Freegans Say No To Waste By Dumpster Diving

Have you ever heard of freegans? Dumpster-diving? It’s all part of a movement to work within what participants call “the free economy.” And it’s fueled by excessive waste, particularly wasted food.

You don’t have to look far to realize just how much food gets wasted every year. How much do you personally buy, only to watch it wind up in the trash or a compost pile when it’s past its prime? Now add in the waste from supermarkets, restaurants, and unharvested crops. All total, nearly half of the U.S. food supply goes to waste according to Timothy Jones, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona who spent ten years measuring food loss.

Freegans are people who tap into that constant supply of wasted food when it’s still fresh and edible. They rescue the food in order to redistribute it, feed themselves, or even turn it into compost if it’s not safe to eat.

And for your viewing pleasure, I’m serving up TWO videos today. One is a CNN report on freegans, and another is an on-the-scene look at a massive haul some folks had at a single Trader Joe’s dumpster.

3 Cases of Organic Tomatoes Rescued From a San Francisco Dumpster and Transformed Into Canned Tomato Sauce

3 Cases of Organic Tomatoes Rescued From a San Francisco Dumpster and Transformed Into Canned Tomato Sauce

The first time I’d heard about dumpster diving for food, the people doing it were hippies living up in the mountains of Oregon. I dismissed their legendary finds as myth. People didn’t throw away perfectly good food, did they? Surely something was wrong with the food? Otherwise they’d be giving it to food banks or soup kitchens, right?\

Wrong.

Because of an interesting mix of laws, retailers are often forced to throw away perfectly good food.

Check out the promised videos and see if your “Ick Factor” for dumpster-diving still remains high.

Here’s the CNN report on Freegans:

And here’s the haul from ONE Trader Joe’s (WARNING: There is a small amount of profanity in this video.):

(Did you notice the three unopened gallon jugs of Seventh Generation laundry detergent they scored in addition to all that food?)

But digging through the trash isn’t the only way to rescue food.

I remember the first time I saw an orchard go unharvested.  I traveled past it every day, waiting and waiting for a horde of migrant farm workers to descend on it and pluck the ripe peaches from the trees. First a few peaches dropped to the ground, then more and more.

One day we decided we couldn’t let the peaches go to waste, so we went and harvested them ourselves. Being conscientious, we only collected the fruit that had fallen and yet remained mostly unbruised and pest free. That way, if the orchard were actually scheduled to be harvested soon, we wouldn’t be stealing the “good” food still on the trees.

Looking back, I wish I’d been a little less conscientious. That orchard wasn’t harvested that year. Hundreds of trees, thousands of pounds of plump, perfect peaches simply fell off the trees to rot.

Whether it’s dumpster-diving, gleaning, or foraging wild foods, the freegan culture has tapped into something important (and not just an elevated sense of frugality). They are, in their own small way, revolutionaries opting out of the dominant food system simply by not supporting it with their money.

(lead photo by jeremypullen)
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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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21 Responses to Freegans Say No To Waste By Dumpster Diving
  1. Christina
    May 21, 2009 | 5:23 pm

    I have an extended family member that I am very close to. He is a wealthy businessman, drives nice vehicles, and is basically a clean-cut, well-mannered gentleman. He’s also a dumpster diver. Actually, sometimes he doesn’t even have to touch the dumpster itself, as Kroger just kindly wheels baskets and baskets of perfectly good food out behind their store. He gets so much food from behind Kroger’s that he shares what he finds with all the rest of us happy-to-receive extended family members. And it’s not just conventional produce. TONS of organic produce. Specialty items. Gourmet dips. Still-frozen meat. Cakes, bread, pastries from the bakery. Normally the catch to the food items is that they expired that day. He’s gone dumpster diving behind other types of stores, and he pulls out numerous high-dollar crystal bowls and platters that, for the life of us, we can’t figure out what’s wrong with them except maybe they’ve passed the holiday season for selling such things. The waste in America is horrific.

  2. Leesie
    May 21, 2009 | 9:06 pm

    Wow, what an eye-opener! I had no idea about this dumpster diving stuff. Obviously, not enough of the people who can and should benefit from it know about it.

