Last month the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency agreed to establish the “first ever national food waste reduction goal.” The program is not only notable for its ambition—it aims to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2015—but for the diversity of its participants. An array of churches, corporations, charitable organizations, and local governments has been asked to play a role. The plan, anodyne though it may be, will surely get a lion’s share of (dull) media attention.
But the one relevant group that’s been overlooked has the most to offer when it comes to reducing food waste: freegans. Freegans encourage eating food sourced from various waste streams pouring from the cracks of an excessively abundant food system. They’re scrappy scavengers who frequent grocery store alleyways, restaurant dumpsters, un-cleared food court tables, and anywhere else that yields a free meal and keeps freegan cash out of Big Food coffers—which kind of explains why the USDA and EPA aren’t terribly impressed. Freegans, who root their lifestyle in 1960s Berkeley-ish activism, package themselves as a subversive social movement.
Those mired in the freegan philosophy of resistance are likely to view organized freeganism as inimical to the movement’s anti-consumer ideology. But ideology is fungible.
Precisely what kind of movement—anarchist?, socialist?, punk?—is difficult to say. The freegan manifesto, as it were, reads as if it was written by a precocious if rant-prone high-schooler. It describes freeganism as a “withdrawal from the consumer death culture,” observes that “working sucks!,” condemns “the all oppressive dollar,” and implores us not to sacrifice “humanity to the evil demon of wage slavery.” Couching the generic dumpster dive in this rhetorically shrill language, a “stick-it-to-the-man” posture that supports an “anti-consumeristic ethic of eating,” the freegan manifesto might inspire angrier souls to thrust a fist skyward. But, for the sober-minded reformer, it threatens to condemn the movement to a kind of self-imposed solipsism. This is, after all, America.
Still, we cannot afford to dismiss freegans. When it comes to the logistics of reducing food waste, we need freegans. Nobody beats the on-the-ground knowledge and scavenging tenacity of a freegan. No group has better mapped and internalized the geography of waste—or been bolder about wading into the cesspools where trash accumulates—than the freegan. If I had any say in running a municipal government, I’d appoint a freegan tsar (assuming I could find one to work for the government), fund urban scavenging missions, and arrange to donate the proceeds of the hunt at a public market. And if you think those proceeds would be insignificant, think again.
Those mired in the freegan philosophy of resistance are likely to view organized freeganism as inimical to the movement’s anti-consumer ideology. But ideology is fungible. There is, after all, another way to interpret the impact of freegan behavior. When a group voluntarily scours the scummier corners of the capitalistic foodscape, sucking up the system’s waste, they’re just as plausibly doing that system a favor as they are condemning it. Sure, freegan dollars are not supporting Big Food, but freegans—in so far as they keep wasted food out of landfills—effectively buffer Big Food from the fallout of anti-environmental publicity. When freegan behavior reduces methane emissions linked to rotting food, it helps out food producers. Furthermore, assuming that freegans seek the best food they can acquire, there’s every reason to identify competition and the quest for individual self-sufficiency as pivotal forces driving the freegan mission. Individualism and the acquisitive impulse? Capitalism approves.
Big Food and the governing agencies that regulate it should not fear the freegans. Instead, they should give them free reign. Create policies that incentivize their scavenging; allow freegans to poke noses into everyone’s trash; provide them access to grocery store dumpsters and restaurant waste; tolerate their requests to eat your leftovers at the food court; foster the normalization of their work—work we too often look down upon. Because, in a way, their work is revolutionary. Not how that they think it is, but who cares? The USDA and the EPA certainly shouldn't.
The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.