How To Fix All That Food Waste

A new book explores how dumpster diving went from gross prank to progressive movement

Freegan rifles through Dumpster outside Au Bon Pain, 2006 (Getty Images)

Remember freegans, a.k.a. Dumpster divers? You might not. It’s been a long eight years since Oprah did her big freegan episode, sitting down with some newlyweds in the movement to talk about escaping consumer culture and sending Lisa Ling on a trash tour in New York City to show viewers all the edible muffins, broccoli, milk, bagels, and more that’s wasted in one day. This was the peak of freegan popularity in American culture, but some would say it spurred the more recent movement toward food-waste prevention.

Freegans were a bit more radical than what’s being proffered now, though, saying not “use what you consume better” but “question why so much is being produced that you could live well on garbage.” Alex V. Barnard, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley, spent years researching the movement for his recently released book, Freegans: Diving Into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. He was introduced to Dumpster diving through his involvement in the animal rights world; he’s vegan, “though not a level 10,” he says.

“The first time I heard the word [freegan] used...I asked myself, ‘OK, what does that even mean? I have never heard this word,’” Barnard tells me. (The New Food Economy points out that the word started as a joke.) “I looked it up and I realized that freeganism is essentially an extension of the logic of veganism. If veganism is the idea that the production of animal products is exploitation so you should stop consuming animal products, freeganism basically says, ‘If you think the production of any food or any good in a capitalist system is exploitative, you should try and stop consuming.’ Given that we need to eat, the best solution is to rescue food from the trash.”

In the book, Barnard examines the freegan movement in the context of a country that wastes 40% of its food while allowing for the existence of 17.6 million food insecure households. He doesn’t want to overstate freeganism’s influence, but “can say that in 2007, when I started researching the freegans, they were really the only group talking about food waste, even within the food movement.” In the age of Dan Barber’s wastED effort and artisanal vegan mayo made from hummus byproducts (seriously), that is no longer the case.

Unlike the current food-waste movement, freegans were attempting to draw attention to the problems with capitalist overproduction and globalized trade—in this, they proved less successful. “I don't want to wax too Marxist here, but there is the dynamic of capitalism that it takes people’s ethics and good intentions and repackages them as commodities to make a profit,” Barnard says. “Food waste has become about this one thingnot wasting foodwithout considering whether that's really contributing to the bigger changes in the food system. For example, if all you care about is food waste, you should probably put plastic packaging around everything; plastic packaging is a great way to avoid food waste. But is that really the direction we want to take our food system?” (Note: In a recent interview with the New Food Economy, Barnard tucks into a plastic-wrapped, scavenged sandwich.)

The food waste movement would probably do well to look back to the freegans, no matter how much of a punchline they may now be, to find some inspiration and prove more effective in changing agribusiness as a whole. “Unfortunately, for me, what's really been lost as the food waste movement has moved to the mainstream—which in a lot of ways is a good thing—is some of that critique,” Barnard explains further. “We're losing sight of how food waste is bound up with a capitalist agricultural system that is based on growth rather than feeding people.”

Barnard’s book (and those old Oprah clips) are certainly a good place to start.

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