Stance on Food Waste

Freegans live on what our nation throws away, journeying into “off-limits” territory by going so far as to eat food from supermarket dumpsters.

| February 2017

  • Many freegans found their encounter with New York’s vast stream of food waste emotionally wrenching, and dumpster diving brought new people into these groups as well as reaffirming the commitments of those already involved.
    Photo by Fotolia/highwaystarz
  • “Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America” by Alex V. Barnard.
    Cover courtesy University of Minnesota Press

While one in six people in the United States faces hunger, 40 percent of our nation’s food goes to waste. No one objects more strongly to this imbalance than “freegans,” who try to live only on what others throw away — including food. In his book, Freegans (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), Alex V. Barnard has built a portrait of this movement that encompasses ethical consumption, effective forms of action, America’s food system, and the limits of consumer activism, all while showing why more and more people are challenging capitalism in such a radical way.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Taking the Freegan Plunge

At some point during their unsatisfying travails through environmental or animal rights activism, each of the individuals I interviewed encountered the term freegan. Many initial impressions were far from positive. Janet remembered that she first heard about freeganism from a former student, who told her that she had a freegan boyfriend who didn’t work and expected her to pay his rent. As Janet perceived it, freegan meant “freeloader”: she admitted, “It seemed sort of negative when I first heard it.” Leia’s first experience with a freegan was when a friend refused to chip in for the phone service in their shared apartment, citing “freegan” principles that allowed him to use a free phone but not to pay for it.

Something changed, however, when they encountered freegan .info. For over half of the freegans I interviewed, this discovery came through the Internet. Sowmya said that she learned about freegan .info while searching for activist groups on meetup.com. She went to the freegan homepage and, upon seeing the group’s simultaneous denunciation of human, environmental, and animal abuse, thought to herself, “These are all the causes I am so passionate about.” For her:

Freeganism answered a lot of questions. I’ve been involved in a lot of social causes and something was missing in each and every movement. For example, the animal rights movement — PETA, for example — they wouldn’t address environmental issues. And the environmental groups I was involved in wouldn’t acknowledge animal rights. I felt like this was my chance to be involved with something that I know is going to create a change.

Consistent with other research on the growing importance of the Web in activist recruitment, the Internet furnished a way for freegan activists to become aware of the movement without following preexisting social ties or organizational links.49 Yet freegan.info’s website only piqued activists’ interest because its critiques of capitalism and of most activism within capitalist society resonated with ideas they had already been slowly developing.

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