November 26, 2005

This Weekend’s Unanswered Question (112605)

Filed under: Economy,Money Tip of the Day,TWUQs — Tom @ 11:44 am

Another installment in a nearly-regular series of mysteries and pseudo-mysteries (usually 3-4, but this time just one) this inquiring mind would like to have answers for (some links included may require free registration):

QUESTION: Is there a better name for the people who call themselves “freegans”?

First, a bit about who freegans are and what they do:

The Thanksgiving holiday is over and the frenzied Christmas shopping season has begun. This is bonanza time for the tribe of rummaging Americans known as “freegans.”

The anti-capitalist freegans — the name combines “free” and “vegan” — are so appalled by the waste of the consumer society that they try to live on the leftovers, scavenging for food in supermarket dustbins.

“It’s fun. It’s a thrill. It’s more fun and more satisfying than just going to the store and saying, ‘I wanted some bread and I got it’. It’s the surprise — and the prize,” said Janet Kalish, a New York high school teacher who describes herself as “60 per cent freegan”.

…… The freegan philosophy of “ethical eating” argues that capitalism and mass production exploit workers, animals and the environment.

Adam Weissman, a freegan activist and sometime security guard in New Jersey, says freeganism grew out of the radical 1960s “yippie” movement but also has affinities with the hobos of the Great Depression who travelled around the country by stealing rides on the railways.

“I have pity for people who have not figured out this lifestyle,” he said. “I am able to take long vacations from work, I have all kinds of consumer goods, and I eat a really healthy diet of really wonderful food: white asparagus and cactus fruit, three different kinds of mushrooms and four different kinds of pre-cut salad. And I’m just thinking of what is in my refrigerator right now.

“Essentially, the sky’s the limit. We found flat-screen TVs, working boom-boxes and stereos. I have put together most of my wardrobe. Last year’s designer clothing in perfect shape is discarded because it’s no longer fashionable, so I wear a lot of designer labels.”

Freegans often go “dumpster diving” in packs, delving into skips at supermarkets and restaurants.

On one level, I can see how you might have a bit of admiration for freegans, in the sense that they’re willing to go to extraordinary lengths to keep their own personal costs down. They’ve made an economic judgment that it’s worth enduring the muck and the “yuck” to get what they want.

But that’s as far as it goes, because it’s hard to avoid the fact that what they are doing is surely considered trespassing in most, if not all, jurisdictions. (I also wonder who they would sue if they got hurt while dumpster diving.)

Mr. Weissman’s statements also indicate that it’s not really about idealism. The fact is that the people who freegans consider “exploited” who participate in this “exploitative” capitalist system produce exponentially more food than any other system yet devised by man, even after subtracting the 27% waste factor claimed in the article (which appears to be valid, and which we as consumers ought to seek to minimize for our own good).

So if there is a lot of waste food, the problem is really how to get it safely to those who can’t afford it (y’know, “casualties of capitalism,” or whatever). Not surprisingly, these “so appalled” pseudo-idealists express no concern about this problem.

I’ve always thought that getting leftover food into needy mouths was impossible because of laws about food safety and concerns about legal liability if a recipient got ill. Well, in three minutes of Googling, I found out not only that I am wrong, but I learned of an organization in one city has been doing all they can to solve this problem for almost 17 years:

Every day, one quarter of the food produced in restaurants, businesses, and our own homes is left to go to waste. And yet, in DC alone, thousands of men and women go without food every day. DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) believes that waste is wrong–be it food, money, or the potential for productive human lives. That’s why we started the Food Recycling program: to combat waste and hunger.

DCCK drivers, trained in food sanitation and DCCK’s established policies on acceptable donations, use health-code approved transportation and sanitized containers to rescue prepared and perishable surplus food from hundreds of restaurants, hotels, university cafeterias, caterers, and other concerned businesses in the D.C. area. Between one and two tons of food are recovered every day.

Our 10,000 square foot kitchen includes dry storage space, five walk-in refrigerator/freezers, and modern kitchen equipment. It is in this kitchen that our chefs, Culinary Arts Job Training program participants and volunteers transform donated food into balanced, nutritious meals. Currently, approximately 4,000 meals are prepared daily and distributed to more than 100 non-profit agencies throughout the District, suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia each year.

….. In 2004, DC Central Kitchen reclaimed 1,458,177 pounds of food, and distributed approximately 1,450,000 million meals to its partner agencies in the DC Metropolitan area.

Additionally, DC Central Kitchen’s overview page notes that it began operations on January 20, 1989, and that it “serves as a resource for more than 60 community kitchens operating throughout the United States and, through the Campus Kitchens Project, has itself become a national program operating in several states and the DC metropolitan area.”

So if the freegans’ goal is really to reduce waste and not merely to reduce their own personal expenses, why aren’t they doing more to encourage the hotels, restaurants, and other companies generating these wastes to get in touch with an organization like DC Central Kitchen near them (or for that matter, starting one of their own)? And if they’re not, as appears to be the case, shouldn’t they really be called something else? My suggestions: “scavengers,” “hypocrites,” and “freeloaders.”
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UPDATE: Ace recommends the appellations “garbage hippies” or “dumpster hippies.”

UPDATE 2, Jan. 27, 2006: More free publicity for freegans (“garbage gourmets”).

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