Back in the late 1990s, before the birth of today’s high-profile anti-food waste movement (WastED, Feeding the 5000, ReFED), there were the freegans. Like today’s activists, freegans were scandalized by wasted food, but they took a more revolutionary stance that sought to undermine business and capitalism. Their dumpster diving both fed them and brought attention to the problem; at the same time, they hoped their boycott of formal economies took money out the pockets of capitalist elites.
Founded in 2003, one of the largest and most active freegan groups was freegan.info, a New York City-based collective that welcomed media coverage and hosted trash tours of New York City. (In 2008, it caught the attention of Oprah.) Though the group’s identity has shifted somewhat, it’s still hosting trash tours. The next one is on May 17.
Alex Barnard, currently a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California–Berkeley and the author of Freegans: Diving Into the Wealth of Food Waste in America, interviewed members of freegan.info over the course of several years, starting in the early aughts. As a vegan frustrated by the limited outcomes of ethical consumption, Barnard was attracted to the freegans’ unwillingness to buy into any part of the food system. “Freeganism is a form of ethical consumption that rejects ethical consumption,” he says.
Though the freeganism movement didn’t advance a coherent vision for what a post-capitalist food system would actually look like—”like any good activist movement, it was incredibly dysfunctional and finished with a lot of people hating each other,” Barnard says—it did raise awareness of food waste as a systemic problem. The term no longer carries radical connotations, but freegans still practice around the world.
The group eventually splintered, but Barnard continues to participate in a freegan group in Paris. Its members are not radical anarchists, though—according to Barnard, “it’s just people who like free food.” When we spoke this week, Barnard excused himself to make a trade with another freegan, returning with a pristine, plastic-wrapped, day-old sandwich.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. All photos courtesy of Alex Barnard.
How did freeganism get started?
The word “freegan” was coined by one of the founders of a movement called Food Not Bombs—which uses food recovery in order to organize public meals as a sort of protest and offers “solidarity, not charity”—that’s their phrase. This guy claims that he was dumpster-diving one night and found a giant amount of cheese. And he said, “To heck with being vegan, let’s become freegan.”
He shared that story, and then someone wrote a pamphlet called “Why Freegan?” that turned this word—that started as a joke—into an ideology of reducing participation in and building alternatives to capitalism, primarily through appropriating waste. The word got picked up by a group of activists in New York, who decided to create a website and a group around it. So that’s freegan.info, which is really the centerpiece of the book.
Why do people gravitate toward freeganism?
There’s so much disillusionment with big politics in general, with both the mainstream and the revolutionary option. People are searching for things that are tangible and daily. This idea that the revolution is something we create every day holds a lot of appeal.
But there’s also a huge channeling of people’s behavior and desire to do good in the way they consume. The animal rights movement is the perfect example of that: the movement’s signature tactic is to buy something that is animal-friendly as opposed to animal-unfriendly. I don’t think that 100 years ago you saw a lot of radical movements whose primary strategy was to buy things. It’s very reflective of the moment of capitalism that we’re in and this broader upsurge of ethical consumption.
What’s fascinating about the freegans is that freeganism is a form of ethical consumption that rejects ethical consumption. On its face, it’s still a lifestyle. It’s about providing for your needs in a way that’s ethical, but it’s also rejecting the possibility that you can do that by buying things.
Since you’ve written the book, food waste has become a hot topic. We have high profile events like WastED and Feeding the 5,000. How would the freegans you interviewed feel about the trend?
The freegans would say that food waste is bad, but that it’s not the only bad thing in our food system. The freegans I’ve talked to are very happy that the massive use of resources that goes to produce waste is now being called into question.
But what we see with the food waste movement and with the way it’s been picked up by corporate social responsibility programs and even these more mainstream movements like Feedback is an attempt to depoliticize the issue. There’s this relentless pounding-in of the idea that we can win; that this is the win-win-win way to change our food system. I think that freegans would say, and I would say, that this is just a fairytale.
You can’t actually get rid of food waste and leave everything else in place, which is kind of the promise that has been made: that businesses can make more money, consumers can save money, and the environmental impacts of our food system will be reduced. The promise is that we can deal with all of these issues at once, and no one loses.
And freegans, obviously, are the killjoys on this, because they want capitalism and business to lose.
But the other thing that I’ve seen with these food waste campaigns is that they almost legitimize the rest of the food system in a way that scares me a little. There was just a public service announcement from the Ad Council that came out that was organized with NRDC and a bunch of major actors against food waste. Which is awesome and is getting a lot of attention.
Yes, it’s totally true that if you’re going to buy strawberries transported on a plane, you should not throw them out. But we should also be asking the question: Should we have strawberries that fly in a plane? And maybe that’s a stupid example, but the point is this: just because you eat something rather than wasting it, which is a good thing, doesn’t mean that suddenly all the other problems with its production disappear.
As soon as you say, “we should probably produce a few thousand fewer calories per person per day in the U.S. and just shrink our food system”—that’s not going to make you a lot of friends.
Is there a freegan articulation of what the ideal food system would look like?
In terms of the freegans’ positive vision for what our food system should look like, they never got all that far. You had some people in the group who say we should become gatherers, and then you had people who were more involved in the community garden movement.
But sometimes we can be quick to jump on movements for not offering elaborate solutions to problems they’re identifying, but I think that’s not necessarily their role. The real value of freeganism was the fact that it did call attention to waste. And no, freegans didn’t have all the resources of Deloitte consulting, which did the ReFED report on food waste, which talks about the cost/benefit curves of each thing. They were just making us aware of this other, dysfunctional element of the food system.
In the book, you talk about how the question of shoplifting lit up a fault line in the freegan movement.
In some of the radical communities on which freeganism drew, shoplifting is totally normalized as a way of sticking it to the capitalist man and providing for your needs without commodifying your time. But you have another group of freegans that arrived more from the ethical consumption pathway, but don’t necessarily have that immersion in the anarchist culture where that practice is normalized.
For a lot of people, shoplifting raised this question: Is freeganism about waste or is it about capitalism? If your goal is just anti-capitalism, you can say, well, by shoplifting we’re denting into their profits. Whereas some of the more anti-waste people would say that by shoplifting you’re perpetuating this idea that you need all these things that are being sold. You’re creating an empty shelf that’s going to be filled with a new thing that is produced. You’re not reducing your consumption of resources.
So is this debate what ended the movement? Is freeganism over?
Of course, you started to get lots of people coming to freegan.info who didn’t share in that political agenda. Actually, now, I think that even the word has become depoliticized, in the sense that, often when I talk about freegans, people assumed it just means people who will eat for free, for whatever reason.
There’s nothing inherently anti-capitalist about eating for free.
From a sociological perspective, did the freegan movement succeed?
If you take them at their word, they were a huge failure. The fact that we’re talking on Skype and not foraging dandelions in some post-apocalyptic ruins means that, you know, capitalism still exists.
But as sociologists, that’s not really what we expect from movements. What we do know that movements can do very effectively is bring new issues to the fore and then amplify existing public opinion. Freegans did both.
I don’t know how many people the freegans convinced to be anti-capitalist. But what they did do was take a belief that almost everyone already has, which is that food waste is a bad thing, and connect it to the way our food system is structured. Beyond the statistics, the image of people who can afford to buy food but instead choose to get it from the garbage, and are living really well off that food—that’s an incredibly compelling image, and the freegans in New York were very savvy in using that.
They made people realize that food waste is not just that there are some careless people who throw out food. It’s actually something that’s systemic and that’s built into our food system and that is actually being built into our own consumer practices by the way the food system is organized.
That is the enduring impact of freeganism.