Live Free, Dive Hard

Freegans reject capitalism and consumerism by living primarily off scavenged or secondhand food and necessities

Jun 11, 2009

Alexandra Graves

The Dumpster gapes open and Elijah McCloskey lunges forward. Soon, only the bottom of his olive green trench coat and designer denim-clad legs are visible. The top half of his body is in the dumpster, where he is rummaging for bagels, produce, liquor—whatever he can eat or use, he’ll take.

McCloskey is not homeless, nor is his roommate Nick Simmons, who is also halfway submerged in a Dumpster behind a grocery store on Madison’s east side. Although they reject the label, McCloskey and Simmons fit the definition of freegans, a term coined to describe people who reject capitalism and consumerism by living primarily off scavenged or second-hand food and necessities.

“That’s a media term,” Simmons says of his distaste for the label, but his glasses, held together on both sides with tape, hint at the same minimalist values touted by freegans.

The Freegan Spectrum

The website, based out of New York City, defines freegans as “people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.” That’s a broad definition, but it reflects the reality that, like most lifestyles, freeganism runs on a spectrum.

“Compared to some people, we’re definitely posers,” McCloskey says, comparing Simmons and himself to a more devout freegan friend whose “idea of a snack is going to the outdoor trash can at KFC and wrenching it open.”

Diving for food, radical as it may seem, falls on the mild end of the freegan spectrum. On the other end are freegans who wipe themselves off the financial map almost entirely by living in abandoned buildings and shunning conventional jobs. Simmons, twenty-two, has lived on both ends of the spectrum and says he found some peace in living sparely, purposefully unemployed and living rent-free in an abandoned warehouse. Now, he shares a house with five people and started a business with McCloskey salvaging, building and repairing bicycles.

“It’s not about being a martyr for any political or moral reason, it’s about knowing how to survive and knowing how to give yourself a decent life,” Simmons says, explaining why he doesn’t take issue with putting himself back on the financial grid. Running his business successfully will mean disconnecting from his old lifestyle to a certain degree, since he lived below the poverty line for the last several years. Still, he doesn’t ever envision himself walking into big-box stores on a regular basis.

“I work, I build my business up, but I’m not the kind of person who will just slave away for the pursuit of having lots of useless possessions,” Simmons says. “I value my time more than that so, no, I don’t see myself stopping this anytime soon.”

McCloskey, twenty-one, began Dumpster diving for decidedly less philosophical reasons than Simmons.

“I was poor. It’s free. And why let food go to waste?” McCloskey says, adding that diving was also a social activity among the political activists he had begun hanging out with. Dumpster diving is no longer a financial necessity for him, but he continues doing it because he saves hundreds of dollars a month in food bills. As his financial situation improved, he became more selective about what he salvaged from the dumpster. “There are definitely things to avoid, and Chinese food is one of them,” McCloskey says as he emerges from a Dumpster empty-handed. He and Simmons agree that meat is another Dumpster food to avoid, except in the winter when it freezes.

Alexandra Graves

“There’s also a danger of eating way too much junk food when you go to these places,” says Simmons, holding up a package of sugar-fried caramel crème wafers.

They’re less concerned with the more obvious dangers lurking in the Dumpsters, like food-borne illnesses—after all, they wash packaged food and cook everything thoroughly. Neither has gotten food poisoning from Dumpster food, but Simmons watches the newspaper for food recalls so they can avoid the large batches of contaminated food that are thrown out as a result.

"[Freeganism] ... is considered a serious and real response to the economic situation.”

Food retailers throw most of their food away because of quality issues rather than food safety concerns, says Franco Milani, an assistant professor of food science at the UW–Madison. The starches in bread and other baked goods change structure quickly and must be thrown out frequently, which explains why freegans say bread is their number one Dumpster find. For other food products, strict brand management policies are to blame for edible food ending up in the garbage, Milani says. Food manufacturers build up an image of their product and consumers expect consistent flavor and texture every time they purchase that brand. Manufacturers request that their products be thrown out by a certain date to insure that consistent experience, even though the food is not necessarily unsafe.

“If it’s not beautiful, it’s a tough sell,” says Monica Theis, a senior lecturer in the department of food science at UW who also works on food supply coordination with UW Housing and other schools. Milani and Theis agree that food distribution waste reflects a larger problem of over-consumption in the U.S., a habit that has come under fire since the economic meltdown last fall. Interest in freeganism has peaked as more Americans address their financial problems and return to more frugal buying patterns.

“ has seen a huge influx in the last few months,” says Alex Barnard, a recent graduate of Princeton University who wrote his thesis on freeganism and spent three months studying and living the lifestyle in New York City. “Just a few years ago, [freeganism] was considered really marginal and now it’s considered a serious and real response to the economic situation.”

Freeganism is also considered a response to what some liberal activists see as a disconnection between causes they care about, Barnard says. In his research, he found that many freegans were animal rights or environmental activists who grew disillusioned with mainstream activist organizations because they failed to see their causes as part of a larger issue.

“At the root of animal abuse, at the root of environmental abuse and at the root of human abuse is [modern] capitalism,” says Barnard. “[Freeganism] focuses on all these different political problems simultaneously.”

Food Fight

Dumpster diving may address political problems, but in some areas, it can cause problems with the law. In Madison, the fine for rubbish scavenging will set Dumpster divers back $109, or as much as $424 if their behavior is considered unlawful trespassing or disorderly conduct.

“We know a lot of people do this, but I suppose a lot of people don’t get in trouble because they don’t cause a disturbance or make a mess,” says Sergeant Patrick Grady of the Madison Police Department.

At Copp’s grocery stores, Dumpster divers aren’t a concern for managers because all garbage is compacted and inaccessible, according to Tony Brown, manager of Copp’s on Whitney Way. Brown added that Copp’s stores donate day-old bakery items and some produce to nonprofit organizations to reduce food waste. The Willy Street Co-op also cuts down on food waste by offering less-than-perfect produce at discounts and food that can’t be sold to employees.

“If it’s in the Dumpster, it’s almost always there for a good reason,” says communications director Brendon Smith, who added the Co-op hadn’t run into any problems with dumpster divers.

"Hippie Christmas"

At the end of each dive, Simmons and McCloskey carefully replace Dumpster lids and load everything they’ve collected into the rusted pickup truck Simmons bought for $340. Their discretion is probably why they don’t run into any trouble with the police in Madison. According to Grady, the department only concerns itself with Dumpster divers if property owners call them or the divers are slamming lids or otherwise disturbing the community.

If there’s anywhere that Dumpster diving wouldn’t disturb the community, it’s Madison. During student move-outs in May and August, sidewalks and Dumpsters spill over with usable furniture, electronics and unopened containers of food. This free-for-all has been dubbed “Hippie Christmas” and city ordinances are designed to allow nonprofit organizations to legally collect discarded furnishings during and after the student move-out periods. Although McCloskey and Simmons don’t qualify for legal scavenging during those periods, Hippie Christmas makes their lifestyle more viable and they stock up on food, clothes and furniture they find on the sidewalk.

McCloskey lives in a town that celebrates Hippie Christmas, hangs out with a lot of Dumpster-savvy people and has a passion for frugality. So why the designer jeans? Simmons snickers and explains: “His girlfriend makes him buy nice clothes.”

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