Dumpster Diving for Dinner – Freeganism explored

I confess. I watch Oprah sometimes – not religiously, but sometimes. I TIVO the show, then take a look at the description. If it looks interesting, I’ll watch it. If not, it gets deleted.

Yesterday’s topic du jour mentioned something about Lisa Ling investigating the lifestyle of “Freegans.” I had never heard of Freegans or Freeganism before, but I am a fan of Lisa Ling, (anyone remember her from “Channel One News” in high school?), so I decided to take a look to see what it was all about and I’m glad I did.

Freegans are “a grassroots subculture is made of people who have decided to live outside consumer society. Freegans say our culture’s emphasis on buying the newest products—and throwing away perfectly fine older things—is a waste of the world’s resources. Instead, they focus on buying less and use only what they need. One of the main ways freegans do this is by salvaging food and other goods from the trash.”

The focus of the episode was really on how much we as Americans consume and how much we waste. What and how much do we really need to live? What void are we trying to fill as we consume and consume? Will we ever be happy?

freegansOn this episode of Oprah, Lisa Ling followed around Madeline, who previously earned a 6-figure income before becoming a self-professed freegan, and others as they went on a “trash tour” in New York, exploring dumpsters at grocery stores and bakeries for salvageable food that had been tossed. The quantity of edible food was both remarkable and disturbing in that stores are letting so much go to waste. Some of the food was slightly past its sell-by date, some was getting close to the sell-by date, and there really was no explanation as to why some of the food was in the trash. There was produce, eggs, but also a lot of packaged food, still perfectly wrapped.

The food Madeline and the others find is far from gross. “‘It’s not toxic waste,’ she says. Much of the food is still in its original packaging and has been discarded largely for cosmetic reasons, not because of poor quality. She shows Lisa how cartons of eggs are regularly thrown away when there’s one broken egg—even though there are 11 perfectly good ones remaining. Fruit is often thrown away when it has only minor dents, she says.”

Official surveys indicate that every year more than 350 billion pounds of edible food is available for human consumption in the United States. Of that total, nearly 100 billion pounds – including fresh vegetables, fruits, milk, and grain products – are lost to waste by retailers, restaurants, and consumers.

Lisa and Oprah also talked with a newlywed couple, Daniel and Amanda – a doctor and civil engineer – who believe in freeganism as well. I read a bit on their blog last night. Good food for thought – pun intended. 😉

The show definitely got me thinking and I hope it did others as well. While I don’t know that I’m going to run out and go dumpster diving for my dinner tonight, I admit that the idea does have it’s merits, namely that by salvaging food from the dumpster you are keeping it out of the landfills. I do have my concerns regarding safety and whether or not it is legal. I noticed the people on Oprah did their dumpster diving in the dark. Is that because that’s when the food has freshly been tossed or is it because they shouldn’t be digging around in the dumpsters by law or both?

Ava watched some of the show with with me (I turned it off when it got to the part about the mom who works as a stripper to provide for her kids, not that I disagree necessarily, but I didn’t think it was appropriate for Ava to watch) and when I half-jokingly, half-seriously talked about going shopping for our groceries in the trash next time, she commented, “I don’t want to eat food out of the trash. That’s gross.” It spurred a good discussion between us where I pointed out that all of that perfectly edible food being wasted wasn’t good either.

Eating food found in dumpsters might be too extreme for most people, but the message from the show was clear, consumerism and excessive waste in this country is out of control and something needs to change.

So what do YOU think? Do you think Americans in general consume and waste too much? Would you ever consider eating food out of the trash?

If you are interested in doing further reading, I came across some other interesting articles on the subject.

There’s also a site dedicated to Freeganism – Freegan.info – including a dumpster directory and a link to “find freegans near you.” It was down for a while after Oprah’s show aired, but it’s back online now.

36 thoughts on “Dumpster Diving for Dinner – Freeganism explored”

  1. Very interesting. I don’t think I’d go as far as eating out of a dumpster myself, but I do find it makes an interesting point about consumerism and how very wasteful we are as a nation. Certainly makes one stop and think.

  2. Apparently my dad did this when we were growing up. We’ve also eaten roadkill many a time. Now, it wasn’t the nasty week-old dried out stuff–it was always deer that had just been killed by a car. In my home state, there’s a state roadkill program that alerts people on a special list when there is a new roadkill, so they can go pick it up. Actually some of the best venison I’ve ever had was a young roadkill deer, probably less than a year old. Very tender.

