Sat, Aug 4, 2012
On a hot Sunday afternoon, a group of seven or eight people is gathered in the second-story loft of a building on Vernon Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Some are seated at a large wooden table, diligently dicing cloves of garlic, peeling carrots, mashing avocados and chopping a variety of aromatic vegetables. Others congregate around the stove, on which pots boil and frying pans sizzle.
Though there is an abundance of food, the hosts didn’t have to spend a fortune at the supermarket—in fact, the meal being prepared cost nothing at all. These men and women, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties, belong to a movement called “freeganism,” meaning they don’t buy the food they eat. Instead, freegans salvage their meals and produce from dumpsters behind grocery stores, through a self-explanatory process known as “dumpster-diving.”
The freegans in attendance are getting ready to host Grub, a free, bi-monthly dinner, organized by In Our Hearts, a New York City-based anarchist organization, devoted to various counter-culture projects. Grub, which has been around since 2005, takes place every first and third Sunday of the month.
Grub is free to anyone interested in partaking, and it serves mostly vegan dishes, along with some vegetarian items. “The food is either salvaged or contributed by stores that would otherwise throw it away,” says Joshua Latour, a 35-year-old Bushwick resident, who prefers to be called Joshua Zero, as he cuts cherry tomatoes.
“But we try to be self-sufficient in case no one donates,” adds 31-year-old Thadeaus Umpster of Bed-Stuy, who is making guacamole next to him. Gardening is also acceptable in the freegan community–Grub dinners often feature homegrown produce like the kale, basil and tomatoes being used in this evening’s meal. However, practices such as stealing or being given something that another person bought, are not in line with freegan ideology.
Dinner is served around 7 p.m., but people are welcome to show up hours earlier to help cook. “Everyone is encouraged to participate, so it’s not just a free meal,” says Zero, “it’s about trying to meet new people you haven’t met before, it’s about trying to create a supportive community.”
Grub dinners are advertised on the In Our Hearts website and followers receive notifications by email as well. The typical turnout is around 30 people, but according to one Grub regular, Rebekah Schiller, 29, a high school physics teacher in the Bronx, some nights the dinner entertains as many as 50. “It’s a networking event,” says Schiller. “We want everyone to talk to at least one person they’ve never met before. It’s about bringing together the activist community.”
One does not have to be a strict freegan to attend Grub–the people in attendance have varying degrees of commitment. “I dumpster my food, but I also shop,” says Schiller, “I just do it to supplement and I think it’s fun.”
Typically, dumpster-diving entails digging through trash bins behind major grocery stores once they have closed for the night. Often, the produce is slightly wilted or has minor discoloration, but otherwise it is still fresh and edible. Some item, like carrots and salad greens, are disposed of while still in sealed packages. Savvy freegans know which stores offer the best selection of salvageable goods and where late-night scavenging is permitted. “Most stores know people dumpster-dive and are okay with it,” says Schiller.
Jonathan Friedman, 24, can’t remember the last time he purchased food. “It must have been November,” he mused. Friedman has a degree in math and physics from Cooper Union– occasionally, he tutors people in those areas, but otherwise chooses not to work. He identifies strongly with the anarchist movement, an anti-establishment school of thought, and freegan living is just one component of that lifestyle. “I’ve always hated buying food and supporting capitalism, when I got involved with In Our Hearts, I realized I could eat without supporting the system,” he says.
As a devout anarchist, not only does Friedman eat without supporting the system, he has managed to avoid supporting the ownership of land, by squatting, instead of paying rent or buy a home. Presently, Freidman is squatting in the East Village, but anticipates having to vacate his quarters in the near future, because unlike dumpster diving, squatting isn’t legal in New York.
As for other necessities, Freidman says he only pays for the things he can’t make himself, such as toothpaste and electricity. Even the finer things in life can be free. “Occasionally I will buy some tobacco, but usually, I pick up cigarette butts off the ground,” says Friedman. “Rarely, I’ll buy a beer, even though I hate the idea of buying alcohol and supporting the alcohol industry.” Immediately, his friends look up from their cutting boards, chiming in that even beer can be freegan, if salvaged from dumpsters or brewed at home.
Many freegans, like Freidman, find the lifestyle appealing, because it supports the anarchist opposition of centralized government. The anarchist school of thought has been around for centuries. Modern-day versions of anarchy hail from Europe, where the movement was was defined by free-thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin and Francisco Ferrer. Anarchism has since taken an organized form throughout the world in opposition of various political regimes. In the United States, anarchists train their protest on capitalism.
Umpster, who has squatted in various locations throughout New York City since 1999, practices freeganism because “it’s an anti-capitalist way of looking at food, it takes money out of the equation.” When asked where the anarchist hatred of capitalism stems from, Umpster explains, “Capitalism works for the people in power. It is a system that works on violence and coercion. We are against violence and coercion.” Though Umpster says he has not paid for food in 12 years, he does admit to occasionally using food stamps. “They are convenient when you’re traveling and don’t know where the good dumpsters are,” he says.
According to Edward Snajdr, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at CUNY’s John Jay College, who has written about anarchists, squatters and other sub-cultural groups throughout the world, Brooklyn seems to be an ideal place for freegans. The borough is becoming more affluent, so there are plenty of excess goods to be salvaged. Additionally, Brooklyn’s demographics, especially in places like Williamsburg, Park Slope and Bushwick are beginning to mimic those of the anarchist movement, which historically draws people who are young, white, educated and often come from middle-to-upper class families.
“It stems from the capitalist system,” Snajdr says of why young people in the United States would choose an anarchist lifestyle. “If you look at our society, we are terribly focused on consumption and freeganism is a critique of that system.”
Despite their earnest efforts to separate themselves from the capitalist system, freegans aren’t able to avoid it entirely. When it comes to the use of cell phones, food stamps, and Internet technology, which they rely on for networking and promotion, Snajdr says, “freegans are dependent on the things they are critical of.”
Currently, freegan culture remains on the fringes of society in Brooklyn, but shows potential for expansion. There are several websites devoted to freegan living, such as freeganinfo.com, which provides comprehensive instructions on squatting and salvaging; it even lists which supermarkets have the highest dumpster quality in each of the boroughs’ neighborhoods. There are also freegan groups that facilitate “trash tours” for those looking to give dumpster-diving a try, but Snajdr believes that while there may be a great number of people who are curious about freegan living, there are far fewer freegan fundamentalists in Brooklyn.
In Our Hearts members play an active role in supporting anarchist values in the area by disassociating themselves from the capitalist system and many were involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Umpster moved to New York City from his hometown of Boston for two reasons. “New York City is the best city in the world,” he says. “It is also the capital of capitalism, so it’s a good place to fight it.”
As dinnertime approaches, more people begin showing up; for some it is their first Grub. On the table stands a large bowl of freshly made guacamole, with sliced cucumbers and baby carrots for dipping. Zero has also completed his dish—whole-wheat pasta with fresh vegetables. On the stove stands a pan of sautéed greens, next to a pot of vegetable stew. A recent arrival brought strawberries and is frantically looking for someone to make a pie.