    I live in New York State. In New York City there is a program called City Harvest. According to its website: City Harvest, a non-profit organization founded in 1982, is the world’s first and New York City’s only food rescue program. Now serving New York City for over 25 years, City Harvest is the world

  3. CHEESESLAVE
    May 21, 2009 | 9:34 pm

    I have mixed feelings about this.

    On one hand, I think it’s great. Good for them — free food!

    On the other hand, most of the food freegans find is not good for you. The example above re: Kroger’s — most of the food at Kroger’s is not healthy food. I find a hard time finding real food at Kroger’s.

    Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, they have a lot of good food. So I can see dumpster diving there.

    Overall, it makes me sad that so much food gets thrown away. I freeze my leftovers and waste very little food.

    But I didn’t used to. I used to waste a lot of food.

    I think it really depends on your view of food. Now that I spend more on food and value food more and spend more time shopping for it and preparing it, I am extremely loathe to waste it. Back when I was eating cheap crackers and pasta and convenience foods that were easy to prepare, I dind’t mind throwing it away.

    I would never become a freegan because I would find very little in dumpsters that I would want to eat. Call me a snob, I guess. But I’m not interested in eating any processed or packaged foods.

    I also don’t have time to do dumpster diving. I think these people are making a statement and I think that’s good. But I’d rather buy high-quality foods from local farmers and use every bit of them.

    CHEESESLAVE

  4. vehement flame
    May 21, 2009 | 9:56 pm

    I can’t believe you posted this today. We just got our latest issue of National Geographic with an article about the dwindling food supply. The article basically states that we can’t grow enough food to feed the overpopulated world and that it is getting worse UNLESS we save it by either GMOs or Organic and sustainable farming… I am siting there rading this article about how although the crops that were harvested exceeded all prior years- It wasn’t enough to meet the demand.. how hogs in China are greedy and eat a ton of corn and soybeans, yack, yack ,yack… there isn’t enough food to feed the world… But while I am reading it I am thinking “What about all the food we waste?” Corporate American Consumer Greed. that’s who is eating all the food- that and the landfills apparantly. and uhh- I’ll be watching my whole foods dump after hours to see what goes down:)- But I think whole foods gives a whole lot of stuff to food banks.

    vehement flame

  5. Sheri aka Mom
    May 21, 2009 | 10:02 pm

    Thanks for sharing two great videos, Kristen. It’s amazing how much food is wasted and what a great idea to take some back. I agree with AM though, I’d go for the Trader Joe one!

  6. KristenM
    May 21, 2009 | 11:33 pm

    Yeah, I shared the Trader Joe’s video b/c the haul in the CNN video wasn’t really appealing to me as a lover of Real Food. But most of the stuff from Trader Joe’s was organic. And even though it wasn’t necessarily locally or ethically grown, it’s not like you’re paying money for it and supporting Big Food with your hard earned cash. And from a nutritional standpoint, it’s decent compromise food.

    That said, I’ve only ever rescued furniture and other household items from the trash. Any freegan food I’ve gotten has been through gleaning or foraging, not dumpster diving (although I have shared in my friends’ dumpster diving bounty on occasion).

    What really gets to me is just how much waste there is. It’s a tell tale sign of how inefficient our system is, and how so much of this talk about “feeding the world” is just platitudes. That’s the biggest reason I shared these videos.

  7. Kimbrah
    May 22, 2009 | 12:07 am

    Some friends of ours turned us on to the fact that Trader Joe’s was dumping a lot of stuff so we started going behind their store and found neatly wrapped plastic bags of meats, still cold from the case that had either that day’s or the next days’ expiration date, among other great things like in the video.

    Recently our Trader Joe’s store has taken measures to prevent “freegans” by placing rows of shopping carts in front of the dumpster and having a guard posted there to keep folks from looking. Its disheartening to see that they would rather truly waste all of that food than share it with folks who may need it and would never dream of suing them for any reason. :(

    Kimbrah

  8. Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship
    May 22, 2009 | 5:46 am

    What an interesting post. I don’t think I’ll be a dumpster diver, but I sure hate to waste food. Here’s a post on the stats of America’s food waste, if you’re interested: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2009/02/28/food-for-thought-americas-food-waste/

    Thanks for educating us!

    Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship

  9. Motherhen68
    May 22, 2009 | 7:44 am

    Not only is the waste shameful, but these companies who use compactor dumpsters SPECIFICALLY to foil the dumpster diver’s attempts to get the food. There’s not a grocery store in my town that doesn’t have a compactor. Even the Goodwill compacts stuff and sends it to the dump. It’s horrible.

    Motherhen68

  10. Vin | NaturalBias.com
    May 22, 2009 | 8:07 am

    As I become more aware of what it takes to provide our food, especially animal products, I’ve become very conscious about waste. And not just food. The Story of Stuff provides a pretty good example of how we’re wasteful with everything.

    I do my best to not contribute to waste, but dumpster diving? Yikes! I think it’s awesome that people are taking advantage of the opportunity. Regardless if there motive is to simply survive or to save some money, they’re reducing waste. Personally, I’m appreciative of having the means to not have to dumpster dive myself.

    Perhaps I should have included dumpster diving in my post about making organic food more affordable! lol! I suppose if I couldn’t afford organic food, I’d consider hanging out in the back of the local health food store. :)

    Vin | NaturalBias.com

  11. Christina
    May 22, 2009 | 2:13 pm

    Cheeseslave,
    I agree with you that there’s not MUCH real food at Kroger’s, but ours here does have a health food section with a few things and tons of produce (both organic and conventionally grown). For some reason, the majority of what our Kroger’s throws out in abundance is the perfectly-good produce. My family member who’s a dumpster-diver is not into health food, but had to buy an extra fridge/freezer and a juicer just to process all the produce he gets. And our family gets the rest of the real food (mostly produce). :) He keeps all the processed junk he finds and shares it with others who don’t care what they eat. And because the health food section at Kroger’s has little traffic, many things from there get tossed as well because they expire before purchased. Last week it was a load of Garden of Eden blue chips along with all the perfect produce at Kroger’s (which I have tried to research to see if the blue chips are reasonably healthy as an occasional treat and can’t come up with anything online about “blue corn” — anyone know?).

    P.S. We had a gathering at our house a while back of about 25 people. My dumpster-diving family member brought a large gorgeous fruit platter to go along with the meal. I looked at him and said, “Wow! That’s really pretty.” He whispered back at me, “Dumpster.” ;)

    It’s become the family joke. We heart dumpster food. Well, REAL food from the dumpster anyway!

  12. Walter Jeffries
    May 22, 2009 | 6:00 pm

    Fortunately many companies are doing something with their excess. This week we got 800 lbs of butter from a local dairy. We get about 1,400 gallons a day of whey from a cheese maker. We pickup 800 lbs a week of pressed apples from a local cider maker. Last month I got 30,000 lbs of cottage cheese. An ice cream maker gave us two tons of out dated peanut butter – as if peanut butter ever goes bad! Fortunately they called us instead of paying tipping fees to dump it in the dump. We’re happy to get it and it is great food for our pigs. Our pigs eat about 90% of their diet by dry weight from pasture in the summer and hay in the winter. About 7% comes from local dairies and the remaining 3% is good stuff like excess pumpkins, beets, turnips we grow and good stuff like the peanut butter and apple pomace.

    It’s not waste, it’s a resource!

    Cheers

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog/
    http://HollyGraphicArt.com/
    http://NoNAIS.org

  13. EcoYogini
    May 23, 2009 | 8:14 am

    While living in Montreal one of my grad student friends began dumpster diving- she called herself a “freegan” and there was an entire group organized in Montreal that did that.

    I think it is interesting that while the media is going on about low food supply, world hunger, huge corporations are throwing out perfectly good food. My fiance worked for a huge supermarket chain in BC, and he said that they threw out TONS of fresh produce and perfectly good food. They weren’t even allowed to donate this food to homeless shelters or food banks.

    Honestly, I think legislation to stop this kind of huge corporate waste would be helpful- perhaps requiring that food be sorted and donated to homeless shelters or food banks with only the truly “bad” food being composted.

    Unfortunately, despite being provincially mandated that Nova Scotians must compost (we have a compost pick up system) by law, larger corporations are exempt. Those that could make the most difference don’t have to abide by recycling and composting laws. It’s so frustrating.