  3. Have you ever heard of “gleaning”? These are groups that work with stores to take their edible items that can no longer be sold. My aunt used to belong to one.

    Basically, the members of the group took turns picking up the stuff that would have gone in the trash and then works out how to get it to the rest of the group (leaves in boxes on the porch, delivers, etc.). I think the Freegans would be behind this kind of thing 100%. And yes, the food was free.

  4. I am also a faithful Oprah tivo-er. And somewhat fickle too…I don’t watch it if I think it sounds boring. I thought that yesterday’s show was interesting…I’m not sure that it is something that I will be participating in, but it was certainly food for thought.

    And I totally remember Channel One news – Lisa Ling will ALWAYS be the channel one chic in my mind!

  5. Thanks for posting this! I find it really interesting. I didn’t catch the episode, but saw another blog post about it challenging everyone to give up buying unneeded items in March! I’ll be posting about it in a couple days. . .

  6. Yes, I think we waste so much food and other items in the USA. It isn’t just grocery stores and restaurants either.

    A few years ago while shopping for our new baby at Target, the manager was standing in front of the carseat display talking to an employee, and he told him they were switching out displays and to take all the carseats (there had to be at least 10) and THROW THEM AWAY! Perfectly good carseats that had been mounted on the display were going in the dumpster.

    DH and I were shocked and piped in and asked if they were really throwing all those away. He said yes, for legal reasons they had to. He said since they were out of the box and even if they donated them, they could be held liable and sued if they were in an accident. If the seat wasn’t installed correctly, it could be claimed that the seat was the problem. So they just tossed all of them. I am sure that happens with strollers, high chairs, etc. Probably just not at Target either, but every store.

    Sadly, it seems like the threat of being sued fuels so much of this waste. Years ago, when I worked at a grocery store, they couldn’t donate older food either, for fear of being sued in case someone claimed they got sick by eating out of date food!

    So sad.

  7. i’m the same way about oprah — tivo and check…although i know that today’s show was messed up by the presidential news conference so i think i have to wait for the repeat at 11.

    i am just not sure i could stomach (ha ha) eating out of the trash. i get it, i really do, and i do think we waste too much…but i don’t know if i could do it myself…

  8. Actually asked the husband-lawyer about the dumpter diving issue. Turns out that once your trash goes onto the street and off your private property, it becomes public property. Businesses, on the other hand, often have their dumpsters on their property and thus dumpster diving usually happens under the cover of darkness for it is technically illegal.

    Most businesses, however, turn a blind eye to DD, as far as I understand. You’d never catch me in one, though. I have a serious problem with “ick” on my hands. You should see how often I wash them when baking! Aiee!

    As for the amount of waste we generate: it is awful and I keep coming back to the idea that composting should be REQUIRED for every household and every business. It is required in Canada and they seem to have managed to not break down as a society yet!

    If I had serious money, or some way to bankroll it, I’d go into biz getting all of the local companies, grocery stores and restaurants to compost all of their food waste through my service and then take all of the compost and sell it back to the residents of the town as a soil amendment. Ideally you’d have a grant to get started, a big warehouse location to take all the food waste and giant machines to windrow them and turn them so that everything breaks down properly. You’d have to sift out spoons, cloth napkins and whatever else would get accidentally tossed in, but it would WORK. And it would be good for the environment, too. The businesses participating could get a sticker for their windows, possibly a nominal tax break or something to make it worth their time to sort their trash.

    Um. Uh…hi! Yeah, this is the stuff I think about all the time.

    Anyone wanna bankroll it? : )

  9. Interesting post! I watch Oprah sometimes but never saw this episode.Our society has become a society of consumption,glutony and many negative aspects of todays society have become norm.Years ago,noone lived like this-in such a material world.Loved your post!

  10. I happen to love Oprah! I don’t get to see it enough, maybe I should get a TIVO just for Oprah…

    I did see parts of the freegan show, and have to comment. Matt’s uncle is a bit of a freegan. He probably wouldn’t call himself that, but he does a lot of dumpster diving. He also makes arrangements with stores to get old food so he doesn’t have to actually get it out of the dumpster. He’ll tell them it is to mix into he sheep feed, and he gives the sheep some, but mostly the family eats it. He has been doing it for years. Fortunately I didn’t know the first time I ate food from the dumpster. I don’t think I would have been able to stomach it. After I ate it and then found out, it was no problem. I know that I could not get into the lifestyle, but I wish I cared less about aesthetics and could do it. It really is a shame that so much goes to waste. And isn’t it funny that it all seems to lead back to our litigious society?

