Flying the freegan flag

The people who collect the leftover food the rest of us throw out

If you see someone rummaging for food in a trash bin, don’t automatically assume they have no money to buy a meal. There are other reasons, besides necessity, for this type of behavior. The members of the freegan movement — as in free and vegan, although many freegans are in fact not vegans — collect the leftover food that people and businesses throw out. They do so to put the system’s excess production to good use, and also to point an accusing finger at the opulence and waste that defines our lifestyles. According to Save food, a study by the French food storage company Albal, Europeans discard 20 percent of food, 2.9 million tons of it in Spain alone. In monetary terms, it’s like each person throwing out 250 euros a year.

“Freeganism is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of productions ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts, most of which we may never even consider,” explains the website freegan.info. “Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.”

Freegans employ several strategies to live according to these principles. One is reusing discarded items, whether food, clothing or other. They believe wealthy societies produce such a vast amount of goods that it is possible to feed off discarded food. To do so, they practice what is known as dumpster diving, especially around supermarkets and restaurants, which throw out a significant amount of perfectly good food. In 2009, 33 million tons of food products were discarded in the US, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We find all kinds of food,” explains Madeline Nelson, a freegan activist from New York. “The most common item is bread, then fruit and vegetables, a lot of packaged food, meat, eggs and dairy products. [...] Discarded food may seem dirty or disgusting, but it is more disgusting for the US to throw away half of the food it produces each year.”

For now, it seems the movement has had little success in Spain, though isolated groups practice it on an experimental basis. One of these is a Madrid collective known as El Invernadero de Lavapiés, which organized a freegan meal last year. “We reached this point by studying the concept of parasystem. If the antisystem activists want to destroy the system, parasystem activists want to live on its fringes,” says Luis Tamayo, a group member.

To organize the meal, several “commandos” collected food for five days. “The trick is to know the good pick-up points,” says Tamayo. “In one day you can collect enough provisions for a month; otherwise you can spend the entire night rummaging through trash bins. Supermarkets are the place to go, because they discard a lot of food still in good condition, like a whole bag of oranges just because one of them has gone bad.” In the end, around 60 people partook of the meal. “All we needed to buy was oil and salt. We even had shrimp!”