Are You Going to Eat That?
Thoughts on “Freeganism” Today
By Judith Shimer
Freeganism, a mash-up of “free” and “veganism,” is a word I’ve really only encountered in slightly condescending newspaper articles. The rubbish-happy culture which adopted me in Scotland (and which thrives in parts of the States as well) doesn’t have a single name, and not everyone is vegan or vegetarian or a social activist. They share only a love of getting stuff for free — from the trash.
I was an instant convert. Suddenly I was proselytizing to everyone who didn’t already do it, including Argie, a games designer living in my hostel in London. He was predictably disgusted at first. “You mean, you look for food in people’s trash?” I could see the usual montage flashing through his head: meth addicts, a bitter night in December, half-eaten McDonald’s hamburgers.
“No no,” I assured him. “It isn’t people’s bins you want, it’s the supermarket dumpsters.”
There are many items in supermarkets that are considered unsellable after only a day — especially bread, even though it takes weeks to go stale in your fridge, and it can be stored for months in the freezer. Bread is abundant in supermarket skips (that’s regional for “dumpster,” making dumpster-diving “skipping,” which sounds more appealing anyway). And not only sliced white bread, but wholegrain bread, rolls, pastries, muffins, cupcakes, birthday cakes, scones, cookies, doughnuts, and these little pre-fried pancakes with maple syrup mixed in the batter, all neatly packaged and usually bundled safely together in fresh garbage bags.
Other skipping regulars include yogurt, juice, fruits and vegetables, prepackaged meals, and frozen meat. When you think about it, the obsessive quality of the products on supermarket shelves—un-dented, crisp corners, airtight shrink wrap and distant sell-by dates—requires massive amounts of waste. And all of the products which are unlikely to sell, less often because they’re rancid than because one edge of the wrapping is crushed, are doomed for the landfill.
“Damn,” said Argie. “I can’t wait ’til Waitrose closes.”
There’s no need to lecture on how many starving people could get fat on the things we throw out. But as if the waste isn’t depressing enough, consider the grocery stores that keep their dumpsters locked. You could make an argument for vermin, but what about the British chain that puts blue food coloring in the skips? That sure isn’t to dissuade raccoons. (It doesn’t dissuade some humans, either; our kitchen had electric blue smears all over.) The fact is, supermarkets don’t want their reputations spoiled by folks who look poor, or electively excuse themselves from certain social etiquette.
Like with everything we consume, edibility and safety aren’t the only factors when choosing what we eat. Convenience also counts—I can get that squeamish types might not want to climb into a dumpster. On the other hand, when I joined a group of students at Montserrat College of Art organizing a “Food Not Bombs” to give away meals cooked with rescued food, it was baffling the number of people who opted to buy their lunch at the restaurant down the street rather than eat something hot, delicious, convenient and free, sanctioned by the health department, and requiring absolutely no flies, no strange runny substances on shoes, and no people yelling at you to get out of the bins.
I didn’t understand. Why pay money when you don’t have to? The answer: We don’t buy food because we have to. We buy food because it’s our privilege. And if you surrender that privilege for a free meal, you may suffer from homelessness, weirdness or socialism.
My flatmate Scoutt found a dumpster key and was overjoyed at finally getting into the Costcutter bin down the street. This Costcutter does only seem to throw out a lot of one thing at a time—all sliced ham once, all Smirnoff Ice and vodka Irn Bru another—but that first night, Scoutt, Joey and I found six liters of orange juice.
Our glee was only a little dampened by the pub-crawler who halted at the side-street entrance and stared. “You’re in the bins,” he muttered, unable to believe his eyes.
“Yes, want some OJ?” said Scoutt, making to toss him a carton.
He just continued to stare. “You’re in the bins!” he said again, louder. “Freaks!” And then he walked off.
The three of us looked at each other and shrugged, pitying the fool who will waste hundreds of quid on orange juice in his lifetime.
For more information on Food Not Bombs, the alarmingly benevolent international anarchist free food organization, go to www.foodnotbombs.net.
Judith Shimer, contributing writer, fronts Ohio indie rock band The Alphabet.
NEW VOICES is a Bread and Circus Magazine feature in which emerging writers share their views on aspects of contemporary culture.