  11. CDG, thanks for taking on the topic near and dear to my heart–avoiding food waste. I do think we waste waaay too much food and I have eaten items from the trash. They were bagged items and ones I’d put in the dumpster myself as a supermarket employee so I knew how long they’d been there.

    Heather, I agree; it’s a shame how large a role lawsuits play in our society. With food donations, though, there is a federal shield law– the Emerson Good Samaritan Act–that protects donors from liability when they give food to those less fortunate. And they’re not liable for food taken from the dumpster, because perusing the dumpster is trespassing (as Hatchet said).

    Hatchet, you’re onto something–there are many composting companies who already collect and compost food waste from restaurants, supermarkets and institutional kitchens. Businesses who take part get a tax break and save money on their regular trash bill. But I’m sure you’d find your business niche if you found someone to bankroll it…If find him or her, send them my way!

  12. Oh wow…. the one thing i would be worried about is all of the products that are discarded due to safety…like bacteria in cans and whatever. The date would say it is fine but you could be feasting on a big ‘ol can of salmonella…

  13. Thanks for commenting Amy. You know I have had a draft in my blog for Months now on freeganism… I have done it very part time and so have my mom and sister, so I was going to talk about it.

    You’ve given me the impetus I needed to get that post published. LOL

  14. I think it is an interesting problem, but I am not sure dumpster diving is the way to solve it. Not only is it illegal, it is potentially dangerous for reasons beyond food born pathogens-you don’t know what is in the trash-there is a risk of broken glass, human waste, box cutters, needles etc. All sorts of things could be lurking in there. Not to mention the risk of falling and hurting yourself as you hurtle your self into a 8 ft tall metal box.

    It seems to me that the freegans aren’t doing too much to help those who might be less fortunate then they are or to really eliminate the problem. They are just getting free food and talking about it. Where’s the action?

    What about starting a program where local stores donate all that food they are throwing out to a charity or soup kitchen? That would help a lot more people than just hoping someone learns by their “example”.

  15. I appreciate all of the feedback. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who is disturbed by the consumerism and waste in this country.

    I am disheartened by how much of what goes on in our country is driven by the fear of litigation – from giving birth to throwing out food and car seats.

    WastedFood – Thanks for sharing the info about the Emerson Good Samaritan Act.

    Rachel – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you that pilfering from the dumpsters here and there is not going to fix the bigger problem, but I do think their efforts are noble in a way. I am all for anything that can reduce the amount of stuff (food or otherwise) going to landfills. Whether it is self-serving or not, at least they are taking some action.

    In the meantime, I am looking into organizations that do send food to charities rather than into the trash. I suspect I’ll have another post on that when I have more to share.

    Crunchy Domestic Goddess

  16. To add to Heather’s comment; my hubby used to contract for home centers, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. While dunping the job waste from his day, he watched entire outdoor dining sets, 15 aluminum ladders and hoards of other things that had been returned, dumped into the dumpster. This is outrageous, the amount of waste. When homeless and those who’ve lost their home and belongings could benefit. He has also done some dumpster diving and found numerous amounts of perfectly fine food, medicines, cometics, and three 50 lb bags of dog food, which he removed and we donated to the local animal shelter. This comes from almost all the department stores and pharmacies in our city. He has not checked the groceries, most of them have their dumpsters locked up, makes me wonder what they may be hiding inside. I loved this post, and while I don’t relish taking my food from the dumpster on a regular basis, I think that the amount of waste and greed in this country is disgusting.

  17. Just a question for Hatchet who wrote:

    “As for the amount of waste we generate: it is awful and I keep coming back to the idea that composting should be REQUIRED for every household and every business. It is required in Canada and they seem to have managed to not break down as a society yet!”

    I was curious where this information about Canada came from? I’m Canadian and there is no such requirement here.

    However, many of our cities make it easy for us to compost in that they collect yard trimmings every couple of weeks and we can easily purchase low-cost composting containers.

