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Consumed: Part One

Meet the freegans

Tess Vigeland Nov 9, 2007
Freegans reap the harvest on 5th Avenue -- fresh produce, dairy products, eggs and more, all edible. Tess Vigeland
Consumed: Part One

Meet the freegans

Tess Vigeland Nov 9, 2007
Freegans reap the harvest on 5th Avenue -- fresh produce, dairy products, eggs and more, all edible. Tess Vigeland


Tess Vigeland: We’ve already heard how we’re running out of landfill space. Well, believe it or not, more than 10 percent of that trash is food.

A University of Arizona study found that each of us throws away more than a pound of food every day: half a hamburger here, an unused container of sour cream there…

So, let’s explore some solutions to the overconsumption problem. How does a late-night trip down Third Avenue in New York City sound?

Janet Kalish: Hello everybody. Welcome to our trash tour.

That’s Janet Kalish. She’s the tour guide for our group of garbage gourmets.

Kalish: We’re in front of a popular chain supermarket in Manhattan on the East Side. I encourage people to take as much as they like and more because otherwise it’ll end up in a landfill and I’d say just take as much as you can possibly carry.

Don’t call the cops; I’m not with a gang of shop-lifters. Kalish is a high school Spanish teacher who lives in Queens and she’s part of a small but devoted movement that calls itself the freegans.

Every few nights, members in New York City hit the streets under cover of darkness to rifle through industrial-sized black garbage bags left curbside for pickup.

Kalish: We’re salvaging food that is not garbage and we’re finding a way to consume what shouldn’t have been put in the trash in the first place.

Vigeland: Do you ever get concerned about the quality of the food that you’re taking from the streets?

Kalish: What concerns me is that the quality is so high.

Here’s what the group found in the first 10 minutes of the search, outside a store near 38th and Third.

Adam Weissman: Here is Styrofoam-packed pre-cut carrots — ’cause we can’t cut our own carrots anymore apparently.

That’s 29-year-old Adam Weissman. As we talked he carried a large fax machine found abandoned on a nearby corner. He planned to re-purpose it for his office. You might call him one of the fathers of freeganism here in the U.S.

Weissman: Here we have one of the gorgeous ironies — organic lettuce packaged like a Sherman tank.

Vigeland: I’m just astounded at this pile of beautiful-looking bread.

Kalish: Multiply this by all of the bakeries, the pastry shops, all throughout the city. Every single day, they’re all boasting that it’s made fresh every hour. How can they do that? By throwing it out.

The group gathered cartons of not-yet-expired eggs, boxes of butter, plastic-wrapped broccoli and celery. From outside the celery looked wilted, but removed from its packaging, just one stalk had gone bad. The rest was perfectly edible.

Weissman: Does anyone want the yogurt? Last call…

These stores are doing something that we all do on a much smaller scale every time we clean out the refrigerator or the pantry. How long do you keep milk beyond its expiration date?

That study we mentioned earlier says American households toss out $43 billion worth of food each year. 15 percent of that waste either hasn’t expired or is never even opened.

But if dumpster diving isn’t the solution for you, there’s another option just over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tim Keating: Anyone that doesn’t have a bag? ‘Cause I have some extra ones.

Tim Keating is also part of the freegan movement, but instead of foraging through garbage bags in Manhattan, he leads foraging tours through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park where the food is off the path, under your feet.

Keating: I know it seems odd, but in the city, I find that almost any area with plants growing, you’re going to find something edible.

Keating leads about a dozen converts — and the curious — onto a grassy, weedy hill just inside the park’s north entrance. He says he started wild foraging when he was 13, so he knows what he’s looking for and reaches down to grab an example.

Keating: This is very, very common and it’s really, really good; it’s one of my favorite greens. It’s called Lamb’s Quarters or wild spinach. Some people call it pigweed.

He points out the unique characteristics of the plant’s leaves, talks about its nutritional value and then offers some suggestions for home cooking — try it raw or sauteed.

Keating: To me, it’s really indicative to see that all you have to do is step in off the pavement and you’re surrounded by four or five things that are really great to eat. This is called plantain…

As the group wandered through the park I asked one visitor, Steve McFarlane, what brought him out.

Steve McFarlane: There’s about a million plants there and I have no idea what the name of a single one of them is and now it turns out, a lot of them are things you pay $4.99 a pound for down at the supermarket.

Of course, that $4.99 goes to pay for the packaging and shipping and marketing of your organic dandelion greens. But is urban foraging really a rational solution to our overconsumption habits? Or is it just a little … kooky?

Back in Manhattan, I put that question to freegan Adam Weisman.

Weissman: No, I don’t think I am kooky. I think our culture is frankly insane.

Vigeland: What kind of impact do you think you’re having by going through garbage on the street and picking out day-old bread?

Weissman: Individually, what any one of us chooses to buy or not really isn’t going to make a difference. I mean, we see that here. If we don’t buy the product, it’s going to be wasted anyway. But what we’re trying to do here is model an alternative.

Vigeland: What do you think about people like me who don’t root through garbage for their food. I buy a lot of things I don’t need, that I simply want.

Weissman: Well, I think the question for all of us is simply, well, to ask questions with every consumption choice we make. Not necessarily to feel this well of guilt over how we’ve lived our lives, but to ask ourselves how can we continue to live our lives?

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