Globe photo by Gretchen Ertl
CAMBRIDGE -- Spring Greeney started eating food out of dumpsters shortly after she graduated from Harvard University.
She doesn't do it because she is hungry (at least not hungry in the cardboard-sign sense); or broke (she has a cubicle job with a state environmental agency). She does it to make a statement.
“I find it amazing, and depressing, to see all the good food that goes to waste,” Greeney said last week as she sat in her Cambridge kitchen and watched one of her roommates, Adam Talsma, toast bagels he’d rescued from a supermarket dumpster. “Or it means that we didn’t need to produce that food in the first place.”
Greeney, who graduated from Harvard in June, is part of a small but growing movement of anticonsumerists, often referred to as “freegans,” who promote the minimal consumption of resources by salvaging what society discards. Born in the mid-'90s out of the antiglobalization and environmental movements, “freeganism” can include everything from salvaging clothes and furniture left out on trash day to diving into dumpsters looking for fruits and vegetables that are thrown out by supermarkets and restaurants because they are bruised or past due.
Loosely organized around the website freegan.info, the movement has spread globally, with freegans to be found in such diverse locales as France and South Korea. Locally, adherents say they are attracted to the movement by a variety of reasons, ranging from environmental and social concerns, or simply to be frugal and practical.
Greeney, who got involved this summer after she moved in with a group of MIT students (the school has a small, dedicated dumpster-diving culture), thinks of it as a statement against “profligate waste.” Talsma, an MIT senior, sees it as a way to get in touch with that waste face-to-face.
“The first time I jumped into a dumpster,” Talsma said, “I was like, ‘What?’ I grew up in Central America, and the fact that dumpsters were full of excellent food was something I couldn’t get my mind around.”
The idea of eating food out of a dumpster can be shocking to friends, and of questionable legality (a Boston Police spokesperson said there are no laws against dumpster diving, but if the dumpster is on private property you can run into trespassing issues). But what surprises people the most, freegans say, is that they don’t just eat, they eat well.
“When I came back from my first big dumpster dive, I laid out all the food on my kitchen table and took a photo,” said Julia Golomb, a 23-year-old Somerville resident. “It looked like a stand at a farmer’s market. It was beautiful and bountiful.”
Golomb, who drives a car that runs on vegetable oil, says she became interested in freeganism when, for no particular reason, she decided to lift the lid on a dumpster behind a local Whole Foods Market.
“There were all of these organic bananas, and I felt a lot of sadness to think that this food was grown and then shipped across the world only to end up in a dumpster and, eventually, a landfill.”
Freegans, many of whom tend to be young and educated, say there is often a guilt associated with harvesting so much for free.
“The first time I went, I was thinking there were people who need this food more than us, maybe we shouldn’t take it,” Talsma said. “But I’ve never run into a homeless person dumpstering. That’s what’s so confusing. So if we don’t use it, it’s just going to the landfill.”
Golomb said that when she first started dumpster-diving, her approach was to take everything salvageable and make it her mission to make sure it did not go to waste, sharing it with friends and hosting huge group meals.
“Now, I’ve had to become desensitized,” she said. “There’s just too much, and I realized I cannot single-handedly be responsible for distributing all that food.”
Once you learn the ropes – what can be salvaged with a good washing and trimming; what won’t survive a hot day – freegans say that you can get almost everything you need without reaching for your wallet. Suburban grocery stores are goldmines, while urban markets tend to have trash compactors rather than dumpsters. The
best time is after midnight, particularly on a Sunday when stores clean out their weekend stock.
Greeney, Talsma and their two roommates, who refer to themselves as the Hippo Commune, say they have become so efficient at dumpster-diving that they’ve lowered their monthly food expenditures to about $100 each (meat and dairy are always a gamble in the dumpster, but many freegans are also vegans).
And if worse comes to worse, they can always eat bread. Bakeries, particularly high-end ones, are a daily dumpster Thanksgiving, freegans say, because the stock is thrown out each day.
“I have so much bread that I get on my bike, put the bread in my basket, and ride around town and give it to people,” Golomb said. “Sometimes it’s people pushing a shopping cart full of cans. Sometimes it’s people who just look like they would like some good bread. Everyone loves it.”
When they ask where it came from, she’ll tell them how sad it is that bakeries throw out this great bread at the end of the day, and she’s just trying to share it.
“But I’ll leave out the image of me rooting in a trash can,” she said.
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