  18. i would if there was not such a stimga connected to it. maybe if there were trash tours around here, it seems like where they were in NY the trash cans were cleaner. here is just dont see jumping in one from publix or kroger. we dont have any of those mom and pop stores here where the trash is in big black bags out front. we are dealing with the kind that daniel and amanda were in with stuff on the sides etc. YUCK. but if i had access to the clean stuff i would be all about it. i am a big good will shopper for stuff though so that is sort good and helping i hope 🙂

  19. yes, i’m Canadian (although living in the U.S. now) and i know of no rule making all Canadians compost. in Toronto, where i’m from and where my family lives, they have “green bins” for compost waste, which is fantastic in my opinion. and i do know that other cities will be following suit, and some have already.

    i was shocked when i watched the Oprah episode – shocked at how large corporations could be so wasteful. after seeing that episode, it made me think twice about where i really want to spend my money. a friend who works for a large department store recently told me that her boss *made her* throw out clothing. nothing wrong with it, they just weren’t selling it anymore and corporate policy forced them to toss it rather than give it away to someone who could actually use it.

  20. I had read about Freegans a few months ago and debated the concept with my husband. I think we all waste much more than we should and as a family we are trying to change habits and waste less. As a mother I cannot imagine attempting to provide for my family in this way. I am all about buying from local farmers, reusing my bags, recycling, reusing … dumpster diving, is beyond what I am willing to do. I would much rather see the business create less waste than have people diving for it.

  21. I tivo Oprah and Martha…it’s my dirty little secret! This episode was very interesting…our family has been working really hard on cutting down our waste…and we’ve become more consistant about recycling. I used to work at a resturant and there was always a TON of food wasted there. You’d be surprised at what people don’t finish on their plates. (And just like they said on Oprah all of the bread that gets thrown out that isn’t even touched! It’s horrible!)

  22. As a follow up to yarrow- my DH works closely w/ HD, and they have recently started a program where they are donating items like this now to Habitat for Humanity, and other charitable organizations.

    Not sure why it took so long for them to do this- DH heard it was something with a tax law or inventory issue, but whatever it was, I’m glad they can now donate these items instead of dumping them.

  23. I too was sickened by all that perfectly fine food! Much of it showed them not actually in a dumpster per se, but pulling food out of regular trash cans (that did not contain other food). Anything not packaged (like produce) can easily be washed. I don’t know that I could get past the ick factor and not constantly be thinking about it…but I love that they’re reducing the waste and rampant consumerism.

    I also wish that legislation could be changed so that these companies weren’t “forced” to throw stuff out. So many things are so backwards around here!

  24. While I wouldn’t go as far as getting food out of the trash I have taken other things. Our Printer was in the trash because it likes to eat the paper sometimes. Most of DS’ clothes are second or third hand, plenty of wear left etc. We can make a difference.

    There are programs here where stores give all the food that cannot be sold to charity for low income families. It includes milk past the date but still good, the 11 unbroken eggs, etc.

  25. Well I also watched that show. Me and my boyfriend decided that we would check it out. So last night at about 1 I had to go get a few things from the store and I noticed they were taking stuff off the shelves. So I went home and talked to him about it and we geared up and went to check it out. We ended up finding bags of apples with one bad apple in them. Sealed boxes of bakery items. Fresh subs all still in the packaging along with a ton of eggs other apples. Oranges, green and red peppers, a whole trash bag full of peaches, bags of carrots, and carrots and broccoli mixes. I will have to say I wasn’t big on the digging part but I was upset to see what all we had found. In on night we found at least $60 worth of food. All of it had a sell by date of that day. So its not like the food was bad by any means. So I took it all home and washed it all. We in no way need to be searching for food and we shared a laugh talking about if someone seen up they wouldn’t know what to think with us both having over $100 shoes on and drving a $15,000 car. I will have to say I think I’m hooked. I’m cheap with about everything but my shoes. No shame in saving things from being waisted.

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  28. For a long time, I’ve taken scrap metals out of dumpsters for resale to “the can man.” Recently I went dumpster diving at the end of the semester on a University campus. So much great stuff was there. Furniture, board games, dishes, clothes, you name it. I picked out some recyclable stuff and also food. The first time I took the food, I donated almost all of it to a homeless shelter, but kept a can of Spaghetti-Os for myself. After eating it, I realized that “dumpstered” food can be good. Especially if it’s canned! You just have to get over the mental block.

    Since then I’ve eaten more food from dumpsters, not because I need to save money, but to help cut down on waste. I haven’t yet crossed over into non-packaged foods, but I think I will soon when the weather cools down and things don’t rot instantly in the 100° weather.

    I would like to offer a word of encouragement to anyone thinking of getting a meal from a dumpster.

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