    EcoYogini

    • Tailor Dresden
      July 5, 2011 | 10:53 am

      Hi there,

      I know you posted this a while ago, but I recently moved to Montreal and have been looking for a group of freegans since I got here without success. If you could remember the name of the group or get me in contact with some one I would be very grateful!

      -Tailor

      • Jonathan
        October 29, 2011 | 2:03 pm

        Hi Tailor, I am currently doing a research paper on freeganism and I would be very interested in conducting a short interview with you. We could meet anywhere that is convinient. I would not take much of your time. An interview would really help me with my paper since there has not been that much research conducted on this form of lifestyle.

        Thanks!

  14. Jen
    May 23, 2009 | 10:22 am

    Christina, I recently purchased some Garden Of Eatin Blue Corn chips from my organic delivery service. I couldn’t see the ingredients online before I bought them (although I probably could have found them at the company website). They’re made with organic blue corn, so I think that’s fine. However, they do contain canola oil and/or safflower oil, and/or sunflower oil. They are mechanically expressed oils, so no chemicals. The bag also states that there are no GMO ingredients. What concerns me though, is that “spices” and “natural flavor” are ingredients, and we all know what that probably means… MSG. Yuck! I won’t be purchasing them again.

  15. Salt Lake City Caterer
    September 3, 2009 | 2:14 pm

    That is pretty crazy that 50% of good food is wasted. I think the problem is that most people wouldn’t know where to take the food to give it away or are too lazy to take it somewhere.
    -Jack

  16. Erin Facet
    July 29, 2010 | 6:47 pm

    So! I was at a party on Saturday! I couldn’t believe the food that was thrown into the garbage! Then there was the woman who stood chatting while water ran down the drain! Meantime horses are being murdered in the roundups all over the country!

    Where can I find a Freegan group in San Francisco? I want to join the revolution!

    Erin

  17. Kee Heywood
    October 6, 2010 | 2:40 pm

    Hi everybody!

    I’m a film student at the San Francisco Academy of Art University. Dumpster diving has interested me for several years now, and I’ve done a little bit of it myself. I was hoping to produce a short documentary on freeganism and dumpster diving around the city, and was wondering if anybody knew of any regular groups or individuals who could help me out. I’d appreciate the help! Thanks!

    -Kee

  18. Eff
    June 9, 2011 | 4:38 pm

    All-new Docu-Reality Series Seeking People who eat for FREE!
    Do you get a thrill out of spending little to no money on food?
    Do you dedicate your life to scoring meals in clever ways?
    Have you perfected the art of dumpster diving, coupon clipping to an obsessive degree or bartering your way to a full stomach?
    Do you crash events, meetings and open houses just for the free feast?
    Do you live in a big city, but manage to spend little money in gastronomical gains?

    This all-new docu-series for a major cable network will explore the lives of people who have mastered the art of EATING FOR FREE. We will follow individuals who dedicate their lives to acquiring food in crafty ways and revel in the thrill of their success. Ideally we are looking for candidates who proudly do this as a ‘life-style’ and not just as an occasional side interest. If you are a resourceful renegade who has forged a way of living that enables you to eat practically for free, whatever your reason/strategy may be, we want to MEET YOU!

    To be considered, please send us your name and contact info, along with a brief bio explaining your specific situation and approach to eating for free. Make sure to include a recent photo of yourself and send in an email to: [email protected]. Please put “EFF CASTING” in the subject line of your email submission.

  19. student in san francisco
    May 10, 2012 | 12:50 am

    Dumpster Diving rocks. I go to college in San Francisco and our campus provides awesome seasonal and well prepared mostly organic food. I live in an all girl’s dorm and thrive off dumpster diving. These girls buy so much and consume so little! Some nights I find 1/4 delivery pizza, entire containers of thai and chinese takeout, 1/2 boxes of sushi, half consumed bags of gourmet chips and crackers, tons of candy, and of course the barely touched “bought it cause it came with something else” salad, fruit, rice, or tofu. Tonight I scored an unopened bag of shredded mozzarella, delicious roasted potatoes, and fruit salad. long live the dumpster dive.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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